Miso Basics

We all know and love miso soup. But did you know miso paste is a versatile ingredient that has a multitude of uses and plays a necessary part of Japanese cuisine? Miso appears regularly in sauces, glazes, marinades and dressings. The rich flavor is also appreciated by Western chefs, and you might have noticed that it’s being used increasingly in Western dishes too.

Made of soybeans fermented with koji (fermented rice or in some cases, wheat) and salt, miso gives anything it touches a rich and flavorful boost. As a bonus, it’s also full of nutrients, beneficial enzymes and protein.

Fermented soybeans are much better for you than regularly prepared soybeans because the fermentation process changes the enzymes and allows the beans to be more easily digested. So if you aren’t fond of natto, (another form of fermented soybean) be sure to keep some miso paste in the fridge.

There are many kinds of miso available in Japanese grocery stores today, and the choices can be bewildering. There’s miso with dashi already included, low salt miso, organic miso and aged miso. There are artisanal miso pastes from different regions in Japan, which vary radically in flavor and are used for different purposes.

Miso paste is packaged in resealable square plastic tubs and can last for months in the fridge. Just be sure to seal the surface of the paste with the paper that comes with the package, because it does tend to dry out.

Here are several of the basic kinds of miso:

White miso is light beige in color and has a creamy, smooth texture. The salt content is quite low, and it is my favorite miso for making creamy sauces. Some white miso pastes are sweet, particularly Saikyo miso, which is made in Kyoto and Osaka. The sweet flavor is incomparable, and since the price is pretty steep, it is usually reserved for sauces; not soup.

Red miso is dark brown in color, and hatcho miso is almost black. It has an intense, rich, slightly bitter and sour flavor with notes of chocolate. Red miso complements sweet ingredients like kabocha (Japan pumpkin). It is also wonderful in hearty sauces containing meat that are served on tofu dengaku or broiled eggplant.

Awase miso is a blend of red and white miso, as its’ name (meaning “to adjust”) implies. This is the most common type of miso and is the kind that is usually served in restaurants the world over. The flavor is salty and not overpowering, making it a good base for almost any kind of soup or sauce, dressing or marinade. If you are only going to buy one kind of miso, this is a good place to start.

Inaka, or “country” miso, is a chunky and rustic style that includes bits of the koji. It is dark caramel in color. When making soup, the koji is usually strained out with a miso koshi (a handy tool used to dissolve miso) and discarded. (Refer to the bottom of the Japanese Techniques and Tools page for information on this handy tool.)

For recipes and detailed instructions for making miso soup, visit the soup page in the recipe section of Savory Japan. I’ll post other recipes for miso, including a wonderfully creamy miso sauce, in the near future.

One Reply to “Miso Basics”

  1. Besides soups what else can you make with miso paste? Is it very versatile? I heard you can’t cook it too much and even for miso soup you shouldn’t boil it for a long time.

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