What Is Miso?

Miso paste is a rich and pungent flavoring ingredient in so many Japanese dishes.

Head to any Japanese restaurant and you'll likely be served a bowl of creamy and cloudy miso soup, perhaps with some tofu and green onion. Used as a pungent and rich flavoring ingredient in many dishes in addition to soup, miso is a paste made from a combination of soybeans, plus grains fermented with molds, bacteria and yeasts. A rice mold starter called koji is used to make miso. Much like yeast, it digests starches and breaks them down into fermentable sugars.

Traditionally making miso is a very slow process, and takes months or even years to develop the desired flavor and texture, as microbes break down and transform soybeans into a deeply layered and concentrated flavorful paste. Miso is made with different grains and levels of salt, comes in different colors, and is rich, savory, and salty, sometimes with sweet notes.

a bowl of miso soup with tofu, sliced mushrooms, and diced scallions on a plate with chopsticks in the background
France C

While strongly associated with Japanese cuisine, miso originated in China and was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks around 700 CE and dates back as far as the second century BCE. It was a major condiment until being replaced by another fermented soybean product, soy sauce, in the 1600's. In Japan, miso is used in a very variety of dishes including soups, glazes, dipping sauces, salad dressings, stir-fries, stews, marinades and more. Because it adds umami, the strong savory flavor associated with meat and aged cheeses, it is a popular ingredient in many vegetarian and vegan recipes. Check out some of our favorite recipes with miso paste.

In addition to providing lots of flavor, it's also very healthy. It is a very good source of mineral antioxidants including manganese and copper as well as a good source of zinc. It also contains vitamin K, protein, phosphorus, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, vitamin b2 and choline.

Types of Miso

Typically there are four kinds of miso.

Soybean miso, which is usually red, is made from soybeans, barley, and other grains, and is aged a long time. You only need a little red miso to add intense levels of savoriness to soups, stews, and marinades.

Rice or white miso is primarily made from soybeans and rice. It is fermented less than red miso, is lighter and slightly sweeter and used in more delicate soups, dressings, and marinades.

Yellow or barley miso is used in soups, marinades and vegetable dishes and is lighter than red miso but stronger than white miso.

Finally there is Awase miso, which is a combination of red and white miso and is particularly versatile in recipes.

Miso-Glazed Black Cod
Photo by Chef'd.

Where to Find Miso Paste

Miso is available at most supermarkets and you will find an even wider selection at Asian specialty stores and online. Miso will last at least a year in the refrigerator.

Check out our collection of Japanese Recipes.


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