Bonito flakes, otherwise known as Katsuobushi, are an essential part of Japanese cuisine as they bring about a great burst of umami flavor to savory dishes, which elevates the dish instantly.
There really is not much that tastes exactly like bonito flakes, but if you are battling to find some, or if you have run out, you would need a substitute.
What are the best bonito flake substitutes? The best bonito flake substitutes include mackerel powder, dried shiitake mushrooms, kombu, dulse flakes, nori, and more. Keep in mind that the right substitute will depend on what you are cooking and the flavors you are after!
Below, we have listed the attributes of bonito flakes, the best substitutes for them, and how to use these substitutes in place of bonito flakes!
What Are Bonito Flakes?
Understanding what bonito flakes are can help you find a suitable substitute.
They are not as common in other cuisines, being found mainly in Japanese cooking, but the great umami flavor they bring makes them a favorite of many.
Bonito flakes are flakes made from bonito fish that have been smoked, fermented, and then dried.
The fish goes through a process of boiling and smoking until it is sun-dried, and then a specific bacterial mold culture is rubbed on the fish to give it a protective mold and absorb any moisture.
This mold is then scraped off, and once the drying process is complete, the fish is then shaved into flakes.
The flakes are added to meals for a strong umami flavor that really is unmatched. It is one of the traditional ingredients used to make dashi!
The Best Substitutes For Bonito Flakes
A substitute for bonito flakes would be another ingredient that gives an umami flavor, whether it is a seafood product or not.
Here are some of the best options to use if you have run out of bonito flakes!
1. Mackerel Powder
Mackerel powder is similar to bonito flakes in the sense that they are both made from fish. Mackerel fish taste similar to bonito and have a similar texture too.
The difference is that mackerel powder is finer, whereas bonito flakes are bigger flakes. However, the flavor is similar, with a fishy umami flavor that can be used in many recipes and meals.
When it comes to the flavor of bonito flakes, mackerel powder is probably the most similar substitute that you will find, so if you are only worried about copying the flavor, then this would be your best option.
As it is a powder, you could start by adding in slightly less than you would bonito flakes, but the best option is to start off small and then taste the dish.
You can always add in more, but it is difficult to fix the dish once you have added in too much.
2. Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
Dried shiitake mushrooms work as a great substitute for bonito flakes, as they are fairly easy to come by and they offer a good source of umami flavor for different dishes.
These dried mushrooms are often used to make vegetarian dashi, as they give it a pleasant umami flavor without having to use a fish product.
Other than making dashi, dried shiitake mushrooms can be used to make soups and noodle dishes, and they can be added to fried rice and seafood meals.
You can use fresh shiitake mushrooms, but the dried version does have a stronger umami flavor, and they are easier to come by (and last for longer in the pantry).
You can use around the same amount of dried shiitake mushroom compared to bonito flakes, but maybe start off with less and work your way through and taste from there.
Kombu is edible brown algae that has been dried down, and it is a popular item used along with bonito flakes to make dashi and other dishes.
Even though kombu can be used with bonito flakes, it can be used on its own to give an umami flavor to the dish.
Kombu has a fairly chewy texture — some people love this, while others don’t. If you are not a fan of the chewy texture, you can soak the algae to soften it slightly.
This is a great option for when you are looking for a vegetarian substitute for bonito flakes, as it works well on its own to make a range of different dishes.
4. Dulse Flakes/Nori
Both are plants from the sea, with dulse flakes being a sea plant that has a great crisp to it when dried, and nori being seaweed that can also have a slight crisp when dried.
Dulse flakes and nori both have an umami flavor to them, although not as strong as bonito flakes on their own. However, they make for a great vegan or vegetarian substitute in many different dishes.
You could use either dulse flakes or nori on their own, but together they can bring a stronger umami flavor with a more complex taste that can really complement different meals.
5. Baby Anchovies
Baby anchovies have a very strong flavor, being salty and fishy, which makes them a great substitute for bonito flakes when making a broth or soup.
The best type of baby anchovies to use are dried ones, as these definitely have a stronger flavor, and are more similar in texture to bonito flakes.
You also then do not have to worry about preparing the baby anchovies before using them in a dish.
As the baby anchovies are manufactured, they are boiled before they are dried, which actually helps to boost their umami flavor.
To use baby anchovies in place of bonito flakes, chop up a few small dried anchovies until you have roughly the same amount that you would have needed bonito flakes.
Just keep in mind that they are quite salty, so you might want to adjust for this in your cooking.
6. Toasted Soybeans
Toasted soybeans can be used to make dashi in place of bonito flakes, but the dashi made with soybeans is milder and more subtle in the umami flavor.
Using soybeans to make dashi or other dishes actually allows the other ingredients to shine, without being overpowered.
Toasted soybeans have a deeper flavor than just regular soybeans, so you do get some flavor out of them, and the toasting process does give them a better taste.
Using soybeans is ideal for those who do not want a meal that tastes like fish or mushrooms, and who are looking for something milder and more delicate.
You can use a little more toasted soybeans compared to the bonito flakes, as they are milder in flavor, but just make sure to taste as you go!
7. Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast might not be a very popular Japanese ingredient, but this doesn’t mean that it can’t work well in place of bonito flakes.
It is popularly used as a topping on noodles, tofu and other savory dishes, in much the same way that bonito flakes could be used.
The benefit of using nutritional yeast is that it has a naturally strong umami flavor, which is what you would be after when looking for a substitute for bonito flakes.
It does not have that fishy flavor to it, but this might actually be a bonus for some.
The other benefit of using nutritional yeast is that it will not change the texture of your food too much, as it is mostly a powder that will blend in well with other ingredients and not stand out as too crunchy.
Bonito flakes are a popular ingredient in Japanese cooking as they deliver a strong umami flavor to many meals, as well as being a key ingredient to make dashi.
However, it can be difficult to find bonito flakes if you do not have a specialty Japanese store near you, so you might have to look for different substitutes.
Above, we have listed all the different substitutes you can choose to use in place of bonito flakes (all with slightly different flavors and textures), so you are sure to find the one that would suit you best!
Now that we’ve learned all about bonito flakes, as well as their top substitutes, here are some additional questions that we thought you might have.
What do bonito flakes actually taste like?
Bonito flakes have a savory, smoky flavor, with fishy notes too. They are used for the umami flavor they bring to dishes.
What can I use in place of dashi?
Are bonito flakes vegetarian?
Bonito flakes are not vegetarian as they are made from bonito fish. They are not suitable to be included in a vegetarian diet.
Do bonito flakes need to be kept in the fridge?
Bonito flakes do not need to be kept in the fridge, even once the packaging has been opened.