Miso pasta in a bowl

Japanese cuisine expert Nancy Singleton Hachisu explains ‘what is miso’, and describes how to use miso in different recipes and which miso to buy. She lives on a farm in Japan and has written four cookbooks on Japanese food. This extract is taken from Food Artisans of Japan, published by Hardie Grant.

How is miso made?

Use miso for an earthy umami flavor. Japan is a country that adheres deeply to the concept of mottainai (‘no waste’), and miso embodies that philosophy perfectly. When producing shoyu or tamari (soy sauce), the soy bean mash is pressed for the rich salty liquid, and the solids are left behind. 

Not so with miso: the base ingredient (always soybeans in Japan), koji spore–inoculated grain or pulse (rice, barley or soybeans), salt, and perhaps a small amount of seed miso (miso thinned with water), all come together to make the final product. 

As a paste, miso is not quite as easy to dash into non-Japanese cooking because of its viscosity and pronounced earthy quality. But if you start with a well-made miso, a little bit can add a deep, round salt note to many foods. 

What constitutes a well-made miso? Most important: it should taste good. The salt and fermented beer-like notes should be well balanced with no sourness. 

Miso

What to eat with miso

  1. Dip carrots, celery, radishes, turnips, green peppers (capsicums) or cucumbers in miso in the summertime for a before-dinner snack. 
  2. Whisk a little miso into homemade mayonnaise (shoyu is also delicious). 
  3. Miso-based vinaigrettes (oil, miso and rice vinegar in a ratio of 2:1:1) are an excellent foil for julienned root vegetables or peppery mizuna leaves.
  4. Salt some fish, poultry or pork lightly, then lay a double piece of muslin (cheesecloth) over the top before slathering on a paste made of miso thinned with sake and/or mirin, and leave it to marinate in the fridge for up to several days. 
  5. Miso also makes a brilliant pickling medium and can be used as is, loosened with sake and/or mirin, or with the addition of aromatics such as shichimi togarashi (seven-spice powder), dried red chili or slivered ginger. 
  6. A wide range of miso-based sauces is used in vegetable dishes: vinegar miso, mustard miso and dengaku miso (used as a glaze) are classic treatments.
  7. Aemono (‘dressed things’) such as shira-ae (smashed tofu), goma-ae (vegetables in sesame-miso dressing), and kurumi-ae (vegetables in walnut sauce) include miso as a key component and can be incorporated into most non-Japanese meals. The flavour profile and sweet-to-acid balance of these dishes will vary with the cook. 

How to buy miso

  1. In general, first check the label when buying miso. Authentic and aesthetically pleasing front labels will first catch your eye. Next, pick up the package and read the back label for ingredients. 
  2. Avoid products with sweeteners, MSG, preservatives, vitamin B2 (for preserving and color enhancement) and alcohol (to stabilize and preserve). Nothing compares to the highest quality Japanese misos such as our local Yamaki Jozo miso (which is starting to be available abroad). 

However, there are local miso makers popping up all over the world. Some are better than others. Companies that have been around since the 1970s are arguably doing the best job at making authentic misos, although some I have sampled have been oxidized, and are thus darker and denser than I think they should be. This is not a deal breaker, just something to keep in mind. 

More concerning is the newer miso companies cropping up that are marketing barely fermented, or poorly fermented, miso, with the iconic miso flavour missing. Worse yet are the miso companies attempting to capture their own wild koji spores for fermentation – without success. The unfortunate result is decidedly not miso.

Miso

What are the different types of miso?

  1. Kome (White Rice) Miso: From quick-fermented white (shiro) miso and Kaga miso to 6-month- or 1-year-fermented country-style (inaka) miso, kome miso represents a fairly wide range of flavours. Quick-fermented varieties are made with an appreciably larger percentage of koji than other misos, and have a sweet and only slightly salty profile. These varieties are good for adding a gentle miso flavor to vegetable dishes or fish marinades. Inaka miso is an excellent choice as a starter miso since it is mild, yet still has heady fermentation notes for savory dishes. 
  2. Genmai (Brown Rice) Miso: Fermented for 6 months to 1 year (one summer) from soybeans, brown rice koji and salt. Bright and rich, genmai miso is probably the most immediately accessible of the darker varieties of miso, and is versatile as a seasoning for most dishes because of its lustrous flavour profile. [Sous Chef tip: Try our red miso paste for a hit of richer, stronger flavoured miso]
  3. Mugi (Barley) Miso: Soybeans, barley koji and salt, traditionally fermented for 6 months to 1 year (one summer). Solid, luscious and fragrant from the barley, mugi miso is particularly good in simmered dishes, but absolutely delicious in just about anything. Highly favored in Western Europe – perhaps because mugi miso goes well with olive oil. 
  4. Mame (Soybean) Miso: Long-fermented for 2 to 3 years from soybeans, soybean koji and salt. Dark and deeply flavored with lovely beery notes, mame miso makes rich winter broths, and is a good candidate for mixing with lighter miso varieties (awase miso) to add overall complexity. Hatcho miso is a type of mame miso produced in Aichi prefecture in central-eastern Japan and is weighted with massive rocks for 2½   years. 

Read more: The ultimate guide to tofu


5 Miso Recipes

Now you’ve read Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s guide to miso, take a look at these 5 miso recipes and discover new ways to use the versatile Japanese ingredient in your everyday cooking. 

MORE: Buy your copy of Nancy’s book Food Artisans of Japan

Miso Ramen Recipe

Miso Ramen

Adding miso to ramen is a brilliant way to add rich, salty seasoning to your broth. The earthy savouriness is particularly good with pickled bamboo shoots, tangy spring onions and dried nori seaweed sheets. Try the recipe now!

Miso Soup with Buckwheat Noodles

Miso Soup with Buckwheat Noodles

 

Make a really good miso soup with layers of flavour and different textures from soft tofu, soba noodles and mushrooms. This recipe uses the steeping liquor from rehydrated mushrooms for even more umami notes. Full recipe here.

Miso & Maple-Glazed Aubergines by Niki Webster

Miso & Maple-Glazed Aubergines by Niki Webster

Pairing miso with maple syrup creates a heavenly sweet and salty combo, which reduces down to a rich sticky glaze on these baked aubergines. Serve on sticky coconut rice. Click through for the full recipe.

Pork Tonkatsu with Miso & Cabbage

Pork Tonkatsu with Miso & Cabbage

Miso works really well in a simple dressing with rice vinegar, sesame oil and soy sauce. This pork tonkatsu is served with finely shredded cabbage salad, which has a lovely crunch. Try the recipe for yourself now!

Tofu in Miso Sauce

Tofu in Miso Sauce

For a light lunch, or as part of a bigger meal, this tofu dressed in miso sauce really hits the spot. Serve the dish with rice, fresh salads and pickled vegetables for a quick and easy burst of miso flavour. Try the recipe here.


Browse more Japanese recipes here, or shop all our miso


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