Best Bonito Flakes Substitutes To Use In A Pinch

Bonito Flakes Substitute

Finding useful Bonito Flakes Substitutes is a daunting task. The flakes have a unique flavor and texture. Better known in Japan as Katsuobushi, these flakes are an essential part of many Japanese recipes. So, they can’t just go missing from a recipe. We’ll need to find another option, preferably with the same complex and umami flavor. That’s a tall order!

Katsuobushi (bonito flakes) is a condiment that takes a long time to prepare. Tuna fish, which is the primary component of bonito flakes, undergoes boiling, smoking, drying, and dehydrating. That’s a long and complex process, which is why bonito flakes are tough to find outside Japan.

The tuna fish used for this delicacy is skipjack tuna, also known as oceanic bonito. The latter is also how this food gets its name.

Despite being made from fish, bonito flakes don’t taste or smell fishy. The long process of production gives bonito flakes complex and nuanced flavors. 

Now we know what we want our food substitutes to achieve. Let’s take a look at the options.

Top Substitutes For Bonito Flakes

1. Kombu (Konbu)

Kombu is an edible kelp that’s often paired with bonito flakes in recipes. Although, it is pretty good by itself as well, and finds a wide variety of uses in Japanese cuisine. Kombu is also a popular choice with vegans in Japan to replace bonito flakes in many recipes. 

A major reason for this is the fact that Kombu adds and enhances the umami characteristics of a recipe. The kelp is pretty rich in glutamates and in fact, MSG (monosodium glutamate) was first extracted from kombu. So, it’s got the umami part locked down, but there’s still a little more to do for some recipes. 

In such cases, kombu stock (dashi) comes into play. Usually, this involves putting dried kombu in water and heating it. The heat is removed just before the water boils. The dashi retains its umami feel and is popular with several recipes like miso soup. 

To maintain the texture and feel of bonito flakes, it’s better to use dried kombu. Roasting and grinding it can bring the texture pretty close to bonito flakes, though it doesn’t exactly copy the taste.

2. Mackerel Powder

Though sweeter and fatter, mackerel has a taste and texture very similar to tuna. And some of that familiarity stays even when both these fish undergo their separate processing. Mackerel powder often acts as a seasoning that tastes similar to the condiment that is bonito flakes.

Of course, the texture of powder vs flakes will be different, but you might be willing to forgive that change considering the taste matches pretty well.

Much like Katsuobushi, mackerel powder is a popular ingredient for many Japanese recipes. It can work as a fairly decent replacement should you need it.

3. Dried Shiitake Mushrooms

Dried shiitake mushrooms are a useful substitute for bonito flakes. While they handle the flavor acceptably well, the biggest point in their favor is easy availability. Many of the substitutes for bonito flakes can be rare to find outside Japan. Shiitake mushrooms, on the other hand, are available in most places.

If you can’t lay hands on dried mushrooms, use a food dehydrator to dry them. These mushrooms add that wonderful umami touch to the food, while also being quite flavorful. It is possible to use these to make dashi, though shiitake mushroom dashi isn’t that common in Japanese cuisine. 

This dashi can feel quite overpowering for some traditional recipes. On the other hand, the western palate might actually find it to be at just the right level!

4. Dulse Flakes With Nori

Here are two common ingredients of Japanese cuisine. When put together, they make a decent replacement for bonito flakes.

Dulse flakes come from seaweed and offer just the right texture to match the goodness of Katsuobushi. Nori is a seaweed as well and combined with dulse flakes, adds the taste, texture, and umami character that comes from using bonito flakes.

While this combination is flavorful, it does miss the flavorful touch and slightly fishy taste of bonito flakes. On the other hand, it’s a remarkably good vegan substitute.

5. Toasted Soybeans

Speaking of vegan substitutes, soybeans are a simplistic, yet remarkable pick. While it doesn’t quite hit the same umami notes, it is easy to obtain, inexpensive, and adds a nice touch to the food. This is one of the classical favorites for vegans and was in use by Buddhist monks before the vegan movement became a thing.

Apart from using toasted soybeans straight on the food, it also finds use in making dashi. The soybean stock is mellow and gets along well with most recipes without presenting an overpowering flavor.

6. Baby Anchovies (Iriko)

Baby anchovies or Iriko (sometimes also called niboshi) is a popular ingredient for dashi. When prepared properly, the dashi has an intense umami flavor and can function as a substitute for bonito flakes in most recipes.

The texture and taste change, so it’s not the ideal choice. But if you’re in a pinch, this will fill the gap just fine. Incidentally, Iriko stock used with kombu is a fantastic substitute for bonito flakes.

7. Nutritional Yeast

A bit flaky and powdery, nutritional yeast makes a decent replacement for bonito flakes. Its overall texture and appearance is somewhat similar to bonito flakes, so it does a decent job on that count. It has a decent taste and unmistakable umami notes.

Nutritional yeast is a viable choice for a replacement. However, it’s more popular as an ingredient/topping in the west. It isn’t very popular in Japan and doesn’t find much favor with local chefs. 

For the western palate though, it could be just the thing you want. Plus, it’s easy to use and place on the food. As condiments and toppings go, this one’s pretty handy.

8. White Fish

Using white fish will require a bit of elbow grease and culinary skills. But, if you’re making dashi and intend to replace bonito flakes, these could be the right option. White fish like halibut, cod, and sniper aren’t oily and have a subtle taste. This gives them a similarity with skipjack tuna and thus allows for a decent replacement of bonito flakes.

Keep in mind, you can’t use canned tuna to make bonito flakes or dashi. The canned fish has a strong flavor and tends to overpower recipes. Katsuobushi is supposed to add to the recipe and bring an umami character – it’s not supposed to overpower the flavor.

9. Shellfish

If you find yourself all out of options, going with shellfish could be a way out. It’s not the ideal choice, but it can save the dish. Shrimp, scallops, and oysters have a mild flavor with a mouthfeel similar to bonito flakes. This option is similar to using white fish in your recipe, though the flavor here diverges a bit further.

10. Shiro Dashi Or Tsuyu

Shiro Dashi and Tsuyu present a pre-packaged option to use with your recipe. Both of these are pre-made dashi that include bonito flakes in the recipe. Tsuyu has a strong flavor and its ingredient list includes dark soy sauce, kombu, bonito flakes, and mirin. Shiro Dashi is practically similar, except it has a milder flavor thanks to the use of light soy sauce. 

Both of these have an amazing umami flavor. They’re excellent ingredients to enhance the taste of dishes like soba noodles and udon noodles.

FAQs And More On Bonito Flakes

Why Are Dried Bonito Flakes So Hard?

Bonito flakes sometimes get called the hardest food in the world. The reason for this lies in the way the fish is processed to make these flakes. Indeed, during the process can take up to six months and the fish often reduces to one-sixth of its original weight. Over the course of this time, the recipe involves smoking the fish, shaving off tar and fat, and sun-drying the fushi.

This long, carefully controlled process means that the katsuobushi is very dry and hardened over time and processing. The shaved-off blocks are hard and pretty interesting to use for all their culinary expectations.

How Can I Quickly Make Dashi Using Bonito Flakes?

Conventionally, dashi can take several hours to prepare. But there are ways around it and this recipe will make it possible for you to enjoy a relatively quick and delicious dashi.

Here’s what you need:

  • Two 6×5 pieces of dried kombu
  • Three cups of bonito flakes

Place kombu in a large saucepan and add eight cups of water. Let it stay for 30-40 minutes and then start heating the mix. Keep it on medium heat and as soon as it boils, remove the saucepan from the heat.

At this point, you can simply remove the kombu from the pan or strain it. 

Let the water cool for a couple of minutes and then add the bonito flakes while stirring. Once they’re submerged, place the saucepan on medium heat. As the water comes to a boil, reduce heat to simmer and let it stay for 5-10 minutes. During this time, remove any foam that gathers on top of the recipe.

Remove from heat and leave the saucepan undisturbed for 10-20 minutes. 

Strain it through a fine-mesh sieve. Your dashi is ready!

Is It Possible To Make Dashi Without Bonito Flakes?

Yes, you can make dashi using only kombu. But if you prefer to get a more complex flavor, try other options like toasted soybeans, iriko, and white fish. All of these are mild options that will help make dashi without overpowering its flavor.

Saving The Dashi And Other Recipes Without Bonito Flakes

If you find yourself in a situation where you need bonito flakes substitutes, it’s time to take some action! There are a few substitutes for bonito flakes that add the same umami flavor without overpowering the dish or making big changes to a recipe.

Substitutes like soybeans and shiitake mushrooms are welcome for vegans. Meanwhile, others can try baby anchovies, mackerel powder, and even shellfish! In case you’re unsure of what to do, give nutritional yeast a chance.

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