What is miso?
Miso, like yogurt, is a live food packed with bacteria that’s good for you. It adds a savoury, umami flavour to food and can be used in lots of ways. Traditionally, miso is made using cooked soya beans, koji culture, salt and often a grain such as rice or barley. These ingredients are fermented and then slowly aged which can take anything from three months to three years, depending on what kind of flavour and texture is required. Younger miso tastes milder and is buttery in texture whereas aged miso has more texture and a deeper, more robust flavour. It’s worth buying properly made miso as it has a superior taste.
For cooking inspiration, check out our best ever miso recipes.
Varieties of miso
The are lots of varieties of miso. Sometimes you’ll buy it under a name that refers to its type (see below), while at other times you’ll find it labelled by colour: white miso is cream or yellow in colour and red miso can also be brown. The name may also be shortened, so akamiso will be called ‘aka’. Miso is available in jars or pouches from Japanese shops, health food shops, some supermarkets and online from japanecentre.com, misotasty.com and clearspring.co.uk.
Saikyo A sweet white miso, smooth and spreadable and aged only for a few months.
Shiromiso means white miso generically, and can be anything from yellow to light brown. Often a rice miso only fermented for six months.
Awasemiso A mixture of red and and white miso, the name means blended.
Shinshu Yellow miso, saltier than white but still mild in flavour, rice or barley varieties are available.
Akamiso The generic name for red miso, often a dark redish-brown rice miso with a strong flavour and salty edge.
Mugimiso This is a brown, savoury barley miso that still has a sweet edge and a rougher texture.
Genmai Brown rice miso that’s sweeter than barley miso.
Hatchomiso Very dark brown miso made with soy beans only, it has a pungent, smoky flavour and firm, fudgy texture.
Gadget: Miso strainer
If you make lots of homemade miso soup (not using a packet) then you might want to invest in one of these. You put the miso in, swoosh it through the soup (helping the paste through with a spoon) allowing the flavour and fine particles into the soup and keeping the bigger bits out, giving you clear soup. £9.95, muji.eu
A word about miso soup
Homemade miso soup is made using kombu (seaweed), bonito flakes (dried, fermented, smoked skipjack tuna) and miso, which means if made properly made it’s not vegetarian. Packs of ready-made miso soup usually are vegetarian, but do check.
10 tips on how to cook with miso
Bonnie Chung, miso expert and founder of Miso Tasty shares her top tips for getting the most out of cooking with miso.
While miso is famous for its starring role in miso soup, it’s also wonderfully versatile in its application; as a marinade, sauce or dressing. To be able to really unlock the potential of your jar of miso paste, it’s essential to understand the key principles of cooking with miso. Here are some top tips that will help you avoid some of the common pitfalls when it comes to including miso in your recipes.
Never boil miso soup
The delicate balance of flavours and some key nutritional benefits are destroyed on boiling miso. When making miso soups or noodle soups, always cook all the ingredients in boiling hot vegetable or chicken stock first, without the miso. When ready to serve, turn off the heat before stirring in the miso, just before serving.
Always wipe marinades off before cooking
Miso makes a wonderful marinade but as it’s primarily made from soya beans it doesn’t melt, in fact it has a tendency to burn. Wipe your marinated meat, fish or vegetables with kitchen paper, leaving only the thinnest layer of miso behind. It shouldn’t resemble a barbecue marinade.
Slowly dissolve miso paste into soups and broths
Miso is a stubborn sort of ingredient that doesn’t melt or thin down quickly. This means that if you stir it in as some recipes suggest, you may end up with grainy lumps, especially with misos that are robust in texture. Drop the miso into a ladle and lower it to the surface of the broth, allow some of the hot liquid into the ladle. Vigorously stir in the miso, inside the ladle, until it has thinned down and is smoother. Lower the ladle again and thin the miso down further. Repeat until the miso has the same consistency as the soup.
Thinning Miso for dressings and sauces
Unlike many other salad dressings where you can throw everything into one bottle and shake it, miso remains lumpy if dealt with in this way. Thin the miso first by mixing it thoroughly with one of the liquids in the dressing first.
Miso should always be stored in an airtight container, but if you want to keep its colour and flavour for longer, refrigeration is best. As a general rule, the lighter the colour, the more careful you will need to be with it. The darker misos have been fermented for longer and are more stable. Once opened, a saikyo sweet white miso should be consumed within a week, a white rice miso three months, a red rice miso or barley within six months and a soya bean miso for 12 months. Beyond this, the miso won’t spoil but the flavour and colours do change, and they become less aromatic.
Add miso to dark chocolate and caramels for incredible desserts
Miso is not just for savoury food, the salty-sweet interplay of flavours is similar to the profile of salted caramel. Stir a tablespoon of white miso into hot caramel for spooning over ice cream, or a tablespoon of white miso into a brownie mix to intensify the fudgey flavours of the chocolate.
Blend different types of miso for a fuller flavoured miso soup
Sweet white miso and barley miso, red rice miso and white rice miso, red miso and pure soya bean miso are all great combinations to try. Blend them with a tablespoon of dashi stock first (as per tip three above). Once you’ve tried this, you won’t go back to single-miso based soups.
Miso and tomatoes are a winning combination
Miso is high in umami and works fantastically well with tomato-based sauces (which are also naturally high in umami). You won’t taste the miso but the tomatoes will have a more ripe and rounded flavour. Pizza toppings and pasta sauces are a hundred times better with a little miso in them, and with cheese as well, the umami scores will be off the chart.
Always have mirin and sake in your stores
With these, plus miso, you can make so many dressings, sauces, dips and marinades.
Lovely with fatty meat and oily fish dishes, but even better when cut with a citrus flavour. Try red miso and orange, barley miso and lemon, and white miso with lime.