What is Miso?
Have you ever wondered how miso soup gets its salty, savory flavor? There’s a secret ingredient used in many of your favorite Japanese dishes that adds umami flavor, or the fifth taste, without using meat or meat broth. Miso is a richly flavored paste made from fermented soybeans that's considered a staple ingredient in Japan.
Not just for soup, it’s added to sauces, dressings, and marinades, or used in pickling vegetables and meats. Also used as a condiment, it can be added to bowls of vegetables, rice, or noodles. The savory flavor of miso complements all kinds of foods, and the versatility of this ingredient is beginning to be recognized outside of Japanese cooking.
How is Miso Made?
Miso production begins with koji, a fungus used for making many popular fermented foods in Japan. The scientific name for koji is Aspergillus Oryzae, and it’s used to develop complex flavors in foods the same way bacteria and mold are used to create flavors in cheese. To make koji, spores are added to a starter material of steamed rice or a mixture of rice and soybeans.
As the koji incubates, it turns starches into sugar and releases glutamate to create umami flavor. Miso is made by adding koji to soybeans, rice, or barley and allowing the mixture to ferment even further to produce flavors of varying intensity. Depending on the ratio of rice and barley and the length of fermentation, different flavor profiles can be created.
Different Types of Miso by Color
Depending on where you are in the world, miso is categorized in different ways. This can lead to some confusion about the different types. In the US, you will find that most miso is marketed for retail sale by color and generally categorized as white, yellow, red, or mixed. The color of the miso gives an indication of the length of fermentation, the ratio of ingredients, and the depth of flavor. Lighter miso has a more mild taste and darker miso is more concentrated.
Made with fewer soybeans and a higher concentration of koji, this type of miso has a short fermentation period. The flavor is described as sweet and mild, making it perfect for dressings, soups, or marinades. It’s also known as shiro miso and is light in color.
Yellow miso, or shinshu miso, is fermented for a longer time than white miso and has a larger percentage of soybeans and barley in the mixture. The flavor of yellow miso is considered saltier and more acidic than white miso and works well as a multipurpose flavoring or condiment.
Also called aka miso, this miso has the longest fermentation time and a more concentrated flavor. Tangy and salty, red miso is made with a larger amount of fermented soybeans than white or yellow miso. Its pungent flavor goes a long way and helps to add depth to stews and hearty dishes.
More commonly referred to as awase miso, this miso is comprised of a blend of white and red miso. Because it combines the delicate flavor of white with the rich taste of red, it’s widely used as a multipurpose flavoring. Awase is very popular in Japanese cooking thanks to its versatility.
Different Types of Miso by Ingredient
Just like wine or cheese, there are hundreds of types of miso, all with their own unique taste. Miso producers can play with flavors by adjusting the amounts of koji, soybeans, rice, or barley in the mixture. In Japan, you will find that miso is categorized by ingredient and some of these types will overlap with the color types above.
Kome miso is a category of miso paste made with white rice and can come in a variety of colors. It’s the most commonly used miso in Japan.
This miso is made with brown rice instead of white, giving it a unique, nutty, flavor. It’s a newer variety of miso and has been gaining popularity in North America.
Made with barley grains, this miso paste has a long fermentation period and is reddish-brown or dark brown in color. It has a deep, earthy flavor.
Mame miso is made with a mixture containing mostly soybeans and very little added grains. The soybeans cause the paste to be dark in color and very rich in flavor. Hatcho miso is a type of mame miso and is very popular in Japan.
Buckwheat is added to soba miso during the fermentation process. This type of miso is not very common and has a taste similar to other buckwheat products like soba noodles.
Nutritional Benefits of Miso
Miso is considered a superfood with a variety of health benefits. Just like other fermented or cultured foods, the probiotics in miso help to support a healthy digestive system. In addition to containing all the amino acids needed to make a complete protein source, miso contains manganese, copper, and zinc. It’s also a source of omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and vitamin K. This nutritious paste has a high sodium content, so it should be used in moderation. Thanks to its rich flavor, a little goes a long way. In order to preserve the probiotics in miso paste, add it to your finished recipes so that the microorganisms are not destroyed by high heat. Also look for unpasteurized miso to get the most health benefits.
Now that you are more familiar with this secret ingredient, you can try incorporating it into your menu. Its strong umami flavor complements a variety of foods. You can add it to mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, or even use it to add saltiness to cookies or ice cream. Miso paste has a unique, savory flavor that will add something special to your recipes.