It’s become such a staple in my cooking arsenal that I sometimes forget that not everybody knows and loves miso as much as I. That said, the whole fermented foods craze has certainly introduced the stuff into a lot of American fridges and plenty of people have slurped down tiny bowls of miso soup at sushi restaurants. But what is this innocuous-looking paste from Japan? Let’s get into the nitty gritty.
What is it and how is it made?
Miso is traditionally made with fermented soybeans, but just about any kind of bean or grain (or combination thereof) could be used—some producers have even made miso with corn. The bean or grain is combined with water, salt and koji, a rice product that’s inoculated with the mold Aspergillus oryzae. (Remember back when we wrote about how sake is made? Koji is used in that process as well.) This mixture is left to ferment for anywhere from a few days to two years. Different types of miso have very different flavors, but most of them have a base flavor of salty, umami goodness.
How do I use it?
The easiest and most traditional way to consume miso is in miso soup, which simply consists of miso, stock or water, vegetables and, optionally, tofu. Add the sliced raw veggies and (preferably silken) tofu to the boiling water or stock, cook for a few minutes, then take off the heat and whisk in the miso (stirring in the miso too early can kill the active cultures). When cold season comes back around, I’ll be making this one every day. Other ways to use miso? Add it to your sauces, glazes and dressings. I like to stir a teaspoon of miso into some tahini and lemon juice to put on top of roast veggies or in sandwiches and wraps. Add some to your polenta or oatmeal with some greens for a nice savory variation on hot cereal.
Is it good for you?
Heck yeah it’s good for you. Miso is packed with protein and vitamin B-12, making it an excellent ingredient for vegan and vegetarian diets. Since it’s a fermented food, it’s also got some good live active cultures in it, which are great for digestive health. However, it’s also high in sodium—so use in moderation, especially if you have high blood pressure.
Where can I get it?
These days, you can get miso at just about any supermarket in the health foods aisle. Visit Talin Market, Asia Market or any other Asian food market in town to have a wider selection (barley miso is my fave), or pick up the curated stuff from La Montañita or Whole Foods.
Can I make it at home?
You can! As long as you’re patient. You’ll need a fermenting crock or a similar non-porous vessel that can be weighed down from the top. For good make-at-home miso recipes, check out Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz and The Book of Miso by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi. Or check out Brad Leone’s video recipe for miso over at Bon Appetit if you want to crack up while you learn stuff.