A staple in Asian cuisines, especially those of Japan and China, miso is fermented soybean paste, and a powerhouse of concentrated flavor and nutrients. This guide to miso has tips on buying, storage, the common varieties, ideas for using, and links to recipes.
Many of us in the west are most familiar with miso from its use in the simple soups serve in Japanese restaurants. But its usefulness extends beyond this style of soup; the plant-based kitchen would do well to have it as a refrigerator staple.
In addition to the familiar, broth-y soups, miso is useful as a base for sauces, dressings, and more. Miso is a fermented and aged, making it the kind of gut-friendly food that Western cuisines often lack.
It’s also considered a umami food, with that hard-to-define quality of savory, briny flavors and heartiness.
Buying and storage
Miso is commonly sold in small plastic tubs in the refrigerated section of natural foods stores, Asian markets, and increasingly, supermarkets. Miso Master® is the predominant brand; it’s labeled as gluten-free, vegan, and Kosher.
Once the tubs are opened, they must be refrigerated. In the refrigerator, miso keeps well for several months up to a year and a half. If kept too long, a white mold may develop around the edges. Although this may be scraped off and the rest of the miso used, it is a sign that the freshness is waning time for it to be used up.
Mellow white miso
Though there are more types of miso in Asia, a handful of miso varieties are most commonly available in the North American markets: soybean miso, rice miso, and barley miso (rice and barley misos combine soybeans with grain).
Within each category of miso exists a range of earthy hues and subtle flavor variations, all more or less with a pleasantly pungent saltiness. The texture most closely resembles that of a not-too dense nut butter, though not exactly.
The essential differences between soybean, barley, and rice misos are outlined below and followed by some basic ways in which to use miso in general.
SOYBEAN (HATCHO) MISO: Hatcho miso is named for the Chinese city of the same name, where it originated. The darkest, firmest, most intensely flavored variety of miso, hatcho resembles a thick chocolate fudge. Its fermentation process is a long one, optimally between 2 and 3 years.
Made with soybeans, soybean koji, salt, and water, hatcho miso has the highest protein content among miso varieties at about 20 percent, as well as the highest fat content at about 10 percent. It’s richest in calcium, phosphorus, and iron and is comparable to the other varieties in its content of the B-complex vitamins.
The robust flavor of hatcho miso makes it a favorite winter variety, most appropriate for use with cold-weather foods such as root vegetables and in hearty dishes such as stews. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, however, as most any of the other varieties of miso work in these types of recipes, too.
BARLEY (MUGI) MISO: Barley (or mugi) miso is made by mixing barley, soybeans, barley koji, salt, and water. The fermentation period is shorter than for soybean miso, the optimal time being at least a year or more.
Barley miso’s in-the-middle kind of flavor makes it appropriate for both summer and winter use. It’s an ideal base for miso soups, sauces, and spreads. In Japan, mugi miso is considered a “country-style” food, available in smooth and chunky textures.
CHICKPEA MISO: A more contemporary innovation, this variety of miso is soy-free. It’s exclusively made by Miso Master®, who describes it:
“Organic Chickpea Miso uses garbanzo beans (chickpeas) instead of soybeans as its base. It is soy-free so that those consumers on restricted diets because of soy allergies also can partake of the many health benefits of eating miso. Miso Master produces the only organic soy-free miso in the natural food industry.”
RICE MISO: Rice miso is made from a combination of rice, soybeans, rice koji, salt, and water. This type of miso has the shortest fermentation period, since the starches in the rice are rapidly converted to sugars.
Rice miso tends to have a subtly sweet flavor, which mellows the saltiness. It’s traditionally considered most appropriate for summer cooking since it is the lightest in flavor, though once again, there are no hard-and-fast rules for when to use it.
The most common type of rice miso is kome, (also known as sendai, or red miso), made from white rice. This miso is quite popular in Japan, where it has been made using a time-honored formula since the 17th century.
A recent innovation is genmai miso, made from brown rice instead of white. Unpolished rice was once considered too resistant to fermentation, but a method was developed that resulted in genmai miso, which has proven to be very pleasing to the Western palate.
SHIRO MISO (Mellow white miso): Shiro is a variety of mild, pale-hued miso that ages relatively quickly. Shiro miso uses sweet rice and less salt. Another variation of this is a product made in North America labeled “mellow white miso.” It’s not actually white, but a kind of beige-yellow.
White miso is lighter in flavor than the other varieties, lending itself to nontraditional uses, such as blending into salad dressings. White miso adds zest without overpowering other ingredients.
Japanese-Style Traditional Miso Soup (without bonito)
How miso is made
Produced in Asia for several centuries, the methods used today for making miso are are quite related to the ancient ways. The important first step in making miso is to prepare the mold culture, called koji, which will ferment the soybeans or the soy and grain combination, depending on what type of miso is being made.
The mold cultures release beneficial enzymes that stimulate the fermentation process. These enzymes assist in breaking down the starches in the soybeans and grains into simple sugars and cause the protein to be broken down into separate amino acids.
Traditionally, miso was aged for periods of 1 to 3 years, depending on the variety. Today some of these fermentations have been somewhat shortened.
The length of time, the temperature at which the fermentation process takes place, and the proportions of the ingredients used all contribute to the resulting differences between the varieties.
The protein content of miso ranges from about 13 percent in rice miso and about 18 percent in barley miso to about 20 percent in soybean miso. One tablespoon of miso provides an average of 2.5 grams and protein and contains only 27 calories.
All misos are excellent sources of iron, calcium, phosphorus, and the B vitamin range, including vitamin B12, which is rarely found in vegetable sources.
Fermentation makes miso easily digestible, and the live lactic-acid bacteria and enzymes that it contains aid in general digestion. Here is a complete picture of the nutrition facts for miso.
Winter Vegetable Miso Soup with Shiitake Mushrooms
Basic use of miso
Miso serves as a substitute for both salt and soy sauce in that you would be unlikely to use them in tandem in any given dish; even the sweetest rice miso is salty. Miso contains an average of 12 percent salt, which acts as a preservative, preventing harmful bacterial growth.
A little goes a long way: The concentrated flavor of miso goes a long way; rarely will you see more than 1, 2, or 3 tablespoons called for in a recipe that serves 4 to 6.
Dilute for easy pouring: Miso is easier to use if it is diluted in a small amount of warm water and stirred until smooth.
Don’t boil! When cooking with miso, don’t let it boil, as that destroys the beneficial enzymes it contains.
How to use miso, with links to recipes
First of all, here’s our site’s roundup of vegan miso recipes. Start here, or explore a few of these and others below.
Soups and stews: As mentioned at the top of this post, though the use of miso shouldn’t be limited to soup, it’s still one of its best uses. Just remember, once you add it, don’t let it boil. That’s to preserve the valuable enzymes it contains as a fermented food. In addition to the miso soups linked to earlier in this post, we also have Quick Ginger-Miso Noodle Soup and Gingery Miso Mushroom Soup.
Salad dressing: If you’re craving a bold-flavored way to boost your salads, Sesame-Ginger Miso Salad Dressing might be just what you’re looking for.
Gravies and sauces: It takes just a tablespoon or two of miso to make richly flavored plant-based gravies and sauces. Here’s a no-cook Miso Gravy using red miso; and one for and another quick Miso Gravy recipe using white miso.
Savory vegetable glaze: Enveloping vegetables in miso glaze makes them irresistible. Here are a couple of easy recipes:
One of the best-known uses for miso is as a glaze for the popular Japanese appetizer, Nasu Dengaku (Miso Eggplant). You can easily make it at home as a first course.
Miso Roasted Root Veggies: Roasting a varieties of root vegetables is a nice change of pace from roasting them with olive oil.
Tofu and tempeh enhancer: Miso is also compatible with tofu and tempeh as a flavoring element. It’s not surprising that glazing these traditional soy foods with another traditional soy food is quite fitting. Miso Tofu Steaks is a recipe that sounds divine, as does Miso Baked Tempeh.
Noodle enhancer: Using miso as a flavoring for noodle dishes is an easy way to add a yum factor, especially in preparations with an Asian spin. Try Miso Mushroom & Spinach Pasta or Quick and Easy Vegan Miso Noodles.
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