From Scratch: All About Miso

January 31, 2013

Photo by Joseph De Leo; styled by Micah Morton

If there is one new seasoning you should add to your culinary closet this year, it's miso. Miso is so much more than watered-down soup from your local sushi bar. The ancient flavor-enhancer can be found in all sorts of mouth-watering modern dishes, from sweet to savory and everything in between. This highly nutritious paste is typically made from fermented soybeans and comes in a variety of colors and flavors. Boost your meals by mixing miso into dressings, dips, and sauces, or season your mains with miso marinades and glazes. Add a meaty richness to vegetarian dishes, round out soul-satisfying soups, and even play up the savory side of sweets. Known for its umami flavor, miso can add a unique, savory layer to a number of unsuspecting recipes.

How It's Made

The Japanese have been making miso in some form since the Neolithic era. The original misos (contrary to those of today, which are made with a base of ground beans and grains) included whole fermented soybeans, much like miso’s cousin, natto

Making miso is a time-consuming process that requires a certain amount of space and specific equipment and ingredients, so it is easiest and best to buy pre-made pastes as opposed to attempting to make it at home. In Japan, miso makers must study under a miso master for many years before tackling the process on their own.

To create basic white miso, dry soybeans are first given a good, long soak, cooked until soft, and then mashed into a puree. Salt, water, and koji (a fermented rice starter, which provides the live cultures to help ferment the miso) are added, and placed into a fermenting vessel for a few months to multiple years to achieve the right balance of flavor, color, and texture.

Red Cooked Butternut Squash [Food52] (photo by Sarah Shatz)

Different Kinds of Miso

There are more miso varieties than can be named in one sitting, as they vary by region, length of fermentation, and even the type of fermenting vessel. Some miso is made from a combination of soy beans or chickpeas and grains including rice, barley, and buckwheat, and even ginger may be added. Basic miso made only with soybeans is typically white, and is quite mellow in flavor. Supplemental ingredients add intensity of flavor to the paste while deepening the color. 

Choose from a wide variety of miso to suit your specific seasoning needs. Here are a few of the most popular and commonly found varieties:

Shiromiso (White Miso)  

  • Made from soybeans
  • Has a light and slightly sweet taste and is sometimes marketed as "sweet white miso"
  • Adds a subtle hint of flavor to condiments, soups and fish, like Miso-Glazed Catfish and Bok Choy

Yellow Miso

Akamiso (Red Miso)

Awasemiso (Mix)

  • A mix of red and white miso
  • Has a balanced and mild flavor with a hint of earthiness
  • The combination of flavors works well with a variety of dishes, particularly tofu, vegetables, and fish (think: Miso and Agave Glazed Salmon)

Sobamugi (Black Miso)

  • Made from soybeans and buckwheat
  • Has a strong umami flavor best suited to hearty roasted meats and rich sauces

Misoyaki Roast Chicken with Shoyu Onion Sauce [Food52] (photo by Sarah Shatz)

Make Room for Miso

This Japanese flavor booster is not just delicious, but packed with nutritious properties including vitamins B and K. It is a great source of protein and fiber, and is rich in live probiotic cultures. There's positively no limit to the applications for miso in your daily diet. However, there are two main groups into which these applications fall: using the paste raw, and cooking with it.

Miso in the Raw

For maximum nutrition, don’t heat miso beyond a boil -- high temperatures kill the beneficial microorganisms existent in the paste, diminishing the healthful benefits. If you're making a soup or hot dish with miso, but want to maintain all of the nutritional benefits, employ this simple technique: Put miso (to taste) in a small bowl and as the liquid is heated, spoon a few tablespoons of the warmed liquid over the miso, whisk to blend into a thin broth, and add the broth to the finished product just after you take it off the heat.

Mix raw miso into aiolis, dressings, and dips to harness its salty, umami taste and nutrient-packed value. Make your own warming, healing bowl of miso soup, or add miso to a wide variety of other soups, from hearty lentil to a Thai-inspired Shitake-Lemongrass Miso Soup, to amp up the savory element.

Even hot breakfast cereals can benefit from the addition of miso: blend it into your favorite bowl of porridge using the technique outlined above to pack some extra salty-sweet flavor into every bite.

Overnight Miso Porridge [Food52] (photo by Sarah Shatz)

Cooking with Miso

Luckily, miso is still delicious even when cooked at high temperatures. Miso makes a great addition to marinades, and can be blended into savory sauces to be served alongside anything from brunch favorites (miso hollandaise, anyone?) to fresh pasta (think: miso carbonara).

Combine miso with a sweet element, like maple syrup or honey, to make a hearty, salty-sweet glaze for meats, fish, or veggies like this Honey Miso Dijon Salmon. Miso also blends seamlessly into a luscious, umami-rich twist on salted caramel, which makes a luxurious drizzle for ice cream or sliced fruit, or use it in any of your favorite desserts that call for caramel. 

You can even bake with this precious paste! Add a tablespoon or two of sweet white miso when making hearty breads for a subtle spike of flavor that pairs especially well with soups and sandwiches (it's also dynamite simply sliced and served warm, slathered with butter). Try mixing some miso into a batch of muffins or cookies to play with its savory and sweet notes. Just remember to dial down the salt called for in the original recipe, as miso will bring its own salinity to the party.

Photo by James Ransom


Tahini Miso Roasted Vegetables
Miso-Ginger Wild Rice with Carrots and Cabbage
Smoked Lentil Salad with Sriracha Miso Mayonnaise [Food52]
Ginger Miso Salad [Food52]
Miso Caramel [Food52] (pictured above)

What's your favorite way to use miso? Do you prefer it raw or cooked? Share your comments below! 

Like this post? Check out last week's From Scratch topic: Hot Chocolate Basics.

1 Comments Add a Comment
  • 290

    aargersi says: For some reason my miso usage is cyclical - now I am going to cycle it back in - I have red and white in the fridge right now so I can start trying some of the above. I have been meaning to try that red cooked squash forever!!! I do make a pretty good raspberry miso salad dressing!!

    about 1 year ago Reply to this »

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