If you've already got a pantry full of dried ocean greens you know: Seaweed is a powerhouse. Depending on the variety you're working with, the ingredient can be a flavor enhancer, textural marvel, or both, making it a versatile and shelf-stable kitchen MVP. So many dishes rely on the savory, specific taste of seaweed to succeed; harnessing its strengths in your home kitchen is a gateway to better cooking.
Seaweed is a broad term, encapsulating all edible saltwater plants and algae. Some varieties look like the long stalks of kelp you've seen washed up on the beach, while others more closely resemble heads of lettuce, leafy bushes, or even thick grasses. Seaweed used for culinary purposes is harvested from the ocean and dried immediately, to be packaged at its peak. The result is a pouch of crisp, firm shards that loosen and soften into tender, saline bites when rehydrated in warm water.
As with any pantry staple, there are a few tricks to shopping for and successfully storing dried seaweed—nail them, and you'll be rewarded with countless flavorful meals with the unique, nutrient-rich ingredient at their center. Read on for a primer, as well as an outline of the six types of seaweed we love to cook with most, plus lots of ideas for putting them to use.
How to shop for seaweed
Each variety of seaweed (more on a few of our favorites below) has its own optimum visual and textural characteristics to look out for while shopping. Nori, for example, should be vibrantly colored and not splotchy or powdery. Kombu, on the other hand, is often coated in a white powder when purchased, which is totally fine—it's the savory-flavor-giving glutamic acid in the ingredient appearing on the surface, and it can be wiped off before use.
There are some overarching things to consider when buying any type of dried seaweed. Make sure that the product is crisp and dry, with no signs of moisture in the bag or spongey or soft spots on the seaweed itself. It should not be overly crumbly or gray in color. And the container should be well-sealed, with no way for air to enter. These factors will ensure you're getting flavorful seaweed that will last in your pantry until you're ready to use it.
How to store seaweed
Like many pantry staples, dried seaweed needs a cool, dark, dry place to call home. Depending on the type you're using, seaweed can last between a few weeks (thin and crisp varieties, like nori) and a few years (sturdy varieties, like kombu) at room temperature after you open it, so long as it's properly stored.
The clock on a package of dried seaweed starts the second you let air in; any added moisture will make it go stale faster, so humid climates and non-air-tight containers are the enemy. If your seaweed came with a silica gel packet, move that to the zip-top bag or resealable container you plan to store your seaweed in, as it will help keep things dry on the inside. Also, if you have space in your fridge or freezer, you can store your leftover dried seaweed there instead to prolong its life—up to six months for nori and basically forever for kombu. Just be sure to let the product come completely to room temperature on your countertop before you open the container to keep all additional moisture at bay.
Types of seaweed for pantry-stocking
Nori is commonly available in thin, crisp sheets—the kind you'd find wrapped around a sushi roll or cut into smaller squares in a snack pack. It's dark green and smooth, with a mild, slightly nutty flavor. Nori sheets are made using a similar technique as paper, where shredded pulp is pressed together and dried on racks. It's one of the simplest varieties of dried seaweed to work with because it doesn't require rehydration before use. Nori is good to go straight from the bag, but even as little as a wave in front of a burner to crisp it can add a ton of flavor wherever it's deployed.
Because of its crumble-able texture, nori is a popular ingredient in spice blends, seasoning mixes, and flavorful toppings—either broken into pieces by hand or ground into a fine powder with a spice mill. Furikake, a seasoning sprinkle used to top rice and other dishes, is often made with nori in addition to sesame seeds, salt, and sugar.
Sold as thick, large, sturdy sheets or shredded in smaller strips, kombu packs a punch; it's beloved for the savory, saline, umami-rich flavor it imparts that's impossible to replicate. Larger pieces are the perfect ingredient to drop into simmering stocks and stews or to build entire dishes around. Dashi, a broth made from water, kombu sheets, and dried bonito flakes, is the base of so many classic and comforting meals.
Rehydrated kombu—either the style that comes shredded or in larger sheets that you thinly slice after they soak—can also be mixed into rice, salads, and noodles dishes. In fact, one way to get the most of your kombu is to remove the bigger shards you used to flavor a soup base after it's done, cut them into pieces, and add them to another aspect of the meal for twice the umami punch.
Wakame is the variety of dried seaweed used most commonly in seaweed salads and floated into soups because of its slightly sweet flavor and silky texture. It is often sold in small pieces because it expands slightly when rehydrated; the bite-size bits also make for simple side dishes that involve minimal prep aside from soaking.
Because of wakame's glossy texture, it's often paired with ingredients that highlight or play off that quality. Crunchy sesame seeds, firm tofu, and crisp vegetables are regularly found alongside it in recipes.
Dulse is super savory and almost meaty in flavor. Some describe it as having a leathery, smoky, bacon-y quality, and you can heighten those flavor notes when you crisp it in a pan. Its natural saltiness makes it a common choice for seasoning mixes and sprinkle-able toppings, as well as seaweed powder-coated snacks. You can also mix dulse into baking projects like breads or crackers for an unmistakable umami note.
Arame is a species of kelp that looks like a network of veins when fresh; dried, it resembles dark purple, oversized saffron threads. After a short rehydration period (just a few minutes), arame is tender but still retains a bit of texture, making it a great addition to salads, rice, and noodle dishes. It's quite mild in flavor, which makes it versatile and easy to use.
Similar in texture, size, and flavor to arame, hijiki is another common seaweed salad ingredient, though some hesitate to include it due to concerns about arsenic. It's mild and earthy in flavor, much less oceanic than the other types on this list, which makes it a good counterpart to meaty dishes and heartier vegetables. If you'd like to avoid it, hijiki can easily be replaced by arame in a recipe.
How to use seaweed in your cooking
So many dishes can benefit from a bit of dried seaweed—whether in the form of a last-minute seasoning sprinkle or a long-simmering stew addition—to say nothing of the many incredible recipes built around the ingredient's specific savory flavor. Keeping a few varieties of dried seaweed in your pantry means you can tap into that taste in seconds (with a nori sheet or two) or hours (after giving a handful of wakame a good soak).
Try using nori in a seasoning blend for grilled seafood or as topping for okonomiyaki or popcorn. Wrap your hand rolls, onigiri, or sushi in it, or turn any vegetable—including celery—into a flavorful, crunchy snack.
A common use for kombu is as the basis for stock: Use a piece a few inches long to make dashi, which can be the base of miso soup, a salmon donabe, or a fish and vegetable stew. Simmer it to make a sweet and savory sauce for fish collars or add a piece to a pot of simmering beans for a savory punch. You can also use kombu in a vegetable pickling liquid or to gently cure fish by keeping a fillet between two sheets.
Wakame is the seaweed salad king, and there are so many ways you can go with it: with cucumbers, julienned carrots, shelled edamame, or pickled vegetables. Arame and hijiki can bulk up a wakame salad or lend their savory flavor to soba noodles and rice salads. Try them in a salsa verde topping for fish or as tender element on a greens-and-avocado plate.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious