What is Miso?

Even if you’re not too familiar with Asian cuisine, you’ve probably heard of miso. Miso is a staple ingredient in most Japanese cuisine, so the next time you visit your favorite Japanese restaurant, you’ll probably find at least one miso-based dish on offer. 

what is miso

Miso is one of the healthiest and most versatile ingredients on the planet, and it’s popular the whole world over. But what exactly is miso? What does it taste like, where can you find it, and how do you use it in your cooking? Stick with us to find out. 

What is Miso? 

In Japanese, Miso means ‘fermented beans’. Miso is a type of fermented paste that’s made with a mixture of koji and soybeans. Koji is a type of mold (yes, really), and it’s one of the most essential ingredients for making miso. 

Before the thought of mold makes you run for the hills, let’s explain this a little better. Koji, also called Aspergillus oryzae, is usually grown on soybeans, steamed rice, and barely.

This starter is traditionally prepared in Japan, where rice is often inoculated with mold spores and allowed to develop mycelium. 

It may be ‘mold’, but koji is completely safe to eat. Although it can be eaten raw, it’s usually added with other ingredients to create a distinct flavor in the food. 

Miso paste is a staple in Japanese cuisine and can be used in almost anything. What’s more, miso is incredibly healthy, and it’s high in protein, dietary fiber, and antioxidants!

Wherever you are in the world, it’s never too hard to track down miso paste. However, you’re unlikely to find more complex paste variations unless you visit a Japanese or whole-foods store. 

Miso Varieties 

There’s a lot more to miso than meets the eye. Believe it or not, there are over 1,000 varieties of miso, and each one differs in color, flavor, and texture.

These changes are usually influenced by a different selection of ingredients, fermentation times, and the conditions where the miso is stored. 

When miso is imported to the U.S, it’s usually divided into two categories which include light or white miso and dark or red miso. You may even see some miso labeled as ‘awase’; this miso is a mixture of more than one variety of miso paste. 

Light or white miso, also known as sweet miso, gets its name from its color. This miso tends to be either yellow or a light beige, and it’s often sweeter than other miso.

This is due to its shorter fermentation time. Sweet miso often includes fewer soybeans and more grains, such as rice. 

As the name suggests, red or dark miso has a deeper color than sweet miso. Its color can vary from light brown to black, and it’s usually fermented for longer, giving it a punchier, salter flavor than sweet miso.

This miso also has a much higher soybean content, giving it a more pronounced flavor. 

Because there are so many varieties of miso on offer, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ variety for each recipe. In most cases, darker miso is used to produce stronger tastes in stews (You might want to check out this delicious soup ‘Goulash’ Recipe) and braises, and lighter miso complements lighter dishes, such as salad, better. 

What Does Miso Taste Like? 

As we know, Miso varies in color, and different colored miso will usually have different tastes. Generally, though, miso’s taste can range from tangy and salty (darker miso) to sweet and buttery (light miso). 

Although you can eat miso on its own, it’s designed to be added to dishes to produce a more complex and intense flavor. 

what is miso

How to Use Miso 

Miso is traditionally used in soup. You’ll usually see it in soup alongside ingredients like onion, tofu, seaweed, veggies, and meat. Chicken noodle miso and kimchi, and egg miso are other popular variations. 

In most cases, miso is used to accentuate flavors, and it doesn’t work as well when you try to make it the headliner of your dish. So, why not try using it alongside soy sauce, maple syrup, hot sauce, and salmon to create a tangy seafood dish? 

If you want to create a miso-based starter, you could even try creating miso-bean sprout rolls with ingredients like spring onions, eggs, pepper, garlic, beansprouts, ginger, and basmati rice! 

Because there are so many varieties of miso, it’s an incredibly popular addition to almost any cuisine. So, while it’s possible to stick to traditional Asian cuisine with miso, you can also use it to put your own spin on some of your favorite dishes.

So experiment with the flavor and see what compliments your own variety of miso – you’ll probably be surprised just how many dishes can benefit from a simple splash of this great ingredient! 

Just remember: darker miso delivers more complex and intense flavors, whereas lighter miso is sweeter and can even be used in baking. Keeping this rule in mind, it’s hard to go wrong with miso. 

How to Store Miso

Miso is a fermented product, which means it stores well. We’d recommend keeping your miso in a sealed container in the refrigerator – if you do this, it could keep for longer than a year! 

Darker miso varieties will often have a longer shelf life because they have a longer fermentation time. So, if you’re using light miso, don’t expect it to keep for quite as long. 

Regardless of variety, miso will oxidize, so we’d recommend covering it with a plastic wrap after each use to prevent discoloration. 

The Bottom Line 

Whether you’re well-versed in Japanese cuisine or you want to start experimenting with flavors, miso is one ingredient you can’t go wrong with. 

With so many varieties on offer, it’s easy to find a type of miso that appeals to almost every palette. So, whether you want to whip up a hearty Asian soup, give your salmon an extra kick, or even bake a killer batch of cookies, with miso, the possibilities are endless! 

So, head to your local Japanese or whole foods store, pick out your preferred miso, and get cooking! 

Jeff Pratt
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