Making the Most of Miso

Soup is only the beginning of what you can do with Japan's gift to your taste buds.

If the first thing you think about is soup when you hear the word “miso,” we can’t blame you: Miso soup is a menu staple in almost every Japanese and Asian fusion restaurant in the country. But chefs outside of Japan have discovered that this fermented soybean paste can lend deep flavor notes to many other recipes, making miso one of the latest food trends.

In addition to its many advantages in cooking, miso offers benefits that include an impressive list of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.


Mold Power

Miso is made by mixing cooked soybeans with water, salt and a fungus, Aspergillus oryzae (called koji), along with grains that have been malted, or germinated, dried and roasted. (Barley, rice and soybean are the grains most commonly used; others include buckwheat, hemp seed and millet.) The mixture is then left to age.


The different types of malt help explain why Japan boasts of more than 1,300 varieties of miso. Miso also differs by flavor, ranging from sweet to rich, and color, ranging from white to dark brown.


Miso is turning out to be a health powerhouse. It provides significant amounts of vitamin K, vitamins B2 and B6, and choline; iron, magnesium, manganese and zinc; and amino acids, the building blocks of protein.


Scientists have found that miso appears to aid digestion, suppress the development of body fat and—despite its high sodium content—help protect against strokes. What’s more, miso acts as an antioxidant by neutralizing harmful molecules called free radicals.


Miso Magic

What makes miso special from a culinary standpoint is umami, a flavor separate from the traditional foursome of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Reminiscent of broth, umami gives miso its rich, savory taste.


That appeal has led to more types of miso being available in the US. It’s better to buy the tubs of paste versus the powdered stuff; pass on products made with stabilizers and other additives. The fact that miso keeps indefinitely (especially if you press a piece of parchment paper onto the paste surface) means that you can keep several kinds on hand without having to worry about them turning rancid in the back of the fridge.


So what type (or types) should you buy? Sweet miso’s light color and flavor make it versatile, particularly as a dairy replacement in creamed soups; you can also blend it with olive oil, vinegar and herbs for a tasty salad dressing. When you’re looking for a darker, heartier flavor in stews and similar foods, go with dark miso. It can also be used as the basis of sauces for root vegetables or winter squash, or to add a protein jolt to casseroles based on beans and veggies.


There are a number of other ways to use this adaptable ingredient:


>> Blend miso into butter as a flavorful coating for corn or green beans, or to slather onto toast.


>> Miso can also be blended into honey or mayo, and used as dips and sandwich spreads.


>> Pair white miso with firm tofu as a cheese substitute sprinkled on pizza or added to sandwiches. Or you can purée the miso and tofu with lemon juice for a vegan sour cream.


>> White miso also makes a great glaze for fish, as in the recipe below.


>> Unpasteurized miso can be added to marinade, where it will help tenderize animal protein or break down tough vegetable fibers.


>> The earthiness of genmai (brown rice) miso pairs well with raw vegetables; add it to your next crudité platter.


>> Add nuts to light miso for a high-style PB&J.


>> And yes, miso is an excellent addition to soups of all kinds, such as chicken noodle.


As nutritious as it is delicious, miso should find a place of honor in every serious cook’s pantry.



Making the Perfect Bowl of Miso Soup

Miso may be coming up in the culinary world, but this is where it all started—most people in Japan chow down on at least a bowl a day. That country’s Miso Promotion Board offers the following directions for this classic dish:


1. Gather your ingredients: 2 cups of dashi (a stock made from dried seaweed and fish), 3 tablespoons miso, half a block of tofu and 2 scallions.


2. Bring 2 cups of water to boil in a pot and add the dashi. (If using instant dashi, use the amount called for on the label.)


3. Bring to a low simmer and add the miso by putting it in a strainer and dipping into the pan while stirring so it dissolves completely.


4. Slice the tofu into 2/3" cubes and slide into the soup; heat slowly until it begins to simmer again.


5. Chop the scallions, add to the pot and simmer for 20 seconds.




The Joy of Fermented Soy

Miso may be one of the best-known fermented soyfoods, but most countries in Asia have their own ways of getting funky with soybeans. Some are generally known by other names in the US, such as black bean sauce (called douchi in China). Others are local specialties, such as bekang from the state of Mizoram in northeastern India. Forms of fermented soy that are more readily available in American marketplaces include:


• Soy sauce—this ubiquitous condiment comes in several forms, including dark, light and low-sodium.


• Tamari—a thicker type of soy sauce available in wheat-free varieties; if you need to avoid gluten, double-check the label.


• Tempeh—from Indonesia; its high protein content and firm consistency make it a popular vegetarian meat replacement.




Miso-Glazed Black Cod

This recipe, seen on menus at the most exclusive of Japanese restaurants, is very easy to make. Broiling the cod on one side only caramelizes the  top while creating a juicy interior.





2. Whisk miso paste, water, mirin, sake and brown sugar together in a small skillet over medium heat until mixture simmers and thickens slightly, 1-3 minutes. Remove from heat and cool completely.


3. Place cod fillets on prepared baking sheet. Brush fillets all over with miso mixture. Rest fillets at room temperature to quickly marinate, 15-20 minutes.


4. Broil fillets in the preheated oven for 5 minutes. Turn the baking sheet 180 degrees and continue broiling until fish flakes easily with a fork, about 5 minutes more. Remove pin bones.