Ingredient Spotlight: Dried Kombu

A member of the kelp family, kombu is a versatile pantry ingredient that provides dishes with umami flavor, nutrients, and minerals. Dried kombu can be used to make broth, added to beans to make them more digestible, and eaten in salads.

Most kombu comes from Hokkaidō, Japan. It is also cultivated in Korea, where it is known as dashima, and China, where it is known as haidai. (Maine kelp is similar and can be substituted for kombu.) Mildly salty and subtly sweet, kombu contains glutamic acid (the basis of monosodium glutamate, or MSG), which enhances flavor and tenderizes proteins.

Dried kombu may be found in East Asian markets and health food stores. The strips are often covered with a white powder from natural salts. Just wipe with a damp cloth before cooking. Store kombu in an airtight container away from sunlight and moisture.

Here are some of our favorite ways to use this sea vegetable:

To make vegetarian broth. Kombu can be used to make a light broth for Asian soups like miso, noodle soup, and tofu soup. To make one quart of broth, fill a pot with 4 cups of water and a 4-6" strip of kombu. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Add soy sauce if desired. (Use the leftover strip of kombu in other recipes.)

To make dashi. Kombu is combined with bonito to make dashi, an essential stock used in Japanese cooking.

To soften beans. The amino acids in kombu help soften beans and make them more digestible. Add a 4-6" strip of kombu to a pot of cooking beans. After an hour or two, the kombu will disintegrate when stirred. (Any stray pieces should be tender enough to eat, or you can remove them.)

In stews. Use kombu to enhance the flavor of vegetable stews. It is particularly good with root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, and turnips.

In salads. Place kombu in a pot, cover with water, and simmer for an hour or until soft. Cut into strips and add to salads.

As a condiment. Roast kombu in a dry skillet over medium heat until crisp. Crumble or grind it into a powder and use it as a salt substitute. Sprinkle it over grains, tofu, and vegetables.

Do you have any other suggestions?

Related: How To Stock a Vegetarian (or Vegan) Pantry

(Image: Flickr member FotoosVanRobin licensed under Creative Commons)