Ponzu sauce (properly ponzu shoyu, but usually simply referred to as ponzu) is a Japanese citrus-based sauce (often yuzu or lemon), popularly used as a condiment for sashimi, tataki, shabu-shabu, and other dishes. It’s also popular as an ingredient in a variety of Japanese-style western dishes.
There’s really no excuse for a bad ponzu sauce. It’s so simple to make, and yet plenty of recipes out there cut corners (or depart from the formula entirely). Don’t get me wrong, a sauce made out of citrus and soy alone (with or without sugar) might be very tasty, and it might go very nicely with a particular dish, but calling it ponzu is just misleading. The problem is that the salt of the shoyu (soy sauce) and the bright, brassy citrus taste gets all the attention while the other key ingredients get ignored.
Ponzu should be much more than just citrus and soy sauce. It should also have a sweetness, umami, and a subtle alcohol taste. As far as sweetness is concerned, ponzu should be mildly sweet, not a sticky-sweet syrup. You can adjust to your tastes of course, but sweetness should not be over-emphasized. On the converse, I think that the savoury, umami flavour gets ignored most often, and I tend to think that this is because people don’t want to bother buying or using kombu or katsuobushi. Some of this is inexperience – both ingredients can seem a little intimidating until you learn how simple they are to use (check out this and this for more information). Happily, ponzu is so good and so simple to make, it only demonstrates how easy it is to use (and use up!) those ingredients once you’ve bought them. Ponzu also serves another important purpose: it demonstrates how umami building ingredients can enhance a dish without overpowering it. Despite the fact that ponzu contains both kelp and dried fish, there’s nothing briny or fishy about it; the final product tastes clean, bright, and rich.
This might be the best recipe to get started with if you’re interested in learning to use Japanese pantry staples. I realize that some of these ingredients can seem unfamiliar or a little intimidating, but they’re very easy to use – especially here. Make sure you check the Pantry Pages linked below for more information on Kombu, Katsuobushi, and Mirin. These three ingredients are wildly important flavour building blocks, so you want to make sure they get a chance to shine. While you’ll get a lot from reading the Pantry Pages, I have given a few brief notes to help you make the best of the recipe.
If you can’t get good mirin, I do not recommend using a sugary mirin-like condiment (for an explanation of this problem, keep reading here), as the final product will be too sweet. Instead, omit the mirin, double the sake, and add extra sugar to taste.
If you plan to use this sauce as a marinade or a reduction, you may want to consider reducing the soy sauce by about 1/4. The salt can become quite pronounced as the water evaporates or is absorbed, so reducing the soy sauce lets the other ingredients shine through.
Refrigerate your ponzu after you’ve finished letting it steep. It will keep for up to a month. If you’re looking for something to use it with (other than sashimi – which is awesome), try out this easy but amazing beef tataki recipe, or this incredible Japanese take on the hamburger.
Now that I’ve ranted a little about what you shouldn’t do with ponzu, let’s talk about what you can do. In Japan, ponzu would traditionally be made with one or more of the native citrus species, with yuzu, sudachi, kabosu, and daidai coming in a the top of the list. Outside of Japan, most of those fruits are rather hard to get a hold of. As a result, lemon is commonly used as the citrus base. Yuzu juice is increasingly available in Japanese grocery stores and it does work very well, but it can be expensive. A mixture of Seville orange and lemon juice also works quite well, but suffers from similar problems related availability. But don’t worry – if lemon is all you can get, you’ll still make a great sauce.
As for the other ingredients, I wouldn’t recommend departing from the recipe too much, but you can adjust the sugar slightly (up or down) depending on your tastes. Once again, take note of my comments above and on the relevant Ingredient Page regarding quality mirin and sweetness.
For a gluten-free version, you can use tamari (wheat-free Japanese soy sauce) in place of soy sauce. That being said, tamari has a rather bold flavour, so you might want to tweak the citrus and sugar components a little bit to suit your tastes.
Lastly, you can make this a vegan/vegetarian sauce by omitting the katsuobushi. The sauce won’t be quite as rich, but it will still be good. If you have liquid from dehydrating shiitake mushrooms, consider adding a little (1-2 tbsp) to round out the flavour.
Japanese yuzu juice. Pricey, but tasty.
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