The magic of miso in Japanese cuisine and beyond

Red miso scoop in a bowl with a sprig of fresh herbs

Early Japanese cooks and farmers knew that food was their best medicine. They created and produced many fermented foods based on soybeans, rice and their prized aspergillus oryzae (beneficial) bacterial cultures. Miso (mee-so), a fermented, live, lactobacillus-rich paste commonly made of soybeans and rice, is one of Japan’s most versatile and outstanding culinary treasures. It is a masterpiece of big flavor and health-supportive cuisine.

William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi say in The Book of Miso, “The key to the art of making fine miso lies in the process of fermentation, a process which, throughout its long and varied history around the world, has served three fundamental purposes: the improvement of a food’s digestibility; the transformation of its flavor and aroma, color and texture; and its preservation without refrigeration.”

Modern miso is the result of careful crafting over two millennia. Until modern times Japanese people made miso at home. They inoculated steamed, mashed soybeans and koji-fermented grain (usually rice or barley), blended them with water and salt, and aged the mixture in cedar vats into a thick, concentrated paste. The difference in grains and legumes, their proportions, salt, fermentation time (3 weeks to 3 years or more), temperature and pressure create misos ranging from pale cream, mellow-light and red to dark and black. Their flavors range from delicately sweet/salty to deeply intense. Light-colored miso contains less salt and ferments for a short time; darker miso contains more salt and can therefore ferment longer.

If you want to expand your repertoire of versatile, big-flavor enhancing foods, I urge you investigate miso. Most Western cooks know miso as a salty element to use as a soup base or in Japanese dashi, but it is so much more versatile. Miso makes a richly savory seasoning or base for stew, vegetable dishes, salad dressings, dips, sauces and spreads; it is a wonderful marinade, broiled topping (called dengaku) or vegetable-pickling medium. Although its salt content ranges from 4 to 12% by weight, miso is such a concentrated source of high-quality protein and big flavor that only a small amount is necessary to make a dish dance.

The best miso is unpasteurized and refrigerated. Because it is a living food it should come in jars or small plastic tubs, not sealed in plastic bags. To retain its live culture qualities miso should not be boiled, only gently heated—preferably added at the end of cooking in soup or stew. Fully cooked miso, though the cultures are killed, still offers flavor enhancing qualities.

There are two traditional miso producers in the United States: Miso Master and South River Miso. Both make excellent live-cultured products like brown rice miso, chickpea miso, adzuki bean miso, golden millet miso, barley miso, sweet white miso and mellow miso. White and mellow miso, the most popular, are made with a larger proportion of rice and less soybeans.

In Japan, each region tends to be identified with a specific miso. There are numerous varieties from several in northern Hokkaido to a dozen on the main island of Honshu and many more on the southern islands of Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa. The most common are shiro (white), inaka (barley), aka (red) and awase (mixed). Miso ingredients might include rye, buckwheat, hemp seed, adzuki beans or chickpeas and the texture may be smooth or chunky.

Light misos are best paired with light foods, seafood and summery dishes.  Dark misos work well with beef, meat and in winter meals. Mix together different misos for a complex flavor.

You may, like the Japanese farmers of old, want to culture a batch of miso yourself. It’s not a difficult process. You can find recipe guidelines in both Preserving the Japanese Way by Nancy Singleton and The Book of Miso.  You’ll need to purchase koji, the aspergillus oryzae fermentation culture starter (southrivermiso.com), and choose ingredients—generally soybeans and rice (chickpeas and adzuki beans yield great results too). Aspergillus is adept at breaking down carbs and proteins into big umami flavor. It is used to produce cultured Japanese foods like soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar and sake.

Modern chefs have found creative ways, other than in soup or as a marinade, to use this complex, savory, umami food:

  • Mix 2 tablespoons miso into 1 cup mayonnaise for a dip.
  • Gently heat 1/2 cup unsalted butter and 4 tablespoons miso; use it to braise seafood or dress vegetables like sweet potatoes, potatoes or broccoli.
  • Dehydrate miso on low heat, and crumble on dishes.
  • Mix miso with maple syrup and smear on cooked bacon. Broil until miso speckles.
  • Mix miso with equal parts sesame butter or nut butter and thin with lemon juice and water for a sauce.
  • Mix miso with mustard and rice vinegar as a sauce for poached leeks or steamed vegetables.
  • Try miso-roasted squash, miso-ginger dressing, miso-soba noodles and garlic chips, miso-caramel, miso-marinated and grilled fish or miso-creamed kale.  

As you can see, miso can open up a world of new flavor without much effort. Not only does miso provide the savory punch of umami, it can increase the health of your diners’ microbiome and immune system with a multitude of probiotics (beneficial bacteria) and enzymes for better digestion.

Something our world needs desperately.

White Miso Topping (Dengaku)

From Discovering Global Cuisines

Yields 5 to 5-1/2 fluid ounces, enough for 15 to 20 pieces of vegetable, about 2 teaspoons per piece, depending on size.

3 tablespoons saké

3 tablespoons mirin

4 ounces sweet white (shiro) miso, 7 tablespoons

2 tablespoons sugar, more to taste

Optional: 1 large egg yolk

2 to 3 tablespoons Dashi, as needed or 2 to 3 tablespoons chicken or vegetable stock

Optional: 1/8 to 1/4 ounce ginger, 1 to 2 teaspoons peeled and minced

  1.  Set a stainless steel bowl into a pot so it forms a double boiler. Remove bowl and heat enough water in pot so that it is 2 to 3-inches from bottom of bowl.  *If not using egg skip the double boiler. Prepare topping in saucepan:
  2. Pour sake and mirin into small saucepan and bring to a boil to burn off raw alcohol taste. Remove from heat and scrape into double boiler bowl.
  3. In double boiler bowl (or saucepan), whisk together miso, sugar, egg yolk, 2 tablespoons broth and optional ginger with sake and mirin. If using egg, set bowl over simmering water. Fold and simmer topping until smooth and thickened, 2 to 3 minutes. Cool. Taste and adjust seasonings. The consistency should be like cake frosting. If too thick, thin with extra broth, stock or water.
  4. To Use: Spread miso topping onto boneless, skinless chicken breast or thigh, slices of pork loin or whole pork tenderloin, vegetables (like zucchini or salt-wilted slices of eggplant), fish fillets, seafood or tofu slabs, and broil or grill. White Miso Topping is especially good as a marinade: Spread or toss with chosen food and marinate several hours to overnight before broiling or grilling.

Vary! Improvise!

*Green Miso Topping: Add 1 tablespoon squeezed dry and puréed, cooked spinach

*Hearty Red Miso Topping: Substitute half the white miso for red or Hatcho miso.

*Sesame Topping: Add 1 tablespoon toasted, ground sesame seed or 2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil.

 

Miso-Glazed Eggplant (Nasu Dengaku)

Slice eggplant into 1/2-inch thick slabs. Sprinkle liberally with salt on both side, and rest 15 to 20 minutes. Rinse and blot dry.  Heat a grill to medium. Brush eggplant slices with oil and grill both sides until eggplant is tender. Preheat your broiler. With a small knife or spatula, spread a layer of the miso topping over one side of each slab. Slide under the broiler and cook until glaze begins to bubble and speckle, about 1 minute. The trick is to caramelize the topping without burning it. In Japan tofu dengaku is served on sticks; it is coated on both sides with the miso topping and grilled over a charcoal brazier.

Signature Recipe: Japanese Dashi Broth

Use bonito-katsuobushi dashi for clear soups and light miso soup and a stronger flavored anchovy dashi for noodles, soups and stew, and with dark miso or Korean toenjang-seasoned soups.  Look for the curly anchovies; they dried faster and will be fresher tasting. Soak kombu (and shiitake) overnight in cold water before heating for a richer flavored dashi.

From Discovering Global Cuisines

 

Vegetarian Kombu and Shiitake Dashi

Yields 3-1/2 cups

1/2 ounce kelp (kombu), two to three 2-inch by 5-inch pieces

1 to 1-1/2 ounces dried shiitake mushrooms, 6 to 8

 

Classical Bonito-Katsuobushi and Kombu Dashi

Yields 3 to 3-1/2 cups

1/2 ounce dried kelp (kombu), two to three 2-inch by 5-inch pieces

1/2 to 3/4 ounce dried katsuobushi flakes, 1 cup packed

  1.  Fill stockpot with 1 quart cold water and kombu (and shiitake if using). Heat pot uncovered on medium heat.  Bring water to near boiling, about 10 minutes.
  2. Remove kombu when small bubbles start to surface; stock may turn bitter if kombu boils. Kelp should be soft enough for a thumbnail to pierce.  If not, lower heat and add 1/4-cup cold water and bring to just near boiling once again.  Remove kombu just prior to water boiling.  
  3. To finish:

Vegetarian Dashi: Remove from heat and rest shiitake in broth 15 minutes. Strain out shiitake.

Bonito Dashi: Bring kombu stock to a boil and add 1/4-cup cold water and bonito flakes.  Bring stock to a boil again and remove from heat at once. Allow flakes to settle 5 to 7 minutes, and strain.

  1. Broth will have its best flavor with immediate use, but will keep 3 days refrigerated. Reserve used kelp and bonito for a second dashi. Repeat procedure for second dashi with 1/2 ounce more fresh bonito and 1 quart cold water. Use secondary dashi for noodles.

 

Japanese Miso Soup

In Japan, miso soup arrives in special lidded lacquered bowls. Diners lift the lid to get a blast of the soup’s enticing aroma. Typically two ingredients garnish a bowl of miso.

From Discovering Global Cuisines

Yields 8 to 9 ounces, 1 serving

Per Serving: 6 to 8 ounces Vegetarian or Classical Bonito Dashi

Garnishing Ingredients (about 1 tablespoon total per serving)

  • Slivered daikon radish and finely sliced green onion
  • Soft or firm tofu, diced into 1/4-inch cubes and small squares of wakame (seaweed)
  • Steamed potato, diced into 1/4-inch cubes and minced green onion

Optional: 1 tablespoon lightly cooked, artfully cut vegetables

Per Serving: Miso

2 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon shiro or other miso, to taste

  1. Prepare dashi.
  2.  Prepare garnishing ingredients.
  3. Place miso in a small mixing bowl and whisk in 1 to 2 tablespoons hot dashi until smooth. Sweet white miso is less salty so more may be used.  Darker misos are saltier; start with less.
  4. Pour miso mixture back into hot, but not boiling dashi and whisk to mix well. Don’t boil soup after adding miso. It will kill the beneficial bacteria.
  5. To Serve: Place garnishing ingredients into each serving bowl. Pour 6 to 8 ounces hot miso broth over the garnish, and serve immediately.

 

About the Author
Nancy Allen

Nancy Allen

Chef-educator Nancy Krcek Allen has traveled extensively, and has worked in kitchens and classrooms for more than 30 years. She graduated from California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. While living in New York City, Allen worked full-time teaching recreational and professional cooking for the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) and the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan, and in Viareggio, Italy, for Toscana Saporita.

During her time at ICE and the Natural Gourmet, Allen wrote curriculum for the professional and recreational programs. While living in New York, Allen was a member of the New York Association of Culinary Teachers, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, where she attained a Certified Culinary Professional rating.

International cuisines are Allen’s passion and she has traveled around the world to learn about food and cooking.  Allen owned a restaurant and cooking school, catering business, and has worked as a freelance writer for various publications. In Michigan Allen has taught for a decade at Chateau Chantal Winery Cooking School on Old Mission Peninsula and Michigan and Northwestern Michigan College, both in Traverse City, Michigan. She is the author of the culinary textbook Discovering Global Cuisines: Traditional Flavors and Techniques.

Allen currently works as a cook at an organic farm, and as a cooking teacher and freelance writer. She is working on a cookbook featuring seasonal farm food. Allen lives in Leelanau County in northern Michigan along the glacial moraines of Lake Michigan.