Is it a soup? Is it a sauce? Is it a seasoning? Miso confused …
Think you feel so-so about miso? You just haven't met the right recipe yet. Here's everything you need to know about the fermented paste the food world is going crazy for.
What is it?
Over here we know it most commonly as a soup, but miso is really a seasoning. A thick paste made from fermented soy beans, salt, kōji fungus (yum), rice, barley and wheat or other grains. Miso is a staple in Japanese and south Asian cookery and has been around since the 6th century. Modern fad it ain't.
What's the scoop?
Miso soup became a familiar sight in the UK during the sushi revolution of the noughties, but it's taken us a while longer to catch on to its charms as a cooking ingredient. That's all changing now, though; health-conscious foodies are waking up to the umami power of the paste in marinades, dressings, on meat, with veg and even in desserts.
The uma-what now?
Umami. You know, the fifth taste after salty, sweet, sour and bitter. It makes snacks so impossibly moreish that, before you know it, you've eaten a whole family-sized bag of something and can no longer feel your tongue.
Loosely translated from Japanese as "deliciousness" or "the beautiful taste", umami is the rich, savoury tang that makes Marmite amazing (don't argue), Worcestershire sauce pure magic on cheese on toast and slow-cooked beef short rib so much more lip-smackingly delicious than a steak tartare. And miso has it in spades.
So what do I do with it?
Miso 101 is, of course, soup. Swirl it into stock and add tofu, seaweed flakes and any other extras you fancy for an Asian-flavoured hug in a mug.
But beyond that, miso is begging to be your new store-cupboard superhero. Add it to salad dressings, mix it with olive oil and use it to baste steak, turn it into delicious sweet-and-salty marinades for roasted vegetables, coat nuts in it, dollop a little spoonful on the side of your plate as an all-purpose condiment, or keep things simple and spread it on your toast.
What type do I want?
The colour, flavour and texture of miso varies endlessly according to the ingredients, region, season, temperature, type of fungus, length of fermentation and whether Mercury is in retrograde (I only made one of those up). But don't panic. The three most common varieties of miso paste you'll come across are:
- White miso (AKA shiro miso) – the mildest, sweetest type because it's fermented for the shortest time. This paste, which is actually pale yellow in colour, is the most versatile and probably the most useful to have in your cupboard. Pop it in salad dressings, turn it into soup or use it to season delicately flavoured meat and fish.
- Yellow miso (AKA shinshu miso) – somewhere in-between white and red, mid-strength yellow miso is light brown and made from fermented soy beans and barley. It lends a tangy flavour punch to dressings, vegetable glazes, marinades and stock.
- Red miso (AKA aka miso - yes, that's a confusing sentence) – darker, richer, saltier and altogether more intense, red miso is usually made from soy beans that have been fermented for at least 12 months. A little goes a long way towards upping the umami factor in your sauces, meat glazes and marinades for hearty veg like aubergine and mushrooms. Use it sparingly and taste as you go to avoid mis-overload.
There's also hatcho miso, the fanciest kind, which is darker and richer than red miso and made using a special type of kōji; mugi miso, which has a chunkier texture; and genmai miso, which is made from brown rice. Hunt these out online or in specialist Asian supermarkets. You can also buy miso soup in powder form, which might not be the purist's favourite but makes a totally respectable lunch-on-the-go in Japan.
Anything else I need to know?
As a fermented product, miso is in it for the long haul. White miso tends to lose its flavour more quickly and should be used up in a month or two, but the darker varieties can be kept happily in the fridge for months or even years. Which is useful – but not an excuse to let it join the jar graveyard at the back of the fridge, mind.
The trend on trial …
First up, maple miso-roasted veg, inspired by this recipe from Food 52. I mixed a spoonful of red miso paste with the same quantity of maple syrup, a glug of soy sauce, chilli flakes and some rapeseed oil, then used it to coat chopped beetroot, onion, red pepper and squash for a good roasting in the oven. The result was a gorgeously rich, sticky, tangy mess with an intriguing, can't-quite-put-your-finger-on-it Asian flavour. A WARNING, though: miso is salty. Soy sauce is salty. Salt is salty. Don't go to town on all three.
Next I branched out into the morning arena, taking a tip from Miso Tasty founder Bonnie Chung by mixing white miso with coconut butter and honey, and spreading it on sourdough toast. "Fermented soy and funghi" might not scream "delicious breakfast treat!" in quite the same way as Coco Pops, but the creamy/sweet/umami balance was curiously moreish. And you can't say it's any weirder than Marmite.
To round off the miso mission, I used it to glaze chicken thighs (mellow and delicious), diluted it with oil and drizzled it over salad (instant upgrade from balsamic) and ate some on a spoon from the jar (not especially recommended).
The key to almighty miso is balancing it out with sweetness and richness. Team it up with honey, maple syrup, nuts, root veg, meat or fish, add a kick of chilli or mustard, and you're laughing.
Further inspiration …
Soy you want to cook with miso? Try one of these.
Garlic, ginger, sesame and honey make the perfect pals for white miso in this sweetly sticky cod recipe from Foodie with Family.
What's up doc? Only the most beautiful carrots on the whole internet, that's what. This recipe from Closet Cooking marries eastern and western flavours in a shiny stunner of a side dish.
It's that sweet and sticky combo again! Nasu dengaku, aka miso glazed aubergine, is about as rich and meaty as veggie dishes come. This version from Pickled Plum puts both red and white miso to the test.
"It may even be better than salted caramel," says Sam from Drizzle and Dip, about the white miso she uses in this dairy-free coconut and ginger ice-cream. Game changer.