How to Make Your Own Instant Noodle Cups
Frankly, instant noodles hold a particularly warm, salty place in my heart, and I’m willing to bet a lot of you do too.
But despite all their charms – a broth filled with monosodium glutamate; small pieces of freeze-dried vegetables; slippery, too soft noodles – even the best instant noodles can never be considered healthy or satisfying in any way but the simplest. Wouldn’t it be great if you could enjoy all the benefits of instant noodles – portability, the ability to cook with water, lunch-sized portions – but packaged with fresh vegetables and real, natural flavor?
Here’s the secret: you can, and it’s easier than you think.
I often get overly excited about good food and smart ideas, even (or especially) when they’re not mine. The original inspiration for this recipe came last week when I was unpacking one of my 37 cookbook boxes after a cross-country move. I accidentally dropped my expensive Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg autographed copy and it opened to a page that I must have just hushed up in the past. Hugh has a recipe on this page called “Pot Noodles” (what we here call cup noodles or instant ramen).
The idea is simple and ingenious: mix cooked noodles, some vegetable base, some raw chopped vegetables and a few seasonings in a jar. Add boiling water, wait a few minutes, and you have a dinner with all the appeal of instant noodles, but with real flavor and freshness hidden under the lid.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been sticking with this idea and bringing it to life, experimenting with different types of noodles, different flavor combinations, different types of meats and vegetables, and different storage methods, all with one goal: to change your idea of brown bags forever.
Today I’m going to keep talking to a minimum. I’ll walk you through one flavor (spicy beef kimchi flavor), give you basic instructions for three other flavors (chicken dill flavor, vegetable flavor sesame miso soup, and thai shrimp flavor with coconut curry), and leave you some helpful tips for cooking your own instant noodles in pots, because this is actually more than a strict recipe.
How to make spicy beef kimchi instant noodles
This noodle casserole is heavily inspired by Shin Ramyun, a spicy Korean instant noodle flavored with kimchi and beef. We already have a complete homemade recipe. Here is a much faster and more portable version.
Add Basic Ingredients
For this flavor, we use beef base, shiitake mushrooms, beef jerky, kimchi, chili-garlic sauce, green onions and noodles.
The key here is to choose a high quality flavor base. You can use powdered products, but you end up with casserole noodles that don’t taste much different from real instant noodles. It is better to use a moist base with a high content of real meat, such as Better Than broth. I use about a tablespoon. (The soup is also heavily seasoned with kimchi and chili-garlic sauce.)
For soups, I prefer to use very sour kimchi with plenty of marinated liquid. The chili garlic sauce adds heat and garlic—you can use as much or as little as you like.
Then add thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms.
I’ve tried beef in several different ways, including raw slices – I’ve given up on them as I’ve made it a rule not to eat raw meat to increase the shelf life of a raw can – ground and pre-cooked, as well as pre-cooked and sliced. None of them worked particularly well in terms of combining taste and convenience. It wasn’t until one day I walked up to the checkout at the supermarket that I saw the solution that was staring at me: beef jerky.
I cut it into cubes and added it to the pot. When the cubes are soaked in boiling water, they turn into something that doesn’t look like fresh meat, but is delicious in its own way. You can even get sassier and use flavored jerky (try the teriyaki here).
The beef is cut into small squares and spread on top of the mushrooms.
You should have a relatively dry surface on top, ready to receive the noodles. The first few times I cooked these pots, I layered the ingredients, including the wet ones, right on top of the noodles, which ended up saturating them. Instead, it is better to spread the wet mass on the bottom, and then add the noodles on top. Even if you give it a little shake on your way to work, a couple of hours of contact with wet ingredients won’t hurt it.
Add noodles to the pot. A wide variety of noodles will do here, including pre-cooked ramen or Chinese-style egg noodles. Both are commonly available in Asian markets.
If you can’t find pre-cooked wheat noodles, make Thai or Vietnamese-style thin rice noodles, the kind you put in a bowl of pho dry, and they cook great in hot water.
If you’re willing to put in a little more effort, you can also make fresh ramen – you could even try making your own ramen noodles at home for this purpose – or pasta in boiling water, drain it a minute or two until it’s done, shake it under cold water, and drizzle it with a little oil before packing it into jars.
Create a set of flavors
The other big problem I had was that my fresh ingredients – chopped herbs, chopped green onions, and other “finishing” flavors – became bland and lost their brightness when they were immersed in boiling water. To solve this problem, I decided to store them separately in a zippered bag.
Be sure to remove all air by sealing the bag tightly, rolling it up tightly, and then sealing it tightly.
Fill the package with taste
Slide the fragrance pack* into the small space at the top of the jar.
* Patent pending!
Seal and store
Close the jar and store it in the refrigerator. Since all the ingredients are either fresh vegetables, boiled noodles, dried meat, or a very salty flavor base, the shelf life of the jar will be quite long. I kept a few pieces for over a week (herbs suffer the most), but at best they last up to four days.
Once you take them out of the fridge, these pans will keep at room temperature for about four hours (and probably much longer). If you have a mini-fridge at school or in the office, it doesn’t hurt to put them there.
Cook it for dinner and add boiling water
When you’re ready to eat the noodles, open the jar and set the flavored package aside. Add boiling water directly from a tabletop kettle. (If you have a hot water machine nearby, that’s fine too; your local deli will probably also give you some hot water from a coffee machine.)
Close the lid and close it. Now the hardest part begins.
Sit down and wait for all the ingredients to warm up. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be peering into the sides of the jar like you’re looking at the coolest aquarium in the world.
Open, add flavor and eat
Pour the contents of the flavor pack into the top of the bowl and stir to combine, making sure all of the flavor base and juices come from the bottom of the jar.
Eat your lunch and watch your co-workers peek over cubicle walls to see what the hell you brought today. (Feel free to send them in this way to spread the love!)
How to make chicken and dill flavored instant noodles
This version starts with chicken that I picked up from supermarket grilled chicken, plus chicken base, chopped onions, frozen peas, and boiled noodles. Chopped dill is added to the flavoring bag.
Finely chopped frozen vegetables go very well in these pots because they are usually cooked by blanching, which means all they have to do is thaw in hot water.
I don’t recommend pouring boiling water right next to a laptop, even if it’s for a fully staged “Let’s pretend I’m at work” photo.**
** Think about it, since I work from home, I’m always at work.
Yummy. I also made a version using steamed egg noodles for a more traditional version of chicken noodle soup. It beat the pants from the jar (duh)
How to make instant vegetable noodles with sesame-miso soup flavor
This recipe is very similar to Hugh’s original recipe, although I enhanced the flavor of the vegetable base by adding some grated ginger, miso paste, soy sauce, and sesame tahini. For vegetables, I use a mixture of julienned carrots, chopped shiitake mushrooms, and shredded spinach.
The noodles in this batch are pre-cooked Japanese ramen packets that come in yakisoba ready-to-fry sets .
For flavoring, I add thinly sliced green onions, as well as some pickled ginger to enhance the ginger flavor.
How to make Thai Shrimp Coconut Curry Instant Noodles
It’s about as hard as it gets, and most of these ingredients are pantry staples (at least “around my parts”).
The flavor starts with a chicken base mixed with Thai red curry paste, a little chili garlic sauce (for extra heat), a pinch of fish sauce, brown sugar, and a little coconut milk. Top with boiled shrimp and thinly sliced mushrooms, followed by a nest of rice vermicelli.
In the flavoring kit, I use a mixture of green onions and chopped cilantro, and a lime wedge to add to the soup after cooking.
This is probably my favorite flavor of all. It turns out really well balanced, with a sharp, sour and sweet taste.
How to create your own flavors!
By now it should be pretty obvious how to play the game, but here are some things I’ve learned over the last couple of weeks:
You can use any heat resistant resealable jar. A one-pint can of Mason is a good choice. I bought these little clamp jars with gaskets for 75 cents each from Ikea.
I’ve never used soup better than broth before, but it was the best concentrated soup base I’ve tried, out of about half a dozen I could find in the area. It makes sense – real meats and vegetables top the list of Better Than Bouillon ingredients compared to most powdered bases, which are mostly salt and glutamate-like glutamates.
The key to really good taste is to use the base as a backdrop while complementing it with other flavorful sauces and spreads. Miso paste, curry paste and sesame tahini are three good dishes. Any number of Chinese-style sauces will work, such as chili garlic sauce, black bean sauce, or Sichuan chili bean paste.
A little sugar can balance the heat. Freshly ground ginger and garlic will add freshness and sharpness. Soy sauce and fish sauce give the pot a powerful umami flavor. Canned tomatoes or chipotle peppers are good for a non-Asian flavor. Just be sure to reduce the amount of soup base when adding other salty ingredients.
Don’t try to use raw ramen or Italian pasta – the water doesn’t stay hot long enough to cook them and they come out sticky and mushy!
- The easiest noodles to use are rice vermicelli sold under Thai and Vietnamese brands. Wider pad thai style rice noodles will also work.
- For wheat-based noodles, I recommend the handmade noodles found in the refrigerated section of Asian supermarkets. Typically, these noodles are meant to be fried, which is why they are sold as fried lo mein or yakisoba.
- You can cook ramen, udon, soba or Italian pasta fresh or dried. Cook it until it’s slightly undercooked, drop it in cold water, drizzle with a little oil, and you’re done.
- Shirataki and other no-boil noodles work well.
Adding meat and other proteins
Use fully cooked, cured, or dried meat. My favorites (and the easiest ones): fried chicken, beef jerky, boiled shrimp, canned tuna, cured meat pieces like chorizo or pepperoni, bacon – since it’s thin, bacon can be added raw and cooked in boiling water – firm or fried tofu , smoked salmon or Finely chopped and washed salted cod.
Keep in mind that nothing is actually cooked when you add hot water. Foods absorb water and can be slightly softened, but that ‘s about it. Make sure you use vegetables that can be eaten raw.
For harder vegetables , such as carrots, cabbage, leeks, larger mushrooms, and the like, grate the vegetables on a coarse grater or cut them into thin sticks in the form of matches. More delicate vegetables , such as mushrooms or tomatoes, can be cut into small pieces.
Leafy greens , such as kale and spinach, should be stripped of their thick, fibrous stems and then simply torn up.
Frozen vegetables such as peas or corn can be added directly from the freezer, however if you plan to cook in pots right away, it’s best to thaw them under the tap first so you don’t lose too much heat when boiling water is added.
This is where your fresh ingredients come in handy. Think chopped fresh herbs, citrus fruits that can be juiced at the end, and pickled foods like capers or pickled ginger. Chopped chili and green onions are also great.
Of course, you don’t have to settle for Asian flavors just because real instant noodles usually do. The chicken and dill above are great, but why limit yourself to pasta at all?
A little shredded chicken based chicken with dried canned beans, maybe a little grated Parmesan, some tomatoes, chopped beans and carrots, and shredded cabbage seasoned with chopped rosemary and lemon zest in a flavorful package sounds pretty tempting, doesn’t it? Or how about my mom’s version of the hot dog and sausage soup with smoked sausage, shredded cabbage and carrots and water?
You get the gist. There is great potential here. (Or, as we now say at my house, cup potential.)***