Miso is a rich fermented soybean paste, which is sometimes also partially made from grains like rice or barley. It has a strong distinctive salty taste and is used extensively in Japanese cuisine in soups, salad dressings, sauces, marinades and glazings. Miso also features to a lesser degree in Korean and Chinese cooking. Miso is versatile, as it can be blended easily with many other ingredients like honey, garlic and alcohol to give it extra depth. Because of this, in the past decade, Miso has been gaining traction in the fast growing world of fusion cuisine. There are some nice Korean specific varieties but for our purposes we’ll deal only with the Japanese Miso, which are universally accepted as the best. Miso is often categorized by colour which coincidently follows the same spectrum of colours as honey. The main varieties of Miso are:
- Red Miso (Aka-miso)
This is considered to be of the stronger tasting variety because of its longer aging period (12-30 months) and higher salt content. It is more often used in soups and baking. This variety is more popular in the colder northern part of Japan.
- White Miso (Shiro-miso)
This is a milder variety containing a higher proportion of rice. It’s fermentation process takes only weeks instead of months. Because of its high carbohydrate content, it is often described as sweet or even creamy. If you were to use Miso directly without any cooking or as a dairy-product substitute, I would go with this one. It is not actually white, I would describe its colour as beige.
- Blended Miso (Awase-miso)
The blends comes in many shades of yellow and brown and if you only intend to stock only one type of miso, this is the one for you. Shinshu Miso, which is golden yellow in colour, is a popular type of blended Miso with the highest market share in Japan.
- Soybean Miso (Mame-miso)
This is a variety of miso made without the addition of any grains. It is dark like red miso because of its long fermentation period and but has a more intense flavour. One type of soybean miso is Hatcho Miso, which is generally held in high regard and even considered by some to be the best miso.
Miso typically comes in a transparent plastic tub which has a loosely fitting cover. It should be stored it the refrigerator once unsealed and can easily be kept for a year or two. I will usually fold a piece of cling film in four and place it over the top of the tub before closing the cover for a tighter fit.
There is also a darker Chinese version of miso. Although miso probably originated in China you should avoid Chinese miso as it is inferior. If I’m not mistaken, these are made from the by-products of fermenting soya sauce. Korean Miso on the other hand is generally ok.
The thing to understand about Miso is that it is a flavour enhancer, and should not be used as a flavour itself, in the way you can’t add salt to water and call it salt soup. However, compared to salt you only need a fraction of the meat or vegetables to achieve the same effect. Miso is used in many of my recipes, including my Japanese Style Baked Seafood, my Spaghetti with Seafood in Miso Cream and as a ‘secret ingredient’ of my French Onion Soup.