What Is Miso & How Do You Cook With It?
If you’ve ever dined at a Japanese restaurant or ordered a bento box, chances are you’ve spotted miso soup as a soul-warming appetizer.
But what exactly is miso? What does it taste like out of soup form? And where does it even come from?
Miso is a salty, savory fermented soybean paste that offers unique benefits that can support your health. It comes from Japan but it’s commonly used as a seasoning throughout different Asian cuisines in soups, marinades, salad dressings, and soy sauce.
If you’ve been looking for a sign to make homemade miso soup, this is it! Here’s how you can add miso to your weekly meals — soup and beyond.
What Exactly Is Miso?
Miso is a thick and sticky fermented soybean paste. You can buy it in tubes, tubs, jars, and jugs. It might be tough to find in a typical grocery store, but you can usually find it at your favorite Asian grocery mart.
This powerful little paste is primarily made from soybeans, but it can also be made with a mixture of rice, barley, or other beans. The soybeans are fermented, bringing out a rich umami flavor.
The real secret weapon of this quintessential Japanese ingredient is a fermenting agent called koji. Koji is a mold culture that is completely safe to eat. It grows naturally on rice, but you can also find koji on other grains like barley, wheat, oats, and rye.
How Is Miso Made?
Koji ferments a soybean-and-saltwater mixture for several months. Over time, the powerful koji breaks down the carbohydrates and proteins, which creates molecules that greatly enhance miso’s umami flavor.
As the koji and other enzymes act on the soybeans, a surge of glutamates and aspartates are released. The carbohydrates break down into glucose, which reacts with the free amino acids to create those incredible flavors that are only possible through koji.
Koji isn’t just used for making miso, either — it’s also used to make sake, rice vinegar, and mirin, so without koji, many of the ingredients that are quintessential to Japanese cooking simply wouldn’t exist.
What Does Miso Taste Like?
Miso carries a salty, tangy, sweet, savory, umami-packed richness that is simply jaw-dropping. Some say that miso is the ultimate reference point for flavor.
Miso’s flavor profile is layered and deep. The heavy hitters are its powerful umami and rich saltiness, but beneath the surface, there is also a lovely toastiness to miso. It’s got a pleasant acidity from the fermentation, and there’s a sweetness that seems to unify all flavors into one pleasant experience.
Truly, miso contains an entire range of complexity.
What Are the Different Types of Miso?
There are many different types of miso out there. Some miso uses different types of koji, like the ones found on barley or wheat, while other types of miso use a different bean in their mixture, like garbanzo beans. All miso varies based on how long the mixture was left to ferment.
We’re not going to overwhelm you with the dozens of misos in existence — that’s a post we’ll be happy to tackle later. Today, we’re going to focus on the main types of miso that come from rice, koji, and soybeans.
While this isn’t a comprehensive list of all the types of miso, it does contain some of the most common types of miso.
White miso, sweet miso, or Shiro miso is the mildest on the list. It’s mild because it uses a smaller amount of soybeans, and it is only fermented with the koji for a few months.
White miso may have the most balanced flavor profile, keeping the sweetness and saltiness on an equal playing field. Because of its mild nature, it can be used in many different types of meals and is very flexible.
If you’re new to miso, white miso is a good choice. Think of it as your basic intro to miso before you dive into the richer, more savory versions.
Yellow miso is only fermented for about a year, so it’s not nearly as intense as red miso. It has a slight sweetness and comforting earthiness that sets it apart from other miso varieties.
Its flavors are bold enough to be used for a strong flavor but subtle enough to not overpower a light dish — this is what you can start to use with fish, vegetables, and even pork as if you want a stronger miso flavor above white miso but don’t want your ingredients overwhelmed by red miso.
Red miso, or aka miso, is the darkest and most intense of the three. It has a deep, reddish-brown color. Red miso uses the largest amount of soybeans, and it is left to ferment for up to three years, so this miso is absolutely bursting with flavor.
It has an intense saltiness, and the flavors of the fermentation are robust with a deep acidity accompanied by intense umami. Because of how strong it is, it isn’t great to use with lighter ingredients like fish or vegetables.
Where red miso shines is in rich, hearty dishes like miso salmon or miso beef. You can use red miso to braise a nice cut of beef, or you can add a spoonful to stew to enhance the heartiness with a punch of acidity and saltiness.
What Are the Nutritional Benefits of Miso?
Miso doesn’t just enhance the flavor of your dishes, it also brings with it tons of nutrients that can benefit different areas of health.
For starters, miso has a whole spread of B vitamins. Many foods have only a couple, but miso contains thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, B6, a bit of B12, and folate. These B vitamins are crucial for a variety of bodily functions from energy production to beauty support, and miso can help you get to your recommended intake.
One crucial function of B vitamins is that they help your body absorb the energy from your food. They’re the catalyst that starts the process of turning your food into your fuel. This all-important reaction from B vitamins even contributes to feeling more energized!
But these powerful vitamins do more than that. Some B vitamins act as antioxidants and support the health of your immune system. Others help maintain healthy hair and skin or help to support your cardiovascular and nervous systems. These vitamins are critical to healthy bodily function, and miso is a great place to get them.
Miso naturally contains healthy plant protein that helps deliver a complete amino acid profile into your system to restore the proteins broken down in your body every day.
Although the protein content in miso isn’t high, it can still add up. With two to three grams of protein per serving, you can add a boost of protein to your favorite ramen noodle soup that might already have an egg and chashu pork, and you have yourself a meal absolutely packed with protein.
Miso also contains a good amount of fiber. Fiber is a carbohydrate that’s essential for supporting digestive health. Unlike regular carbs, your body can’t break down fiber into glucose for energy, so fiber instead passes through your body without getting digested.
Because of this, fiber helps regulate your hunger and supports healthy blood sugar levels. Because of its fiber content, miso will leave you feeling full and satisfied while also helping to regulate how your body uses sugars.
Fiber also helps to keep you “regular” because of the way it encourages the healthy movement of waste through the digestive system.
Because of its nature as a fermented food, miso is full of good bacteria (aka probiotics) that support the health of your gut.
Your gut is full of bacteria that help you break down all of the foods you eat and turn them into energy for your body. Probiotics like miso help maintain your gut’s levels of healthy bacteria, which supports the overall health of your gut microbiome. This can benefit those with frequent upset stomachs or those who have trouble digesting certain foods.
The probiotics in miso also play a role in supporting your immune system. The natural bacteria in your gut helps support the cells along the wall of your intestines! As one of the first lines of defense against infection, this good bacteria helps keep bad bacteria from entering your system through your intestines. You can support the health of your gut bacteria with probiotics-rich foods like miso, and other foods that utilize the power of fermentation.
How Can I Cook With Miso?
Miso is an incredibly flexible ingredient, and it is used throughout Japanese cuisine. Here are some common ways miso is used, and how you can start incorporating it into your cooking to enhance your dishes’ flavor in a new way.
Add to Soups or Stews
First, miso makes a great addition to a soup or a stew. If you’re making a hearty beef stew with potatoes, carrots, and chunks of beef, stir in a tablespoon of miso paste for that extra umami flavor.
Use in Ramen
One of the more clever uses of miso is with instant ramen, and everybody loves a good instant ramen hack. Ramen is already delicious on its own, but with a few extra ingredients, you can turn a quick ramen snack into a gourmet meal.
Start by replacing the broth with a miso soup. Simply dissolve a spoonful of miso into some boiling water, add your noodles, choice of vegetables, and finish with your soft-boiled egg (if you’re not up to the extra step of boiling, you can also crack the egg right into your boiling soup).
You’ll have yourself an elevated instant ramen dish within minutes!
Add Flavor to Stir Fry
We all love a good stir-fry, but when trying to figure out what type of flavor to go for, the possibilities can seem so vast that it’s overwhelming.
Miso offers a simple solution. A spoonful of white miso mixed into your stir-fried veggies will heighten their flavor with a savory punch.
Make Salad Dressings or Marinades
White miso also makes a great addition to dressings, marinades, and sauces. Who doesn’t love an Asian-style salad? Mix some miso, garlic, and sesame oil for a delicious dressing!
Ready to spruce up your basic dinner? Marinate your tofu or salmon in sweet miso alongside some ginger, green onions, rice vinegar, and honey to make for a super tender and flavorful meal.
Or, if you’re on a time crunch, grab some premium premade miso salmon marinade and bake in the oven for 20 minutes. You’ll have a restaurant-quality salmon dish in no time!
The saltiness from the miso tenderizes the meat and brings all those savory flavors to the surface. One bite will render you absolutely speechless.
Use in Sauces
A good sauce can make any dish! Here’s a recipe for some all-purpose sauce made with miso that is super handy to keep in your fridge for use with anything from steamed tofu to chicken wings.
Simply mix white miso, honey, garlic, sesame oil, and lime juice with a bit of water, and you have an absolute dream. It’s salty and sweet, acidic and savory, and toasty and bright.
Miso really shines when it gets to draw out the flavors of other ingredients, and there’s nothing like a good sauce to do just that.
Is It Healthy To Eat Miso Everyday?
Miso can definitely be eaten every day. Make a small bowl of miso soup as an appetizer or a side dish for your weeknight dinners.
Salty, earthy, and fermented – miso is a versatile ingredient that we can put into anything.
Not only is miso delicious, but it also has some great health benefits that can’t be ignored.
If you want to pick up some miso and start cooking with it, Umamicart is here to help!
Umamicart delivers hard-to-find Asian groceries right to your door, so you don’t have to hunt for your favorite ingredients around town. Delicious dishes with miso and so much more are just a click away!