Of all the cheap and convenient foods you can pick up at the supermarket, it's tough to top instant ramen. Just add water and you can have a comforting, belly-filling meal in less than five minutes.
The story goes that Nissin Foods founder Momofuku Ando came up with the idea for these so-called "magic noodles" amid grim food shortages in Japan after World War II. Hungry people everywhere have been slurping up this form of low-cost sustenance ever since.
In fact, demand has never been higher. According to Japan's World Instant Noodles Association, the global market has greatly expanded over the past seven years, hitting a record-setting 121.2 billion servings in 2022. It's no wonder why. Instant ramen offered an easy solution while entire populations were stuck at home during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and its affordability remains highly attractive as prices of many other foods have skyrocketed.
Right now, you can find all kinds of instant ramen at the grocery store, from the basic, ultra-cheap, chicken-flavored noodle cups of your youth to more sophisticated modern brands made with fashionable, higher-quality ingredients and ever-spicier flavors. But, which style offers the most satisfying slurp?
I recently rounded up over half a dozen different options in a range of flavors from a handful of popular retailers in order to find a truly top-rate instant ramen. I prepared each product according to the directions on the package, which are all pretty simple: add water, heat, and stir in the provided flavorings.
Here's how each brand stacked up, ranked in descending order from my least favorite to the best-tasting ramen of all. Grab your chopsticks and soup spoon, and dig in.
Trader Joe's Spicy Miso Instant Ramen Soup
Trader Joe's is a goldmine for cheap eats, and its ramen is no exception. A 1.5-ounce cup of the specialty grocer's Spicy Miso variety cost me just $1.89. The container included a packet of powdered seasoning, a packet of flavoring oil, and a small nest of dried noodles that appeared rather insubstantial, to say the least. The noodles weighed just 1.3 ounces on my digital kitchen scale. Most other ramen brands in this survey provided at least an ounce more per serving.
The look: Like a Minestrone. The soup is a dark reddish color with flecks with green herbs. The noodles are long, off-white, and crimped. They still seemed a bit stiff even after cooking for the recommended time, though an additional 30 seconds in the microwave softened them somewhat.
The taste: Spicy but thin. The soup has a palpable kick on the front end, but the broth doesn't offer much depth of flavor beyond that, which is surprising given the lengthy list of ingredients on the container. Perhaps that's because the powdered seasoning doesn't mix as easily as other brands. Despite stirring repeatedly as the directions indicate, I still found a big wad of undissolved seasoning when I reached the bottom of the cup. The noodles, meanwhile, felt chewier and less tender than others—and certainly far less abundant.
Mike's Mighty Good Pork Tonkotsu Ramen Soup
In my experience, most restaurants or food items that include the word "good" in their brand name usually turn out to be the opposite. Nevertheless, I wanted to give this one a fair chance. Mike's Mighty Good aims to "make ramen bar quality ramen accessible to everyone." I grabbed a cup of the brand's Pork Tonkotsu flavor, which promises an "insanely rich broth," for $2.79 at my local Whole Foods Market.
Immediately upon opening it, I was stuck by the similarities to the Trader Joe's ramen, both in terms of the packaging and the meager serving size. I would not be surprised if the same manufacturer makes both products, though the Mike's cup is slightly bigger (1.7 ounces) and costs a little more, too.
The look: Milky tan, not unlike a real-deal tonkotsu soup, with slicks of oil and green herbs floating around. Similar to the Trader Joe's version, the noodles took longer to cook than the packaging indicated. With some extra steeping time, however, the stiff tangled strands eventually unraveled into something edible.
The taste: "Insanely rich?" Well, I wouldn't go that far. The broth is pretty well-balanced: very savory, but not to a demented degree, and sufficiently salty but not too much. If you're looking for spicy heat, however, this is not the cup for you. It's completely lacking in that department. The noodles, meanwhile, felt gummy—much more so than others. What's unclear is whether the extra steeping time took things too far. Regardless, these noodles are far from foolproof.
Top Ramen Chicken Flavor
The brand that started it all, Nissin Foods first introduced Americans to instant ramen back in 1972. Even all these years later, the company continues to wield a dominant presence. Just this past fall, the company announced plans to build its third massive manufacturing facility in the United States. A packet of the original chicken flavor cost me an incredibly inflation-friendly 79 cents at my local Urban Market—far cheaper than any other variety in this survey. It came with a single packet of orangish-yellow seasoning.
The look: Pretty basic. The soup is a bright yellow color that takes on an eerily iridescent greenish tone the longer it sits. The noodles are the same pale and curly strands you probably remember from your cash-strapped student days.
The taste: Antiseptic. This soup doesn't taste like chicken at all to me—it smacks of heavy doses of celery salt. Yet, finding none among the listed ingredients, I'm guessing the dominant flavor is actually dried leek flake. Regardless, this tastes like military rations or hospital food, which, given its post-war origins, probably makes sense. The serving size is a lot more generous than either Trader Joe's or Mike's Mighty Good ramen cups, and it's a heckuva lot more affordable. The noodles also cook up nicely within the directed timeframe. They are soft and slurpable. Even so, the odd-flavored broth makes this hard pass from me.
Snapdragon Tonkotsu Ramen
Snapdragon offers an array of pho and ramen varieties. I picked up this 2.2-ounce Spicy Tonkotsu cup from a local grocer for $2.79. It came with three separate packets: one containing a goopy dark-colored seasoning, another with a small amount of dehydrated veggies, and third with chili oil. The last one is added only after cooking.
The look: Milky like Mike's (the ingredients include non-dairy cream). The noodles are pale and slender with a slight curl. There's a lot of them, too. This is one cup where the noodles might actually fill up more space than the soup!
The taste: Unevenly spicy. Some sips were harsh enough to make me cough, while others seemed much milder. The skinny noodles offered a firm bite and sufficiently carried the flavor of the soup. Overall, I'd describe this Snapdragon variety as a solid middle-of-the-road option. It's tasty and adequately filling but not especially remarkable in any way.
Immi Spicy "Beef" Flavor Ramen Soup
San Francisco-based Immi describes its instant ramen as "surprisingly nutritious." Its Spicy "Beef" Ramen, for instance, is 100% plant-based (the first listed ingredient is pumpkin seed protein) and packed with 21 grams of protein—that's more than double the amount found in most varieties. It's also more expensive than most brands. The bright yellow package set me back $5.99 at Whole Foods. It comes with a single packet of gray-colored, powdered seasoning.
The look: Really beefy, especially for a completely meatless broth. The soup is deeply brown and the noodles, too, look darker than most ramen noodles.
The taste: Rich and complex. The broth reveals several layers of flavor with a very slight tingle of spicy heat. The supplier says this soup is "brimming with notes of Sichuan peppercorns, anise, and fennel," but none of those things are actually listed in the ingredients, just a vague mention of "spices." Also, I didn't get much of the numbing sensation that normally comes from Sichuan peppercorns. The noodles, meanwhile, felt spongier than most and soaked up the broth rather nicely, though I didn't love their own earthy flavor.
Muso Organic Shoyu Ramen
Muso is a Japanese company based in Osaka that's all about organic ingredients and generally maintaining the natural integrity of its foods. The brand's shoyu ramen is made with a host of organic ingredients, from the wheat noodles and soy sauce to rice wine, sesame oil, and even sugar. A 3.8-ounce package cost me $5.69 at Whole Foods.
The look: Mahogany brown like a well-made French onion soup, with bright white noodles that stand out like stars in the night sky.
The taste: Super savory. Though it doesn't pack much punch, heat-wise, the umami level is off the charts. The soy-based broth is extremely flavorful yet light bodied with a clean finish. The noodles are good, too—supple, silky, and easily slurpable—among the best that I tried. Yet, as tasty as these components are on their own, they don't really mesh well together. Either the soup is too thin to cling to the noodles, or the noodles are too slippery to hold the soup. Whatever the reason, it's not a very cohesive dish.
Maruchan Hot & Spicy Chicken Ramen Bowl
A venerable brand founded in Japan, Maruchan has been manufacturing ramen noodles in the United States since 1977. I grabbed its Hot & Spicy Chicken bowl from a local grocer for just $1.39—an incredibly cheap rate for one of the bigger portion sizes in this survey. It came with one packet of seasoning and a separate packet full of dehydrated corn, carrot, and other veggies. It also includes bits of powdered cooked chicken.
The look: Hearty. The soup is dark red and the veggies pop with bright color upon rehydration. Meanwhile, the noodles are thicker and flatter than others, and they pile up noticeably higher than the surface of the soup.
The taste: Potently peppery. The spicy heat is enough to make your sinuses drip, but the tingly burn is enjoyable. The tiny morsels of chewy chicken offered a unique texture that stood out among the many samples in this survey. So did the unusually shaped noodles. This was the first bowl I tried, and it set a very high bar that only one other brand managed to surpass.
Nongshim Premium Tonkotsu Ramen
Nongshim is a South Korean brand that gets a lot of respect. Its Shin Black Noodle Soup earned the top spot in a New York Times survey last year, and many Costco shoppers similarly rave about its Premium Tonkotsu variety, which comes in a six-pack for $13.99 online and costs even less in the store. I picked up mine at the warehouse for just $11.99—that's less than $2 per bowl. The included soup seasoning and spicy oil comes in separate packets, so you can adjust the heat level to your liking, or duck the punch entirely.
The look: Robust. There's a visible depth to this soup, whether you add the spicy oil or not. If you go the mild route, the broth looks creamy and luscious. If you want the extra zing, it takes on a rich, red-orange hue. You'll also notice big slices of real garlic and ample pieces of green onion in the mix. The noodles are plentiful, curvaceous, and more yellow than white.
The taste: Harmonious. The savory broth packs more flavor and clings to the noodles more cohesively than all the others. I tried this one both plain and spicy—both ways are incredibly delicious.
If you're looking to stock up your pantry this winter with an easy, ready-to-heat noodle soup, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better-tasting, more substantial product, especially at such an affordable rate.