A Recipe & Detailed Guide
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I pride myself on my recipe research. Virtually every recipe and article on the site involves some combination of digging deep into literature (often across multiple languages), experimenting extensively, and seeking advice from experts. But this recipe - this one is truly special. This ponzu shoyu is the acme of food research here on Diversivore. I traveled across the world and spoke to some of the most incredible and talented people I've ever had the pleasure to meet, all for this recipe. When I got home, I tinkered, analyzed, and refined. Now, I'm pleased to say, I've finally finished developing my ponzu recipe - and I'm going to share it with you.
It all started with an earlier recipe - my original ponzu shoyu. That post was my first attempt at creating a tasty and accessible ponzu recipe, and I worked hard to balance the flavours while using quality base ingredients. I experimented quite a bit and did my best adapt to the general inaccessibility of yuzu (something that we'll discuss again here). I'm proud of that recipe - it's tasty and very achievable, especially for first-time ponzu makers - but without more experience I wasn't really sure how to improve upon it. Lucky for me, it also caught the attention of some important people on the other side of the world.
Back in 2018, I was contacted by some people behind a Japanese tv program called "Who Wants to Come to Japan." You can read all about the experience here, but long story short, I was invited to Japan to experience and learn more about yuzu and ponzu shoyu. And learn I did! I'm so pleased with my finished ponzu shoyu recipe, and I hope you will be do. If you make it, I'd love to hear from you - and if you ever get a chance to visit Shoukiya Ponzu (勝貴屋) in Osaka, be sure to stop in and buy a few bottles of their incredible ponzu. They taught me so much, and I'm forever grateful. I'm hoping to write a little story about my experience at Shoukiya, so stay tuned for that.
This is, without a doubt, the most significant section of this recipe, so I want to take a moment to explain how to proceed. The recipe card below is intended to be a sufficient and complete resource (especially for anyone experienced with Japanese cooking). That being said, paying extra attention to the ingredients and the methods can really help you to personalize and perfect your own ponzu recipe, and to adapt to make do with the ingredients that are available to you. I'm going to go through these ingredients one by one, taking care to mention the best practices to look out for, plus variations that you might want (or need) to explore.
I've linked to extended resources here on Diversivore wherever possible. These educational resources give more information about some of the ingredients, including how and where to find them.
If this all seems a little intimidating , I hope you won't be put off; ponzu sauce is actually quite easy to make, even on your first try. The extensive notes and details I've included here are my best effort to pass on the tips I've been lucky enough to learn through experimentation and professional mentoring. These tips can make the difference between good ponzu and GREAT ponzu. Trust your tastes, and have fun!
You can scroll through, or quickly navigate to the various sections with these links:
Shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) is a fundamental component of ponzu sauce. It's right there in the name "ponzu shoyu," so that's hardly a surprise. But the quality of the soy sauce is not always given sufficient consideration when making ponzu shoyu (or when making East Asian food in general).
If you have the option of shopping at a Japanese grocery store (or online), I highly recommend using marudaizu shoyu. This is not a brand, but a variety of high-quality shoyu made with whole soybeans, rather than the more commonly used defatted beans (i.e. soybeans that have been pressed to extract their oils). Marudaizu shoyu costs more, but it's superb stuff, and it really makes a difference in a recipe like this where the soy sauce is such a key component.
If you can't get marudaizu shoyu, I recommend that you look for a good, traditionally brewed soy sauce. Traditionally brewed soy sauces are made by fermenting soy beans, then aging the resulting product. Contrast this with acid-hydrolyzed soy sauces, which are inexpensive and quick to manufacture. Acid-hydrolyzed soy sauces tend to taste very different from traditionally brewed soy sauces, and can be especially harsh when used in large quantities. They lack the flavour compounds that develop during long fermentation and aging, and so require added colour, salt, sugar, and other flavours. Personally speaking, I never use acid-hydrolyzed soy sauces for any of my cooking.
So how can you tell a traditional soy sauce from an acid-hydrolyzed one? Well, price is a good starting point. Super-cheap soy sauce is almost certainly going to be acid-hydrolyzed. Next, take a look at the ingredients. Traditional soy sauce should contain soy beans, wheat, koji (bacterial culture that's not always listed in the ingredients), and salt. Acid-hydrolyzed products will still list soy beans, wheat (generally), and salt, but will also list sugar, alcohol, caramel colour, flavourings, and various preservatives. Note that some traditionally brewed soy sauces also add caramel colouring and preservatives like alcohol or sodium benzoate. Finally, take a look at the label. Does it say that it's traditionally brewed? Great!
By law, acid-hydrolyzed products cannot be called shoyu/soy sauce in Japan, though they may be mixed with brewed soy sauce to make inexpensive blends. This means that Japanese brands like Kikkoman are guaranteed to be at least partially brewed.
Tamari was an important addition to my recipe, and I highly recommend using it to make ponzu.
For the uninitiated, tamari is more than just another soy sauce. Dark and richly flavoured, tamari is actually a byproduct of making miso. I won't dive deep into the details here, but I will say that tamari generally contains no wheat, and tends to have a darker colour and rich, deeper flavour. It tends to be a bit less brash than shoyu, but still quite salty.
Tamari is fairly commonly available these days, but if you're unsure where to find it, try a Japanese grocery store. Because it's (generally) gluten-free, you'll also frequently find it in conventional grocery stores.
If you can't get tamari, you can substitute slightly less than an equal quantity of good soy sauce, plus a bit of water. Tamari is nice because it adds a somewhat mellower, richer flavour with less of a salty edge (hence the added water). It finishes the ponzu quite nicely, so I do recommend it, but you won't go wrong with good marudaizu shoyu too. Another option is a good traditionally dark soy sauce (called koikuchi in Japanese). These tend to have a richer taste than light or all-purpose soy sauces, and make a decent substitute for tamari.
If you're brand new to using the edible kelp known as kombu, I suggest you take a bit of time to read through this detailed guide here on Diversivore.
Kombu is essential to good ponzu shoyu - and to a great many Japanese recipes in general! It's become fairly easy to find in larger urban areas; Japanese and Korean grocery stores should carry it, and some larger pan-Asian grocers will also have it in stock. You may also find it at specialty health food grocers. Kombu and other Japanese pantry staples are also increasingly sold online.
I use ma-kombu to make my ponzu shoyu (see above), as it has a lovely, unobtrusive flavour that still packs a strong umami punch. High quality kombu is increasingly available from online retailers, making it somewhat easier to look for different kombu varieties.
The quality of your kombu does have an impact on the finished ponzu, but overall you're not likely to notice a huge difference between different varieties. What's more important is a) using at least some, and b) using it properly. I used to gently simmer my kombu to make dashi for ponzu shoyu, but I learned about using a cold method that works even better (assuming you have the time). Soaking the kombu in the liquid ingredients overnight makes for a 'slow' dashi that's richly flavoured without being bitter. If you don't have time for the overnight method, I've also included instructions for the quick/hot method, but do make an effort not to boil the kombu, as it can become bitter and slimy. Likewise, try to avoid breaking the dashi into too many pieces, as the edges tend to become slimy, and this can affect the texture of your ponzu shoyu.
When I traveled to Japan to learn about making ponzu shoyu, I was anticipating the impact that good, fresh yuzu would have on my recipe. What I was not prepared for was the difference that shiitake mushrooms would make!
Dried shiitake mushrooms are frequently, but by no means always used to make the dashi base for various Japanese dishes. My original ponzu recipe didn't include them, as I didn't think they'd really be all that important given the other umami-building ingredients (namely kombu and katsuobushi). But, as it turns out, shiitakes add a significant meaty richness that really helps to round out and balance good ponzu.
Dried shiitake mushrooms are generally easy to find at any Asian grocery store, and they keep well. They're easy to work with, though it's worth noting that they absorb a lot of liquid. This means that a lot of your liquid ingredients are going to get soaked up by the mushrooms. Make sure to gently squeeze out the shiitakes once they're fully rehydrated. This will increase your ponzu yield and, more importantly, extract a lot of that amazing savoury flavour.
Japanese dried shiitake mushrooms are often considered to be the best in terms of quality and flavour, though they're tend to be considerably more expensive than Chinese ones. Korean shiitakes are supposed to be quite good too, but I haven't experimented with them myself. Chinese shiitakes are generally the easiest to find and least expensive, and they can be used to make very good ponzu shoyu.
Yuzu & Other Citrus
Good citrus fruit is the defining characteristic of ponzu shoyu. It defines, but does not dominate the sauce. Without fragrant, acidic citrus fruits like yuzu, ponzu would be something akin to a mentsuyu (noodle dipping sauce). Still good, but completely different.
Unfortunately, the quintessentially Japanese citrus fruits that are typically used to make ponzu shoyu are often quite hard to come by outside of Japan. This complication is, after all, a big part of why I was invited to Japan to learn more about all this in the first place! To help you get get the most out of this recipe, I'm going to use this section to look at some of the various citrus options, including adaptations for those of you with limited access to traditional Japanese options.
Traditional Japanese Choices
- Yuzu - The classic ponzu shoyu citrus. Yuzu is bright, sour, slightly bitter, and intensely aromatic. There are numerous fragrant organic compounds in both the juice and the rind, and these contribute a great deal to the distinctive flavour of ponzu shoyu. Yuzu is often used alone, but may also be used in combination with some of the other citrus listed below.
- Sudachi - A rather small green citrus variety with a sour flavour. Sudachi is considered an indispensable partner to matsutake (pine mushrooms), and is often used in combination with yuzu to make ponzu shoyu.
- Kabosu - A medium-sized, highly acidic green citrus, generally regarded as being fairly similar to sudachi. Kabosu-based ponzu is especially prized for serving with fugu (pufferfish).
Adaptations & Variations
- Bottled Yuzu Juice & Lemon - This combination is generally my go-to here in Canada, as I only rarely have access to fresh yuzu fruit. Yuzu juice can be purchased from the refrigerator section of Japanese grocery stores (be prepared, it's expensive). Look for one that's just juice, without salt or any other added preservative. Do not use a sweetened yuzu drink or other prepared beverage. The juice will do a lot of heavy lifting in your ponzu shoyu, but the fragrant oils found in the zest need to be replaced too. I make up for the lack of yuzu rind by adding lemon rinds and seeds. It's by no means a perfect substitute, but it does add some of the tasting notes that would otherwise be missing, along with a subtle bitterness.
- Lemon - Lemons alone might seems a little boring, but they make for a perfectly good ponzu. Try to get lemons that are a little on the green side if you can. Don't use Meyer lemons, as they're too sweet.
- Lemon & Other Citrus - Because lemons lack some of the bitterness and fragrance of yuzu and other Japanese citrus, it can be worth experimenting with a citrus blend. A little bit of grapefruit and/or lime juice can help to add pleasant bitterness and acidity. Experiment with ratios to find what seems interesting to you. I would only recommend using the juice from the other citrus fruits for your blend, as the pith is likely to make your ponzu too bitter.
- Other Sour Citrus - This final option is adventurous, and I think it's got plenty of potential. Any particularly sour and fragrant citrus can be used to make ponzu shoyu. It won't taste like yuzu-based ponzu, but it will be unique, and that's great in my books. Because different citrus fruits vary so much in character, it's difficult to make broad generalizations about the final flavour, but I will give a few recommendations that I think would be worth trying:
- Seville orange (Daidai) - Intensely orange flavoured, sour, and pleasantly bitter. The juice is used a lot in Yucatecan and Cuban cooking, and I think it's a fantastic ingredient. The zest has a powerful orange flavour (hence its use in marmalade), and I suspect it might overwhelm the ponzu. Consider using the juice along with lemon rind instead.
- Kalamansi - A wonderfully sour, brightly flavoured citrus with lemon, lime, and mandarin notes. I think this would make great ponzu, somewhat akin to sudachi.
- Rangpur lime - These fruits, which are not true limes, are admittedly pretty tough to find. Still, if you have the option, I think the juice of the orange-fleshed rangpur would make an excellent ponzu.
If you've ever tried making ponzu with a different citrus fruit, I'd love to hear how it turned out for you!
You can find a detailed guide explaining how to find, choose, and use katsuobushi here on the site, but I'll go into some of the most relevant bits here as well.
Katsuobushi is dried, fermented skipjack tuna loin. Outside of Japan, it tends to be most commonly available as thinly sliced shavings called hanakatsuo (see image above). You can find hanakatsuo at Japanese grocery stores, and at some well-stocked pan-Asian grocery stores.
If you're lucky enough to have different types of katsuobushi available to you, I like using a mixture of thick cut katsuobushi (kezurikatsuo) and hanakatsuo. I use approximately a 1:1 ratio by volume, but because of the light weight of hanakatsuo, this works out to about 80% thick-cut katsuobushi by weight. Some people like to use other dried fish varieties (notably mackerel) to make ponzu shoyu, so you can experiment with that idea too. Do note that mackerel and niboshi (dried sardines) can impart a much more fishy flavour to dashi than katsuobushi, so experiment judiciously.
Cooking with Rice Wines
A quick overview to get us started: sake and mirin are both Japanese rice wines. Sake is dryer, while mirin is sweeter. Sake is generally a little easier to get and work with, for reasons that we'll get to below.
Sake is generally easy to find at well-stocked liquor stores. Depending on your local liquor laws, you might be able to find it in grocery stores too.
I tend to cook with better quality sake than I really should. Japanese friends have (affectionately) scolded me for using the good stuff to cook with. I personally can't stand the taste of the ultra-cheap cooking sake, so I avoid using it. It's one thing to use a tablespoon or two in a recipe, but once it's being used in any quantity, I tend to follow the advice I once heard about cooking with wine in general: if you couldn't at least tolerate drinking it on its own, don't put it in your cooking. I may go a little overboard, but a fair bit of sake goes into this recipe, so I like to make sure it's one that tastes great on its own. If you have the luxury of choosing from different types of sake, look for one with a crisp, citrusy aroma. Avoid creamy (nigori) sake, as it will cloud up your finished ponzu shoyu.
If you're new to this ingredient, I've written an extensive guide to using mirin that can be found here.
Mirin is a sweet rice wine, primarily used in cooking (at least these days). Unfortunately, the complexities of international liquor laws have made mirin something of a confusing ingredient.
The cheapest, most widely available mirins in the Western world are generally either kotteri-mirin, or aji-mirin, and neither is a traditional brewed mirin. I strongly dislike kotteri-mirin. It's basically mirin-flavoured corn syrup, with little to no alcohol. Aji-mirin can be a bit better - sometimes it's made with rice and water, other times corn syrup. It's generally got an alcohol content around 8%. If these are your only choices, look for the best aji-mirin you can find, or use a sweetened sake substitute (see below).
Traditional brewed mirin can be found at well-stocked Japanese grocery stores, but is otherwise fairly tricky to find. Check the ingredients and look for something that contains only rice, water, koji (bacterial culture) and salt (more on the salt in a moment).
If you can't find good mirin, but you can find good sake, there's an easy workaround: just sweeten some sake. I find that about 1 tbsp of sugar per cup (250 ml) of sake works nicely. This isn't an exact replacement for mirin, but I highly recommend it if your only option is kotteri-mirin.
Finally, a note on salt. Because of liquor laws in many parts of the world, cooking wines are often sold with added salt to make them unfit for drinking. Because of this, mirin made for export will often contain added salt. Bear this in mind when you cook, as you don't want your ponzu to end up overly salty. I use a good quality brewed Japanese mirin with added salt, and I have no issues. If you're finding your ponzu shoyu turns out too salty, try making it with sweetened sake instead of salted mirin, and check out the tips about shoyu and tamari above.
I won't repeat the recipe instructions here - they're detailed and should be easy enough to follow. What I will do, however, is break down the two different approaches you can take to making your ponzu, and some of the tips and tricks to be aware of for each one. Do make sure to read through the instructions for the method you intend to use; making ponzu is not difficult, but it is somewhat time-consuming, and you want to ensure that you've planned ahead.
Version 1 - The Three Day Method
I learned the basics of this method in Osaka, and as long as you have the time for it, I highly recommend it. It's actually easier than the two day method, and it yields (in my opinion) a somewhat smoother ponzu shoyu. The hands-on time is very low, so don't be put off by the time commitment.
The key difference between this method and the two day variation is that you'll make a cold dashi base here. Soaking kombu and other dashi ingredients in cold water makes for great dashi, but it takes time, hence the extra day. There's not much in the way of technique to be aware of - just make sure that all the dry ingredients are nicely submerged in the liquid. There's not a lot of liquid, so you may want to check in from time to time to make sure that your shiitakes and kombu pieces haven't poked out to be left high and dry.
This method and the shortcut below are identical after the first steps, so the remaining tips are addressed in the "Finishing your Ponzu" section below.
Version 2 - The Two Day Shortcut
This is the method I used to use before learning the cold dashi method, and I still think it makes great ponzu (especially if you don't have time to spare). It's slightly more hands-on, but not significantly so.
This shortcut involves making dashi with hot liquid ingredients, thereby allowing the kombu and shiitakes to soften much faster. The most important factor to take into consideration here is the temperature of your liquids; boiling the dashi can make your kombu bitter. If you're using lemon rinds (rather than yuzu), there's also an added risk of increasing the bitterness from the white pith. You want to heat the mixture to a point where it's near simmering, but no further. Once you hit this point, turn the heat off, put a lid on your pot, and wait. The longer you can let thing sit the better, but aim for no less than one hour.
After this point, the two ponzu making methods are identical. Tips for the final stages are addressed below.
Finishing Your Ponzu
Now that you've built a great flavour base, there are two really important steps to making sure you get the best finished ponzu.
The first is to get drain the solids really well. The shiitakes will soak up a lot of your liquid, so give them a good (but relatively gentle) squeeze to get all that deliciousness out. Once you've done that, let the remaining ingredients sit in a strainer for a while so you leave as little ponzu behind as possible.
The second step is adjusting to taste. This is a bit tricky, and experience does help, but don't be afraid to trust your tastebuds. Once you've added all the remaining ingredients per the recipe, taste your ponzu. Does it need some sweetness? Add a bit of sugar. Not sour enough? Add a little more vinegar or yuzu juice. Not salty enough? Add a bit of tamari. In all cases, you want to adjust carefully, as you can't undo anything. Note too that the various flavours will affect each other; sourness and sweetness can mask saltiness, for example.
Once you're happy with your ponzu, use it, or bottle it up and keep it in the fridge. It will keep well for at least a month. Don't worry if some of the yuzu solids settle in the bottle, or if you see oils on the surface (also from the yuzu). Just give your ponzu a gentle shake before serving it to mix everything together again.
A single batch of ponzu doesn't make all that much, which is nice for personal use, as you're (generally) not going to use all that much at any one time. If you're planning to make extra for friends and family, the batch size is easy to scale up. In fact, the added liquid can actually make the process a little easier, as you don't need to soak the dashi ingredients in such a small container.
There's a lot of good food leftover from making ponzu shoyu. The katsuobushi, the kombu, and even the citrus peels all have lots of great flavour left - plus they're all soaked with delicious ponzu goodness. Fortunately, you can save all that food and turn it into something wonderful: furikake!
Furikake is a wonderful seasoning blend that you can sprinkle on top of rice (etc.) to liven it up a bit. The leftover components from making dashi are wonderful for making furikake, and ponzu leftovers make a great variation with a citrusy twist. Look for the recipe here, hopefully coming soon!
Note: Nutritional Information is given for a 15 ml (1 tbsp) portion.
Best Authentic Ponzu Sauce
Dashi Base (Day 1)
- 1/2 cup shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) preferably marudaizu (see note)
- 1 piece kombu approximately 5x15 cm (2x6 inches)
- 3-4 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 1-2 yuzu rinds including seeds (see note)
- 0.35 oz katsuobushi (~1/2 cup, loosely packed)
- 5 tsp sake
- 5 tsp mirin
Ponzu Components (Day 2)
- 5 tsp sake
- 5 tsp mirin
- 5 tbsp rice vinegar (komezu)
- 4 tsp sugar
- 7 tbsp yuzu juice (see note)
- 3.5 tbsp tamari
- Juice the yuzu (or other citrus - see note). Refrigerate the juice and keep the rinds/seeds for the next step.
- Combine all the dashi base ingredients in a pot that's large enough to hold everything, but still small enough to allow the liquid to submerge most of the solids. Cover, and let stand for 24 hours.
- Combine the sake, mirin, and rice vinegar in a small pot, then stir in the sugar. Place on the stovetop and bring to a gentle boil for about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Add the Day 1 ingredients to the pot and continue to heat gently, bringing the mixture to a very gentle simmer for about 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool slightly.
- Add the yuzu juice and tamari to the mixture. Mix gently, cover, and let stand overnight.
Day 3 - Finishing
- Pour the finished ponzu through a fine sieve or strainer to remove all of the solids. Squeeze as much liquid out of the mushrooms as possible. Discard the solids (see note), and skim off any foam or small bits that make it through the strainer.
- Adjust to taste, if necessary, with tamari, sugar, and/or komezu (rice vinegar).Bottle and refrigerate for up to a month.