“I’m intimidated by all the various kinds of miso at the supermarket. What are the differences among them, and how do I use them?”
The protein-rich fermented soybean paste called miso is one of the world’s great (and instant) flavor foundations, and once you start thinking of it like that, instead of a mysterious, even rarified, Japanese ingredient, you’ll discover it adds not just protein but the savory quality called umami to all sorts of dishes, including soups, salad dressings, vegetables, stews, braises, grilling and broiling glazes, and marinades.
According to the Oxford Companion to Food, miso was first developed in China, where it, along with soy sauce, evolved from a preceding condiment (made with meat, salt, and wine fermented with a starter culture prepared with grain) mentioned in the Analects of Confucius. According to archaeological evidence, by 200 B.C.E., a meatless fermented condiment made from soybeans was being used in that country. The first written reference of it in Japan dates from A.D. 701, and it has long played a starring role in the traditional diet there.
Processed soy products have changed wildly in the ensuing centuries, and for many, the presence of soybeans in a food is good reason to skip it—whether the concern phytoestrogens, genetic engineering, or deforestation in Brazil. But miso is not hydrogenated soybean oil—the fermented paste, which has a cure-all reputation along the lines of apple cider vinegar, shows just how great soy, a rather notorious staple crop, can be. And if you’ve only experience a miso vinaigrette or the requisite bowl of miso at a sushi restaurant, there’s a whole centuries-long multi-national tradition to explore.
“Miso making was probably introduced to Japan from China through the Korean peninsula that juts into the Sea of Japan,” writes Japanese food authority Elizabeth Andoh in Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen. Andoh is an American who moved to Japan more than 40 years ago, and her rigorously researched cookbooks are a window into the food and culture of her adopted home. “There are hundreds—possibly thousands—of different types of miso that the Japanese regularly enjoy,” and the different versions are linked with regional cuisines and identifies.
“Sometimes komé koji, a cultured rice spore medium, is added to the soybean mash to enhance the fermentation process,” she goes on to explain. “Other miso pastes are made with cultured wheat or millet, or combinations of grains and beans. Still others are made with just soybeans.”
The variety and ratio of raw ingredients and the length of fermentation time produce a final product with flavors that range from sweet and mild to salty and rich or pungent; colors that range from pale straw to fudge-brown; and textures that range from smooth to coarse, or “inaka”—that is, rustic.
A miso may be named for its color, region, or the koji starter with which it’s made. Each type has its own protocol, so to speak: A dark miso isn’t simply a light miso that’s been allowed to age longer, for instance, and even though a dark miso early in the fermentation process may look pale in color, it will taste raw and unfinished—the saltiness will trump the savoriness, in other words.
Here are some of the varieties you may come across:
Light or Shiro Miso
Made from soybeans and rice and fermented no longer than two months, shiro (the word means “white” in Japanese) is light in color and sweet to mildly salty. Shiro makes a great gateway miso: It gives oomph to a salad dressing or sautéed vegetables; it’s also delicious smeared on white fish fillets or eggplant halves and broiled. One basic variety of shiro is Shinshu, from the Japanese Alps. Another type, Saikyo miso, is creamy and sweet, with a hint of caramel. If a recipe for a savory dish calls for light miso and what you have is Saikyo, Andoh suggests combining it with genmai miso (see Awase miso, below) for a better balance of sweet and salty in the finished dish.
Red or Aka Miso
If a recipe calls for dark miso, you’ll want to use an aka (literally, “red”) miso. Russet in color, this type is made from a higher proportion of soybeans to rice (or barley), is fermented up to three years, and is saltier and deeper in flavor. One versatile type of aka miso is Sendai, from the northern city of the same name. It is full-flavored and nuanced, and plays well with ingredients that aren’t in the Japanese wheelhouse—tomatoes and olive oil, for example. Work some Sendai miso into your next meatloaf or tomato sauce for pasta, and you’ll understand what I mean; trust me, it will soon become one of your go-to secret ingredients.
What separates this rich, nutty miso from the pack is that it’s made with whole-grain brown rice (genmai) in addition to soybeans. Miso that utilizes any whole grain is usually saltier than those made from hulled grain, which is something to take into account when using it in a recipe.
This miso, which has an almost winey, yeasty flavor, is enriched with barley (mugi). Try mixing mugi or genmai miso (see above) with a little sake, then smearing it on Pacific cod or wild-caught salmon fillets before broiling or grilling.
Soybeans alone (without an assist from a grain) are used to make this smooth, stiff deep-brown paste, the miso of choice in Aiichi Prefecture. The strongest-tasting miso, it’s primarily used in hearty stews and braises; it also makes a killer ingredient in a marinade or glaze for ribs or chicken wings.
An awase (pronounced “ah-wah-say") miso is a mix of different miso types, and you can either buy a premade blend or make your own so you can control the flavor, color, and texture. Begin with equal amounts shiro and genmai as mentioned above, say, then tinker with the proportions until the paste is more savory than straight shiro yet milder than the genmai alone. Try rubbing it on a chicken before roasting or working it into a buttery pasta sauce instead of Parmesan; the end result won’t scream “Asia,” but will simply be deep-flavored and delicious. (That, in a nutshell is umami.)
Buying and Storing Notes
As per the “Well, Duh” Department, look for organic (non-GMO) miso. And as with so many food products, look for brands that contain the bare minimum of ingredients: soybeans, water, salt, and a grain. Some of the best American artisanal miso is that from Massachusetts-based South River Miso, available through their website and other online sources.
Nancy Singleton Hachisu, wife of an organic Japanese farmer (“I came to Japan for the food, but stayed for love”) writes in Japanese Farm Food that you may want to try one semi-mild miso before you start experimenting with others. She buys her miso from a local producer, Yamaki, who ferments the soybeans and grain for more than a year. Yamaha miso is available in the United States under the Ohsawa label. “I use brown rice miso, but barley miso is an excellent (though a bit darker-flavored) alternative,” Hachisu adds.
Always refrigerate an opened container of miso. Shiro miso can be kept in the fridge up to three weeks or so; other types will last up two to four months with optimal aroma.
Here are three simple recipes to get you started:
A Quick and Easy Marinade for Fish
From Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, by Elizabeth Andoh
⅓ cup shiro miso
1 teaspooon coarse salt
2 tablespoons mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine, available at Asian markets and many supermarkets)
1 tablespoon sake
1 tablespoon fresh lemon or orange zest
Brush on fish and marinate for 20 minutes before broiling or grilling.
Miso Vinaigrette (Miso Vineguretto)
From Japanese Farm Food, by Nancy Singleton Hachisu
“This miso-based dressing is good on just about anything,” Hachisu writes. “I particularly like it on peppery greens such as mizuna and mountain mitsuba; julienned vegetables such as celery, carrots, daikon, or turnips; blanched and refreshed green beans or pea pods (snow or snap); or even sliced new onions (though you may want to soak the onion threads a few minutes in cold water to remove some of the raw hotness). It is also good on chicken or crab salads.”
Muddle 1 tablespoon organic miso and 1 tablespoon organic rice vinegar, then whisk in 2 tablespoons organic rapeseed (canola) oil. Keeps for several weeks, jarred, in the refrigerator. Makes enough for a medium-sized salad.
Japanese Turnips with Miso
From Gourmet magazine (September 2009)
The small, round, mild white turnips known colloquially as Japanese turnips are at their most delicious when simply cooked with their greens. A last-minute swirl in miso butter gives them an almost meaty underpinning. This is a true genius recipe, developed by my former colleague Maggie Ruggiero, and delicious with just about any vegetable you can imagine. You can also use another type of miso, but taste before adding the salt.
3 tablespoons white miso
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, divided
Pinch of coarse salt
3 pounds small (1½- to 2-inch) Japanese turnips with greens
1 ⅓ cups water
2 tablespoons mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine, available at Asian markets and many supermarkets)
Stir together miso and 2 tablespoon butter. Discard turnip stems and coarsely chop leaves. Halve turnips (leave whole if tiny) and put in a 12-inch heavy skillet along with water, mirin, remaining tablespoon butter, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then boil, covered, 10 minutes.
Add greens by handfuls, turning and stirring with tongs and adding more as volume in skillet reduces. Cover and cook 1 minute. Uncover and continue boiling, stirring occasionally, until turnips are tender and liquid is reduced to a glaze, about 5 minutes. Stir in miso butter and cook 1 minute.
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