The Key to Perfect Miso Soup Is Homemade Dashi Broth

Brooklyn's Dashi Okume shares tips for brewing umami at home.

assortment of dried dashi ingredients
Photo courtesy of Dashi Okume
Photo courtesy of Dashi Okume

There are a number of things to keep track of when making a really great soup: building an aromatic base, getting the simmer time right, interrogating whether or not that bay leaf actually does serve a purpose. But rarely, if ever, do we think about how to make our soups feel personal. This is where homemade broth or stock comes in. Dashi broth is the perfect vehicle for your own, unique flair—and some umami.

“Dashi” refers to an entire family of broths that make use of umami-rich foods, such as bonito fish flakes and dried kombu, or kelp. Simple to brew and highly customizable, dashi broth forms the backbone of Japanese cooking. You can often find dashi sold in pre-made packets at Japanese markets, but making it at home will ensure that it’s additive-free. Add it to miso soup, ramen, udon noodles, and practically any other dish that could benefit from a little liquid kick.

“The main difference between dashi and other broths is the quickness at which you can brew dashi,” says Shohei Miyajima, manager at Dashi Okume in Brooklyn. “It usually takes about a couple hours for a French bouillon, for example, to extract all the flavor from the ingredients, but you can finish dashi in five minutes.” That’s due, in part, to the presence of dried ingredients, which are highly concentrated in flavor, but it also has to do with the way in which they are cut. “Some of those ingredients you shave into very thin slices, so it's easier to brew than a block of chicken bone.”

Miyajima grew up in Tokyo, where dashi broth flavored everyday meals. He set out to bring the original Okume wholesaler, which has been selling dried goods for 150 years since its onset at the Tsukiji Fish Market, to New York clientele. At the industrial-chic market in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, you can create your own dashi pack, selecting from over 30 types of ingredients and personalizing that formula even further with your name on the label. And the store’s staff, equipped with “dashi sommelier” certifications, are there to help you out with consultations.

The word “umami” has really popped off as a food descriptor of choice. But what does it really mean, beyond a trendy stand-in for “that little extra something” that you can’t describe? The term was coined in the early 20th century by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda, who, curious as to how dashi broth achieved such meaty complexity using only kombu, decided to look closely at the molecular composition of the seaweed.

It turns out that the component responsible for emitting a flavor explosion was glutamic acid, a type of amino acid found naturally in the body. Research shows that our taste buds have receptors that bind to glutamates, creating a synergistic effect. Though it’s famously hard to describe the sensation of umami, Miyajima suggests people tend to know when it’s missing. “It might be easier to describe when you don’t have umami,” he says. “You can’t have complete satisfaction with the dish.”

dashi okume store counter
Photo courtesy of Dashi Okume

But there’s more to umami than glutamic acid. Dashi Okume wants to make sure that, when choosing your ingredients, you’re also hitting other nucleotides like inosinate and guanylate. Whatever market you choose to source your ingredients from, Miyajima recommends combining “a bit of inosinic acid from dried bonito and a dried, small fish, glutamic acid from dried kelp or vegetables, and guanylic acid from dried mushrooms.”

The team at Dashi Okume uses a golden ratio of 5:3:3:1. Think something like 50% dried bonito, 30% dried anchovies, 10% kombu, and 10% shiitake mushrooms. “Combining a bit of everything makes the level of umami about eight times higher than just using a single ingredient,” Miyajima says. And if you’d like to opt for a vegetarian option, try experimenting with dried mushrooms as well as dried vegetables, like tomatoes, celery, and cabbage.

When heating your ingredients in water, make sure to keep your boil to just under 5 minutes. Otherwise, things can get bitter, and “kelp, if you boil it too much, will make your soup sticky,” Miyajima says. But don’t be so quick to toss those ingredients in the bin. They can experience another life in what Miyajima refers to as the “second dashi.” “It’s going to be less tasty and have less umami as the first, but it’s still useful,” he says. Or, you can simply chop your ingredients up into small pieces and combine them with soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar to create a furikake seasoning.

Homemade dashi boasts a number of health benefits, as you’re extracting all the nutrients from foods rich in protein and vitamins. Kombu alone, for example, is high in iodine, calcium, iron, magnesium, and contains folate as well as Vitamins C and K. “You also use less sodium in your cooking if you use dashi, because umami covers the taste of saltiness,” Miyajima says.

Just as umami isn’t exclusive to Japanese cuisine—it makes an appearance in tomatoes, anchovies, and aged Parmesan, which are heavily featured in Italian food—neither is dashi. Use it in place of water when making a curry, or in place of salt when boiling pasta water. Add it to clam chowder for an extra taste of the ocean. Once you make a homemade batch, you’ll find an excuse to add it to anything.

Miso Soup

Serves 2

• 500 ml of dashi (If you have Okume Dashi, it's nice to use 2 packs for a rich, dashi taste.)
• 40g of miso (better to mix two types, like white and red miso) per 500 ml dashi
• A pinch of seaweed (wakame or aosa) per serving.

1. Brew dashi. If you have dashi from Dashi Okume, put 2 packets of dashi sachets for 500ml of water. Start from cold, slowly heat it up, and once it's boiled, change the heat to medium and boil for about 5-7 minutes.
2. Turn off the heat, remove all the dashi, and dissolve miso into dashi. If possible, use a miso strainer (Or any kind of strainer, if you don't have one.)
3. Warm it up again* and add seaweed such as wakame or aosa.
*Be careful not to boil miso soup after you dissolve the miso into the dashi. Boiling miso soup will reduce the aroma, flavor, and taste of miso.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram