If you've looked around in the recipe corner of this blog, I bet you know how much I love using Miso in my recipes. Miso has an incredible, umami-rich flavor incomparable to anything we typically use in the Western kitchen to season our food. Curious to learn more about Japan's secret super condiment Miso?
Then let's get started. The post is structured as follows:
1. What is Miso?
2. The world of Miso and its varieties
3. What makes Miso special? Plus, it it healthy?
4. How does miso taste?
5. Is miso vegan and gluten-free?
6. Which Miso should I buy and what should I pay attention to when shopping Miso?
7. How to store Miso?
8. Using Miso in the kitchen - the best Miso recipes
Miso - also known as the "brown butter of Japan" - is a "spice paste" rich in probiotic (good) bacteria. It is a traditional preparation made from soy beans and a special fermentation culture called "koji" that has been cultivated on soy or barley, rice (or another (pseudo)grain). Modern Miso variations may also consist of a mix of soy and other fermented grains, like barley, rice and rye plus a koji of any kind.
In Japan, the native country of this condiment, Miso is very common. Many Japanese eat Miso as early as they can, with breakfast, because according to their cultural heritage, it can stimulate digestion, promote intestinal health and energize the body.
The secret of Miso is fermentation. Depending on the recipe, it can be fermented for days, months, or even years. Japan has an amazingly rich regional cuisine, so the way of making Miso traditionally changes depending on what part of Japan you find yourself.
The magical word we're looking for here is probiotics. Fermented foods are rich in beneficial probiotic bacteria and fungi. In the particular case of Miso, we can find Aspergillus oryzae, a fungus commonly called Koji. Koji is a fermentation agent that turns soy beans (or other grains) into a fermented "superfood called Miso". If the term Koji sounds familiar, don't wonder. The magical fungus is also used for the production of foods like soy sauce or sake.
Coming back to the Miso magic: Fermented products generally favor the absorption of nutrients once they reach the digestive tract which is why probiotics found in Miso have been associated with anti-inflammatory properties that can support and stimulate our digestion and help fighting debases such as IBD or inflammatory bowel disease.
Moreover, Miso made from soybeans has all the essential amino acids, making it a very good source of vegetal protein. It is rich in Vitamin B2, K and E, manganese, zinc, copper, lecithin, choline and soy isoflavones.
Does Miso have cancer-fighting properties?
There have been many claims about Miso being good for the heart, the brain, and many other organs. Taking a look at the scientific studies, the data here looks so promising that it may should be taken with a grain of salt. According to a variety of studies, Miso could contribute to the prevention of colon, lung, stomach, and breast cancer. However, as we all know not all studies are unbiased. Research studies are oftentimes highly expensive and funded by interest groups looking for a particular research outcome. Besides, many of these studies were done on animals and more research needs to be done on human subjects to see if these benefits could extend to us as well.
Something you should also be aware of when consuming Miso...Miso, especially the darker varieties, are quite salty. Hence, if you struggle with health issues that can be worsened by salt intake, ask your doctor before incorporating Miso into your diet. Generally it is recommended to limit the Miso intake to a maximum of 6g per day.
To conclude: What we know for sure is that, for most people, Miso is not unhealthy, can support our digestion and - my absolute favorite part - is a brilliant flavor enhancer for plant-rich, wholesome meals.
There is an estimated more than a thousand types of miso. Many factors take part in this huge variety; imagine all the possible kinds of fermentation, including the quantity of Koji (fungus), time length, even the place where the Miso is stored. All the creativity that can be poured into an ingredient that seems so simple through millennia of tradition is what makes it so diverse.
However, some kinds of Miso are more popular than others. Let's take a look at the main Miso differentiator, its color.
White Miso, traditionally named Shiro Miso, is light and mild, perfect for people who like to play it safe when it comes to flavor. It is easy to distinguish for its sort of white/yellowish or light brown color. The secret of its sweet taste comes from a short fermentation process and a higher proportion of grains such as rice or soy.
Red Miso, Aka Tsubo Miso or in Japan also known as Aka Miso is a darker type of miso with a color ranging from red to almost black. This variety of Miso is fermented for a long time, making it tastier and saltier than white miso. In addition, Red Miso is characterized by a coarser texture and larger components of soy and koji which makes it perfect for soups.
The mix between red and white miso is called Awase Miso. This makes for a flavor bolder than the mild white miso but lighter than red miso. Although all kinds of miso paste can be used indistinctly of the recipe, white miso is recommended for salad dressings and sweets, while red miso is great for dishes that require many hours of cooking, such as stews or long braises. A rule of thumb you can remember to never forget the differences between the types of miso is that usually, the darkness of the color is directly proportional to the intensity of the flavor.
White, Red and Mixed are the most popular types of miso. Other Miso classified by color are Shinshu Miso (yellow Miso) and Kuro Miso (black Miso).
But hold on, there are even more classifiers. Aside, from the color, Miso can also be distinguished by its ingredients. Popular Miso's distinguished by the hero ingredient are
Genmai Miso or Kome Miso belong to Japan's most popular types of Miso. They are made with fermented soy beans plus rice and are typically sold as white, red, yellow miso.
Mame Miso contains fermented rice malt, typically contains a darker brown color and a very rich, full bodied aroma.
Mugi Miso is made with malted barley and perfect for the European cuisine. It is typically light yellow in color and tends to be sweeter than its red/brown counterparts.
Hatch Miso is exclusively made with soy beans and follows a very strict fermentation protocol 2 to 3 years in total. Consequently it contains a super intensive flavor profile.
Let's talk about the incredible umami flavor of Miso. In case you didn’t already know about it, umami is one of the basic flavors, along with the classic bitter, sweet, sour, and salty to which we are used. The word, of Japanese origin, means “tasty”. Umami foods increase the secretion of saliva and leave us wanting more. The secret to the deliciousness of Miso, and what makes it so captivating and special, is umami. Add it to any dish, and it will elevate its flavor.
By the way, the original translation of Miso is "source of taste".
Traditional Japanese Miso made from fermented soy beans is free from animal products and gluten (vegan & gluten-free). But remember that there isn't only soy- based Miso varieties. Mugi Miso for example made from malted barley contains gluten. So does Tsubu Miso (wheat-based Miso) and Hadakamugi Miso (rye-based Miso).
Other gluten-free varieties aside from soy-based Miso are Kome or Genmai Miso (rice-based Miso), Sobamugi (buckwheat-based Miso) and Kibi Miso (millet-based Miso).
To be save, please always check the label if you're suffering from a food incompatibility.
Not every Miso is created equal. Before we get too excited about the gut health enhancing of Miso and start stocking our pantry up with Japan's brown butter, we should behold the facts that first, Miso may contain large amounts on salt and second, it is a human made product that can vary enormously in quality.
Hence always, make sure that the Miso you purchase is made of high quality, ideally organic ingredients and contains living (probiotic) bacteria, meaning the product hasn't been heat-treated during the entire production process from start to finish.
There are two German brands I can recommend without any bad conscious knowing that what they put into their Miso jars meets the highest quality standards. First, Fairment and second Complete Organics. While the latter currently only offers one Miso variety, Fairment basically offers everything your Miso heart desires.
PS: This advertisement is "paid" with occasional Miso pantry stickups by both start-up brands. No just kidding but I do received products from them regularly without any strings attached. I recommend the products because I really love the quality.
Miso is a natural ferment and can therefore be stored for ages.. (..well at least if sealed and stored in a dry, dark environment like your fridge). Once opened, definitely keep your Miso in an airtight container in the fridge until completely used up. I recommend using it up within 2-3 months. Plus, you also have the option to keep it in the freezer.
If you ask me, the sky is the limit when it comes to Miso use cases. Miso doesn't only boost the flavor of any savory dish at hand, it can also be used for desserts, adding an incredible flavor profile. Classic examples of use are of course Miso soups, salsas and veggie glaze mixes. Though, if you feel a bit more adventurous, I can only recommend you to go Miso wild in the kitchen and combine the condiment with pecans, honey and Co. Go Miso sweet - you will be amazed how you can turn a boring cake batter into something none of your friends have ever tasted before, I promise.
Some of my favorite Miso-loaded recipes are..
Though always keep in mind though, the darker the miso, the more intense its flavor. Hence, use light brown (white Miso) for desserts and save the darker ones for your savory creations.
I hope you enjoyed this little intro into the world of Japan's secret wonder condiment - Miso. Feel free to share this post, comment below and share your personal Miso experience with our little plant food loving community. Always remember, sharing is caring! :)
Love & Plants, Karo
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2. Gotoh, T, et al. (1998): "Chemoprevention of N-nitroso-N-methylurea-induced rat mammary cancer by miso and tamoxifen, alone and in combination." Japanese Journal of Cancer Research (04.05.2021)
3. Lewin, Jo.(2018): The health benefits of miso. (04.05.2021)
4. Petre, Alina (2017): Why Miso Is Incredibly Healthy (04.05.2021)
5. Sharp, Gerald B, et al. (2005): "Relationship of hepatocellular carcinoma to soya food consumption: a cohort-based, case-control study in Japan." International Journal of Cancer (04.05.2021)
6. Frey, Maila (2021): Miso Paste Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits (04.05.2021)
7. Jampel, Sarah (2019): What Is Miso, the Secret Weapon in Every Healthyish Pantry? (04.05.2021)
8. Fairment (2021): Miso – Alles, was du über die japanische Paste wissen musst (04.05.2021)