If you haven’t yet discovered the remarkable soybean, a good place to begin is with miso. Although Asian cooks have found many ways to transform this sacred bean into delicious foodstuff like tofu, tempeh, soymilk, yuba (dried soymilk skin), soy sauce (tamari and shoyu) and edamame (young green soybeans boiled in pod), my favorite creation is still miso.
Miso (mee-so) is alactobacillus-rich paste commonly consisting of cooked soybeans and rice that are live-fermented.
It is one of Japan’s most versatile and outstanding culinary treasures, a masterpiece of big, health-supportive flavor.
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 … 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.”
Japanese-style miso is the result of over two millennia of careful crafting. Until recently Japanese families made miso at home. They inoculated the steamed, mashed soybeans and koji-fermented grain, blended them with water and salt and aged the mixture into a thick, concentrated paste in cedar vats.
The difference of grains and legumes, their proportions, salt, fermentation time (three weeks to three 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 much longer.
Most Western cooks know miso as a salty, umami-rich element for Japanese soup, but it will eagerly do more. Miso makes a richly savory seasoning, sauce or base for stew, vegetable dishes, salad dressings, dips, spreads, marinades, broiled toppings (dengaku) or vegetable-pickling mediums.
Although its salt content ranges from 4 to 12 percent by weight, miso is such a concentrated source of high-quality protein and flavor that a small amount can make a dish dance.
The best miso is unpasteurized and refrigerated. Miso is a living food so it should come in glass jars or small plastic tubs, not sealed in plastic bags. To retain its live cultures, miso should not be boiled, only gently heated. Stir miso into a dish at the end of cooking.
In Japan, misos are regional. There are varieties from northern Hokkaido to 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 also include rye, buckwheat, hemp seed, adzuki beans or chickpeas. The texture may be smooth or chunky.
The best miso for beginners is white. The mild, sweet white and mellow miso are made with a larger proportion of rice and less soybeans. A top favorite is the Japanese-produced Hikari Organic White Miso.
Miso Master and South River Miso are American-produced brands. All three companies make excellent live-cultured products like brown rice miso, chickpea miso, adzuki bean miso, golden millet miso, barley miso, white miso and mellow miso.
Early Japanese cooks and farmers knew that food was their best medicine.
Not only does live miso provide the savory punch of umami, it will increase the health of your microbiome and immune system with a multitude of beneficial bacteria and enzymes for better digestion.
Something our world needs desperately.
Easy to prepare, this eggplant dish can be both an elegant and unctuous side or entrée. Use the sauce in this recipe for miso-glazed squash, miso-ginger dressing, miso-soba noodles, miso-marinated and grilled fish or miso-creamed cooked kale.
Yields 4 servings
2 long Japanese or Chinese eggplant
2 T. white miso
1 T. sugar or maple syrup
1 t. Japanese mirin or dry sherry
¼ t. red chili pepper flakes
1 T. toasted sesame seeds, as needed
1 green onion, finely sliced
2 T. sliced cilantro leaves
Preheat broiler with the rack about 4 inches from heat source.
Remove ends of eggplant. Slice in half lengthwise from stem to bottom to create boat-like halves. If you use a longer Chinese eggplant, cut each boat-like half crosswise to a serving size. With the tip of a knife, crosshatch the flesh 1/4-inch deep across the eggplant. Sprinkle eggplants with a little salt and rest 10 minutes. Blot dry.
In a small bowl, combine miso, sugar or maple syrup, mirin and chili flakes.
Stir in a little warm water to make a thick sauce consistency. Set aside.
Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Place eggplant flesh side down on sheet pan, and broil until outer skin browns and flesh is tender, 5 to 7 minutes.
Flipceggplant flesh side up and brush on miso mixture.
Broil eggplant again until eggplant is fully tender and miso glaze browns and sizzles, 5 to 7 minutes. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, green onion and cilantro. Serve warm.
Mushroom Miso Soup
Miso opens up a world of new flavor without much effort.
The addition of miso and mushrooms transforms this simple soup into an umami-rich dish. Pair this earthy soup with a fresh salad for a quick, satisfying meal.
— Adapted from Chef Nobu Matsuhisa
Yields 4 servings
4 C. Japanese dashi broth or vegetable or chicken stock
½ lb. mixed mushrooms: shiitake, maitake, oyster and button, sliced or diced into bite-size pieces
2 T. red or white miso
Finely chopped green onions
Pour two tablespoons dashi or stock into a bowl and stir in miso until dissolved; set aside. Heat remaining dashi or stock in saucepan to a simmer. Add mushrooms and simmer until they are tender, 5 to 10 minutes.
Add chopped scallions and immediately remove saucepan from heat. Scrape miso-broth mixture into saucepan and stir to combine. Serve immediately while hot.
Light miso is best paired with light foods, seafood and summery dishes.
Dark miso works well with beef, meat and in winter meals. Mix different misos for a more nuanced flavor.
- Mix 2 tablespoons miso into 1 cup mayonnaise for a dip.
- Gently heat
- cup unsalted butter and 4 tablespoons miso. Use it to braise seafood or dress vegetables like sweet potatoes, potatoes or broccoli.
- Mix miso with maple syrup and smear on cooked bacon. Broil until miso speckles. Crumble and use as a tasty garnish.
- 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.