Japanese cuisine is not only about tempuras and tofus and sushis. They also have a secret ingredient that is essentially a Japanese foundation, which is elegantly subtle and is perfected by careful, patient food artistry that brings so much depth of flavor or umami to your food.
What I’m talking about is dashi. Nothing is as simple as dashi as it uses only
two ingredients: water and base flavor. Dashi is used as a base stock for soups and noodle dishes, and as a flour seasoning for okonomiyaki and takoyaki.
The base flavor of dashi can be dried kelp (kombu), bonito flakes or dried, fermented, smoked skipjack tuna flakes (katsuobushi), and dried sardines or anchovies (iriko or niboshi). It can be all three or a combination of two of them.
Now that you know what is what (from our Japanese 101 lessons), you can now make two quarts of dashi in one hour from Alton Brown’s recipe. Or make a home-made one
for two cups in 10 minutes.
You might be thinking to use powdered ones (hondashi) and MSG; that’s no problem. Because today, we’re going to learn dashi substitutes that you don’t have to use MSG.
Our dashi substitutes are super easy yet you have to be patient because some of them may take one hour to achieve dashi-level excellence. Well, the time in cooking or making it is one factor why dashi was invented by the Japanese.
5 Dashi Substitutes for Your Close-to-Authentic Japanese Dishes
White Meat Fishes
For traditional Japanese cooking (washoku), dashi is basically fish-flavored or
Fish stock is called fumet (in French say FYOO-mit). It’s basically almost equivalent to dashi as it gives you the “taste of the sea” more appropriately.
We need mild, non-oily, white-meat fishes, like cod, snapper, halibut, bass, and tilefish. Tuna or mackerel (dark meat fishes) have a stronger fish flavor and could overpower the dish you’re cooking. Remember that dashi is a flavoring agent and should just be a hint, not all over.
What we’re going to use are the head and bones (with tidbits of flesh) only—they’re actually free from any fish market. Super cheap, right? You should wash them vigorously because any trace of blood or other inedible parts can make our dashi substitute stock tastes bitter.
In this part is where the fish flavor is more intact than the meat. Why not try to butcher your own fish or have this guy fillet for you under four minutes. You can save the fish meat for other recipes.
In a 7-8 quart stockpot, you should:
- Sauté aromatics first with a tablespoon of any cooking oil you prefer. They are one large or two small pieces of onions, leeks, garlic, celery, fennel, parsley, tarragon, and bay leaves. Tie the leaves in a string and dice the veggies in very small cubes or have them thinly sliced—we’re into fast cooking so the smaller/thinner the better.
- You may opt to use water or white wine or a mix of them. Once you have agreed with your liquid, you may add half a cup of wine or 2 quarts of water to the aromatics. Just remember that your liquid should almost cover the fish scraps.
- Add the fish scraps in the liquid with aromatics and let them simmer for about 20 minutes to one hour.
- If you’re going to skip the aromatics, flavor your fish stock with splashes of soy sauce, mirin and a little sugar after heating up the fish scraps.
- After 20 minutes or 1 hour, our fish-based dashi substitute is done.
- Press everything in a fine strainer and keep that gelatinous fish extract in a clear container. You may freeze and store it up to a month before using it.
Just like the fish scraps, we’re going to use the scraps of shellfish (head, tail, shells). In this recipe, shrimp or prawns are best to be used.
- Prepare your aromatics: 2 cups onions, 2 cups carrots, 3 stalks of celery, and 2 cloves of garlic. All of them are finely sliced or diced in small cubes but you should mince the garlic.
- In a large pot, put 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the one pound large shrimp scraps (uncooked) with the aromatics (except for the garlic) for 15 minutes or until they brown.
- Then, add the garlic and cook it for 2 minutes (garlic comes late because it easily cooks and burns).
- Now, add 1 ½ quart of water, ½ cup of white wine, 1/3 cup tomato paste, 1 tablespoon kosher salt, 1 ½ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper and 10 sprigs of fresh thyme (with stems).
- Bring everything to a boil and simmer for one hour.
- Then, use a sieve and press everything to extract that luscious red juice.
- You can make about one quart of this recipe that you may store in your fridge or freezer for future use.
Our vegan readers would love this next dashi substitute. It’s a mixture of kombu and shiitake—yes, seaweed and mushrooms!
You can use the packed dried seaweed and mushrooms. You can follow the instructions on the pack, which is usually 15 grams of kombu (about 1 1/2 4-inch or 10 cm squares) to 4 cups of water.
Leave this amount on the pot for 30 minutes; no heating yet. Use a spoon to know the taste of the “tea” and take a feel of the leaves if they are slippery.
After 30 minutes of soaking, put the pot onto the stove and bring it to a boil, then let it simmer for 10 minutes and it’s ready. You may want to check if the water is evaporating too quickly, so you may add a little to get the amount of stock you want.
With the dried shiitake mushroom, all you have to do is use the reconstituted liquid from the soaked mushrooms as your dashi substitute that is actually have a strong umami flavor. I think it could be for about 10-30 minutes. Just pinch the mushrooms to see if they’re soft enough and it’s good to go.
When I mean to go, I don’t mean you should throw them away. The dried kombu and shiitake can be reused several times. You just need to store them in a clean plastic bag and in the freezer.
Furthermore, you may even use any vegetable you fancy or already have in your cupboard. Just boil them all in just 20 minutes and strain all those juicy goodness. With a sprinkle of salt and pepper, you’ll have the veggie stock dashi sub in no time.
If you’re going to ask about veggie scraps, well, stay away from them because peelings and damaged parts create a bitter taste.
You’re very lucky if you stock on chicken broth in your kitchen because chicken broth is your easiest and fastest dashi substitute.
You just have to make sure the chicken broth is a little more subtle than it should be when you decide to use it for cooking dashi recipes.
It doesn’t really give you the “taste of the sea” but it would actually be great emergency dashi because it had done the long-wait-for-slow-cooking-and-straining process for you.
If you would ask about beef broth or stock, I highly suggest you steer away from the cow. Beef broth or stock has a stronger taste that defeats the dashi’s simplicity, so it wouldn’t be a match as a dashi substitute.
Powdered or cubed broth
You must still use the chicken or fish flavor if you only have the cubed or powdered versions of the broth.
They are very packed in flavor so add more liquid than necessary but do not add much as you may lose the taste and may end up adding salt instead.
From the words of renowned chef Eric Ripert, “it’s fantastically perfumed water…invisible but brings more depth”. You can elevate its flavor profile by adding more ingredients to make your cooking stock much more
flavorful, and well, it depends on what recipe you are cooking.
Our main goal for the dashi substitutes is to have the same level of elegance, clarity, and depth of profile. The different stocks we have tried our best to be used if you’re veering towards curiosity and creativity.
You should also at least try to make or eat authentic dashi so you’ll know what it really tastes like. That’s you’re guiding light in our dashi substitutes.
So which of our stocks have you tried making? How about using them as a dashi substitute? Share your stories in the comments section.
Stay tuned for our next kitchen hacks!