Quips & Anecdotes - Lessons Learned from Trying to Make Tonkotsu Ramen

I think I have been quite fortunate throughout these years when it comes to cooking. Perhaps I have not cooked enough times to propagate more failures in the kitchen but I'd like to think that I'm just lucky or have a good grasp on cooking basics. I can probably count on my hands how many times I have terribly ruined a dish (maybe even just on one hand!) for which I am grateful. It's tough to devote time into something only to have it backfire but as many say and I myself think, you have not truly failed unless you quit. The rest are just opportunities to learn what went wrong. I tried making tonkotsu ramen the other day. It was meant to be a test run for the quarterly themed potluck dinner my friends and I hold. Japanese was the theme chosen this time, and my task was ramen. Because I had never made it from scratch before, I wanted to do a test run a few weeks prior to the night just in case. I'm so glad I did.

I don't normally share recipes that didn't work out on this blog but it only seemed fitting to dissect this experience on the website for others to learn from. The entire process took more than 20 hours of my time, and though I thought I was well-prepared, having read the tutorial on Serious Eats, I was undoubtedly not equipped to deal with the daunting task of making ramen from scratch.

I tried to follow the recipe from the Serious Eats article but availability of ingredients made it difficult to follow it exactly. This easily could be one of the major factors in why the broth did not turn out the way it was supposed to (though I would think my substitutions were not too drastic. For my recipe, I ended up using

  • 3 1/4 lbs pig trotters, split lengthwise
  • 2 lbs turkey necks
  • 1 large yellow onion, chunked
  • 2 bulbs of garlic
  • 2 leeks
  • 24 stalks of green onions (approximately 2 bunches)
  • 2/3 lbs mushrooms or scraps
  • 1 lb pork fat

This list represents some deviations from the original recipe. Here are the things I did differently:

  • I used turkey necks instead of chicken backs and carcasses (with skin and fat removed)
  • It told me to leave the onion intact and with its skin on; I didn't
  • I increased the number of mushrooms in the recipe from 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup; I also used shiitake
  • I had 1/4 lb more of the pig trotters than was written
  • I doubled the amount of ginger just because I liked ginger
  • The recipe said to use fatback but I could only find pork fat with some flesh attached

They say not to substitute when you try a recipe for the first time but I was over-confident and adopted a "it'll be okay" attitude when I shouldn't have. Next time, I'll make the broth less complicated.

So one of the pieces of advice for a clearer broth was to boil out all of the blood from the bones. That just involved boiling water with the bones in the pot and then dumping it out. Then, using chopsticks or some other poking tool, you scrape out all the places where there is still blood, cooked or fresh. You should be left with white, clean bones then. I did do that so that part was fine. My mistake with the meat ingredients: leaving the flesh on the pork fat that I bought instead of removing it (and in any case, it should have been fatback instead of regular pork fat) and using a dark meat like turkey necks instead of chicken backs. I think that lent to my broth's eventual brown color.

Here's another tip - make sure you know just how much space you need before you get the whole process started. I had no idea that my 6 quart stockpot wouldn't cut it. In fact, my 8 quart didn't really fit either. I had to try and tetris the pieces. Once I realized that everything wasn't going to fit in the 6 quart (you can see from the pictures that I kept trying to push it all down but it still overflowed), I tried to invert everything into the 8 quart one. Bad move. This meant that the leeks and other vegetables were at the bottom of the stockpot...a mistake I didn't realize until much, much later. So yes, the 8 quart was not enough - I had to have water cover all of the ingredients but it didn't. I still filled it up to the top though so that became a major issue once it started to boil. Oh the cleanup...

So the instructions say to boil for four hours until the fat gets tender. Then remove it. We did that and refilled the stockpot so that everything would be covered in water. This was supposed to be in a slow rolling boil for about 12 hours after. Supposedly the fats and gelatin from the trotters should come out and make the broth cloudy, almost creamy. That's the tonkotsu broth I'm familiar with (been to Shin-Sen-Gumi? it's like that). I left it simmering overnight at Duc's (another mistake - it should have been a slow rolling boil but I was worried it would cause an issue in the middle of the night) and came back in the morning. It never got cloudy. In fact, it got really brown. I figured out even before I walked in the door that something had burned in the process because I could smell it from outside the apartment. The leeks that were lining the bottom of the stockpot because of my unplanned switch between containers had all burnt. It gave the broth a slightly bitter and burnt taste. Dangit. Once we removed all of the solids and strained the broth into the smaller stockpot, the amount was miniscule! What happened to the 6-8 servings? Oh wait. There was another problem: we didn't have a fitted, heavy lid for the stockpot as advised. The liquid had evaporated overnight through the openings so we ended up with very little broth and a whole lot of mess. By the way, the floating things you see in the broth? Since it wasn't fatback, the fat didn't melt at all when we added it back into the broth and brought everything to a boil. It just floated awkwardly, fairly solid.

We had purchased all of the toppings from Mitsuwa, a local Japanese supermarket, so we decided to go ahead and style the bowls. We were hungry after all and these were our breakfasts. I had also purchased some of the "fresh" ramen they sold at the supermarket that came with its own broth packet you just added water to. It wasn't the greatest either and was too white/creamy compared to actual tonkotsu but we photographed it side by side with the failed attempt for comparison. The broth should have ended up in a color and consistency in between those two different ones, fatty and creamy. Instead, we got a clean (my fault for skimming too much) and dark brown mushroom-heavy broth. It wasn't bad to eat but it really, really was not tonkotsu. However, I learned a heck of a lot throughout this arduous process and am looking forward to the next time I try.

Lessons learned:

  • Get the right ingredients!!
  • Know how big of a pot is needed
  • Get a fitted, heavy lid to keep all the broth inside
  • No flesh in the broth, just bones
  • Keep everything at the right temperature and be consistent
  • Start simple until you get it right - then you can add all of the extra vegetables and goodies
  • Don't give up

Thanks for making it through this recap. I could have been ashamed of the situation but instead, I see this as an opportunity to really grow. The sooner I learn this, the more years of delicious homemade ramen I'll have ahead of me. I should also learn how to make the noodles at some point. If you have successfully made tonkotsu from scratch before, I would love to hear what you have to say and maybe you could teach me a thing or two!

Photography by Duc Duong.