How to Cook With Kelp, Kale's Sea-Based Best Friend
Seaweed can be as much of an everyday vegetable as your go-to dark leafy greens, you just need to know where to start. Here's everything you need to know, plus chef-recommended kelp recipes you can make at home.
When we think of kelp, the time has come to think beyond the artificially colored neon green seaweed salad that comes alongside sushi take-out. Eaten dried, fresh, pureed, fermented, pickled, steamed, roasted-kelp may also be one of the most versatile ingredients to use in the kitchen. It also happens to be one of the most nutritious and climate-friendly ingredients available to us.
While kelp has long been associated with Japanese culture, seaweed can arguably be incorporated into nearly any type of cuisine and be as much of an everyday vegetable as your go-to dark leafy greens such as spinach, Swiss chard, and kale. Professional chefs are giving this ancient ingredient modern life using classic techniques and innovative combinations, hoping to inspire more home cooks to cook with kelp too.
Renowned chef and activist Marc Murphy is one of kelp's biggest fans and has been taken by its environmental benefits and culinary versatility-a win-win. Murphy's main goal? "To make ingredients taste good," he says. "When I'm introduced to a product that is going to help the planet, I rise to the challenge and think 'Now how do I come up with a recipe [with this ingredient] that people want?'"
Murphy recognizes that touting kelp's health and sustainability benefits is not enough. The real success is found when it is prepared in a way the keep people coming back for more. Consider this your guide to getting to know kelp as an ingredient and learning to cook with it.
What Types of Kelp Can You Eat?
There is a place in the kitchen for both dried and fresh kelp-just like there is a place for dried and fresh herbs or dried and fresh fruit. In general, all seaweed is a high source of glutamate, meaning its most dominant flavor will be umami, adding depth and savoriness to a dish.
While most kelp on the market has long been available as dried sheets (kombu) or flaked, consumers can now purchase fresh kelp, either through small regional companies or nationwide as blanched fresh baby kelp from Atlantic Sea Farms, a Maine-based company that offers fresh blanched kelp via major retailers and online ordering. This relatively recent availability of fresh kelp at scale opens up even more possibilities in terms of incorporating kelp into everyday meals.
What Does Kelp Taste Like?
Due to its growing environment in seawater and naturally high mineral content, kelp is a bit salty, while also being slightly sweet and vegetal in flavor. Just like any food that is dried, the dried form will be more concentrated and take on a completely different flavor and texture. Even when rehydrated, kelp does not have the exact same taste or texture as its fresh form.
Dried mature wild kelp in the form of kombu will have a stronger "fishier" taste when rehydrated and tougher texture whereas farmed baby kelp, both fresh and dried will be more tender and milder in flavor. For this reason, kombu is best used to infuse flavor into a cooking liquid rather than consume whole.
Dried kelp that has been rehydrated, even baby kelp, tends to have a more gelatinous texture than fresh (or fresh-frozen) and while it has comparable salinity, it will still have less of that clean ocean-like flavor the fresh does, making the fresh-frozen varieties more suitable to eat as a stand-alone vegetable or star ingredient in a dish rather than a backbone flavor.
How to Cook Kelp at Home
For home cooks new to kelp, Murphy suggests easing into things. "Start with something familiar and incorporate it little by little," he says. "And experiment!" His top recommendation for a great "entry level" kelp dish is his kelp-inspired Linguine con Vongole which incorporates ribbons of ready-cut kelp into an already popular pasta dish.
Murphy's other advice when thinking about how to start off cooking with kelp: "You can't go wrong with the motto what grows together goes together. Pairing kelp with its marine neighbors such as mussels, clams, scallops, and oysters is a natural flavor combination that will nearly always work in your favor."
Here are more of his tips for getting started cooking with the most common types of kelp on the market.
In his own kitchen experiments with fresh kelp, Murphy has added it to the bottom of a roasting pan along with carrots, celery, onion, and garlic when making a simple roasted chicken. "The kelp on the bottom became soft and supple as it cooked in the fat from the chicken, while the top kelp leaves became crispy," he says. "The perfect combination of flavor and texture."
More fresh kelp pairing ideas: Add to the pot while steaming mussels; combine with sliced garlic or shallots to form a kelp "bed" for baked or oven-roasted fish; mix fresh chopped blanched kelp with crab meat to use as stuffing or to make a crab cake.
Pureed Kelp Cubes
Murphy also loves pureed blanched kelp (sold as kelp cubes) added to soups or melted into a butter. The possibilities are seemingly endless and certainly not limited to a specific cultural cuisine.
More pureed kelp pairing ideas: Add to a smoothie for a nutritional boost; incorporate into a salad dressing (i.e., green goddess dressing or tahini-based dressing); use as a base for a green sauce (i.e., pesto, chimichurri) or savory dip or spread; melt into warm butter or oil as a great complement to simply cooked vegetables or seafood.
While Murphy especially likes the toothsomeness and ocean-like flavor of fresh kelp, he also likes to use dried kelp-which he refers to as "the bay leaf of the ocean"-to add background flavor and depth to recipes. For example, dried kelp is ideal to use when making a broth, cooking beans, or even seasoning protein; seaweed flakes or sprinkles can be used in a similar way one would use another herb or spice. A favorite of Murphy's is to mix equal parts of Burlap & Barrel's Wild Icelandic Kelp with their ground Black Lime as a ready-to-use seasoning blend.
More dried kelp pairing ideas: Incorporate into baked goods such as bread, cakes, and cookies; use to make a compound butter or kelp mayo.