Once enjoyed by only the emperors and shogun of Japan, miso now appears in some form at nearly every Japanese meal. The salty, savory flavors of miso—fermented soybean paste—are essential to numerous dishes like soups, dressings, glazes, and pickles.
Making miso is still a revered art, and the flavors, textures, and aromas of different varieties are judged much like fine wine. After steaming and crushing soybeans, traditional miso houses add sea salt and koji, a culture made from grains like rice and barley that triggers fermentation. The best miso are aged in wooden casks for three to thirty months to develop their characteristic flavors.
Types of miso
Variables like the type of koji, the ratio of soybeans to koji, salt content, and length of fermentation lead to innumerable varieties of miso ranging in color from pale golden yellow to rich chocolate brown. For flavor-pairing purposes, think of miso in terms of two broad categories: Light miso (typically called white, yellow, or sweet miso) and dark miso (red, brown, barley, and soybean miso).
Generally, the lighter the miso, the sweeter and more delicate its flavor. Light miso is good in salads and dressings, and with lighter foods like fish, chicken, and vegetables (such as Spicy Asian Roasted Broccoli & Snap Peas).
Dark miso, which is fermented longer, will be saltier and “meatier.” Its rich, robust flavor is good for adding depth to soups and sauces. Try it with root vegetables, beans, or winter squash.
Cooking with miso
Always add miso toward the end of cooking and never boil it, as high heat will destroy both its flavor and nutrients. For the smoothest sauces and soups, whisk miso into an equal amount of slightly warm broth until smooth, and then gradually stir the thinned miso back into the pot. Use about 1 to 1-1/2 Tbs. of miso for every cup of liquid. Miso is a good substitute for salt or soy sauce or in place of anchovy paste for vegetarian recipes. Just remember, miso is quite concentrated in flavor, so a little goes a long way.
Buying and storing miso
Look for miso in plastic tubs or bags in the refrigerated section of Asian markets or health-food stores. You can also order several types of miso online. Miso keeps for up to a year if sealed well and refrigerated.