Dashi is a golden broth that tastes like the perfect combination of smoke, ocean, aged meat and the sea. It’s mild and mellow, so it blends with thousands of flavors, but it provides the taste of umami—the foundation of Japanese cuisine.
Used in everything from sauces to stews and as the base of classic soups like miso, it’s the Japanese version of chicken stock, but far simpler and quicker to make. Unlike Western stocks, which take hours of simmering to coax out flavor, a batch of dashi can be made in less than 30 minutes. It goes down so quick since the two (yes, only two!) ingredients it requires have been aged and lend the broth a complex, savory, inimitable flavor in just minutes.
The two ingredients you need to make dashi are Kombu (dried Japanese kelp), and Katsuobushi (dried bonito fish). STAY WITH ME and BE NOT AFRAID—these ingredients may be new to you (and I’ll explain each in detail below), but they’re as simple and approachable as anything. You can find them at any Japanese grocery store, or easily found online.
Kombu is slightly leathery and delicately flavored like the sea, and available fresh, frozen or dried. Use the dried strips to make dashi. Most kombu is harvested from the Northern waters of Japan and is sun-dried. The white, powdery residue on the kombu is natural minerals and salts and shouldn’t be washed off since it where a lot of the magic flavor lives. There are different varieties of kombus, some good for salads, some for stews, so look for kombu that’s labeled as dashi kombu.
Katsuobushi is one of the most remarkable of all preserved fish; it has flavor that reminds me of that delicious funk on fine charcuterie or aged meats, but with some smoky notes. It’s made from bonito that has gone through months-long processes of boiling, smoking and fermenting. Whisper-thin flakes of the dried fish are easy to find and perfect for making dashi.
All you need to make dashi is pot of water and a strainer. Cheesecloth helps, but you don’t need it.
This recipe is for Ichiban-dashi or the “first stock.” Niban-dashi is the “second stock” that is made from the cooked kombu and bonito flakes leftover from the first stock. Niban-dashi is cloudier than Ichiban-dashi, but just as useful.
And once you’re done, congrats! But what will you do with it? Here are three of my favorite ways to use this delicate broth:
1) Make sauce for tempura: Bright and salty, this stuff is like liquid crack and just phenomenal for dipping lightly-fried food into. But a few glugs of it make everything from salad dressing to warm cous cous taste better. Once you’ve got dashi on hand, it’s so simple to make. Simply mix about ½ cup of dashi with 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of mirin (a sweet, low-alcohol version of sake) and 1 teaspoon of sugar. If you don’t have mirin, you can use dry sherry. Add some finely grated daikon radish for a little texture and a cooling flavor.
2) Poach fish or chicken: Bring your dashi to a simmer on the stove, add a garlic clove, maybe some thinly sliced shallots and slowly simmer a breast of chicken or filet of fish for a tender, umami-riffic, super-healthy dinner. And keep the broth afterwards for something else!
3) Make fancy, healthier ramen: Ditch those packets of MSG and cook up a flavorful ramen noodle broth with dashi. Follow the directions on the packaged ramen but substitute the water with dashi. Cook the noodles in the broth and add a handful of fresh spinach and 1 green onion, finely chopped. Remove from the heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of miso paste and soy sauce to taste. Top with fresh bean sprouts and serve.
Makes about 1 quart
4-6 cups water
6” piece dried kombu
2-3 cups katsuobushi flakes
Soak the kombu: Put the kombu in a large saucepan and cover with the water. Let the kombu soak for 20 minutes.
Cook the kombu: Put the saucepan over medium heat and cook until just before the water starts to simmer. You’ll see steam coming from the surface and teeny bubbles breaking the surface of the water around the side of the pan. If you want to be precise, you can use a thermometer and temp the water to 160⁰ F.
Add the katsuobushi: Remove the saucepan from the heat and immediately stir in the bonito flakes. Let the pot sit undisturbed for 10 minutes. Try not to let it sit for longer than 10 minutes, or the flavor can turn bitter.
Strain: Strain through a mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter. You can reserve the kombu and bonito to make a Niban-dashi by adding water and simmering it for 30 minutes on the stove. When you’re simmering, add another handful of bonito flakes. This second stock will be cloudier than the first, but is perfect for miso soup.
Use or store: Store the dashi in an airtight container for up to 1 week, or freeze for up to 6 weeks.