IIf you only know miso from its role in soup at sushi restaurants, you’ve been missing out.
The fermented soybean paste — salty, slightly sweet with a savory, fermented complexity — is a versatile tool that can add a jolt of umami to a variety of sweet and savory dishes. Here’s what you should know.
1. The origins of miso are not completely clear, but historians believe it arrived in Japan via China during the sixth or seventh century BC. By around 900 AD, it had become a mainstay in the Japanese diet. Miso is typically made in commercial facilities by combining cooked soybeans, salt and koji — a type of mold that grows on grains, usually rice. Once those are mixed, handfuls of the mash are thrown into a fermentation crock to remove any hidden pockets of air that can lead to dangerous bacteria. The mixture is then aged for a few months to years depending on the type being produced.
2. Because the preparation of miso is so simple, there are almost endless varieties: some are chunkier, some are sweeter and some are made from different grains. Three of the most common are light or shiro miso, a paler, sweet type; shinshu miso, a yellow-colored miso aged for longer than shiro, giving it a stronger flavor that can be used in almost any application, and red or aka miso, which is a salty, robust version that’s aged for longer than white and yellow miso. Many chefs pair red miso with meats or other dishes that can stand up to its strong flavor.
3. Miso boasts a variety of health benefits, from increasing one’s libido to curing hangovers and even counteracting the effects of nuclear radiation. It’s packed with protein, and like other fermented products, it’s full of gut-friendly probiotics.
4. Since miso comes in paste form, it couldn’t be easier to use. Simply whisk a tablespoon of it into a vinaigrette or pan sauce to add flavor and thickness.
5. Miso’s fermented nature means that it has a tenderizing effect on meats, especially when used in marinades for tougher cuts. It’s also a common pairing with fish (there’s a reason many sushi restaurants offer you a bowl of miso soup to start your meal). Try the recipe on the right for miso glazed salmon from ACF member Wook Kang, a culinary instructor at Kendall College. “It’s one of the best ways to highlight miso’s distinct flavor,” he says. “It’s pretty friendly. It’s not overpowering, not too strong and not too subtle. It’s a funky ingredient, but people love it.”
6. During miso’s fermentation process, soybeans are transformed into amino acids. Thanks to those amino acids, miso is rich in umami, the taste that gives ingredients like mushrooms and parmesan cheese their meaty, savory flavor. “One of the really great things about miso is you can add it to a vegetable and create a dish that’s as satisfying as eating a piece of meat,” says ACF member RJ Marvin, co-owner of Barrel + Brine, a fermentation shop in Buffalo, New York.
7. While miso is typically used in savory dishes, today’s creative chefs have found ways to employ the sweetness of light miso in their desserts, as does Chef Makoto Okuwa of the Japanese restaurant Makoto in Bal Harbour, Florida. “Miso is so salty but [light] miso has a much sweeter flavor profile,” he says. “Using sweet miso for dessert for me was natural.” Okuwa recommends pairing it with ingredients that are already fairly sweet — like white chocolate or fruit — to emphasize the salty and sweet combination, as in his fondant cake with yuzu miso filling, fruit, sake and vanilla ice cream rolled in rice crackers.
8. Store your miso in the cooler, where it can safely be kept for up to a year.
9. Too much heat can kill miso’s flavor and nutrients, so add it during the end of the cooking process, off of heat.
10. After tasting the boost miso gives dishes, you might be tempted to keep adding more, but try to hold back. “Less is always more,” Kang says. “You really only need a couple of tablespoons. You don’t need a lot because it’s pretty strong.” To avoid an unbearably salty dish, add a little at time. Also, keep an eye on your pan. The amino acids in miso cause the maillard reaction (browning) to accelerate, which can cause your food to cook quicker and burn if not careful.
Miso Glazed Salmon
Recipe courtesy of Wook Kang,
CEC, MCFE, CFBE, ACE
Chef Instructor, Kendall College
1 (5 ounces) king salmon fillet
1. Preheat a broiler or a grill to the hottest setting.
2. Brush 2 tablespoons of Miso Glaze on top of the salmon.
3. Grill or broil the salmon until medium-rare or desired doneness.
Yield: 4 portions
2 ounces white wine (such as chardonnay)
2 ounces mirin
4 ounces white miso
1 1/2 ounces granulated sugar
1. In a small pot, bring the wine, mirin, miso, and sugar to bring to a boil.
2. Reduce heat to low and whisk until completely smooth.
3. Allow the mixture to cool slightly. Transfer to the refrigerator and cool for 30 minutes. The glaze can be made ahead and will last for about seven days in the fridge.