We sell our homemade miso at the shop, so I thought I’d write a little about how I use miso and why I love this ingredient so much.
My love for miso is too large to be contained in just one post, so here is a pair of miso posts: today’s is a primer on what exactly miso is, and tomorrow I’ll post a truly huge list of amazing tips, techniques and recipes for your miso.
Miso is a power ingredient, and it’s my firm belief that no kitchen should be without a jar of white and a jar of red miso. First of all: what exactly is miso?
Good question. Miso is a fermented bean paste. It’s a salty, umami-rich ingredient that lends depth, richness, and body to any dish it touches. In fact, tamari (wheat-free quality fermented soy sauce) has traditionally been made from the liquid exuded from fermenting miso. Miso often works very well to replace soy sauce or sea salt, and though it is of Japanese origin, its flavor can compliment many kinds of dishes. The trick is in knowing what kind of miso to choose. Different types of miso can refer to either how fermented the miso is, or to what ingredients are in it.
The vast majority of misos in the world contain soybeans, but homemade miso can contain whatever beans and grains you like. For the past decade or so I have been making miso myself. It’s a deeply satisfying practice that I can’t recommend enough. I have made miso with many different beans, grains, and even vegetables. Making miso is a simple process, but the fermentation times can be long. The feeling of accomplishment in unpacking a crock of one-, two-, or three-year old miso is intense. For a great recipe for making your own miso, Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation is a wonderful reference.
If you’re not up for making your own miso from scratch, you can buy wonderful miso in every health food store. In the Northeast, my favorite brand of store-bought miso is South River. It is made in small batches with care, and many seasonal varieties are often available. Miso Master is another readily available quality brand.
There are two primary types of soybean miso available in the United States: red and white. White miso is fermented for only a few months, and is therefore much lighter in color and less salty. It is often called “sweet miso” and has such a tame, mellow flavor that it pairs well with all kinds of dishes. On the far other end of the spectrum, red miso is a bold, rich, tangy paste that has been fermented for several years. The only difference between red and white miso is the level of salt and the fermentation time—the fermentation process is what changes the color from white to red.
Brown miso, which is a middle ground between white and red, is often available as well, as are misos made with rice, chickpeas, barley, and more. They are all delicious, and all contribute slightly different flavors to dishes. Experiment to see which you like the best.
When buying miso, make sure that it is refrigerated and labeled “unpasteurized,” or “live.” Cheaper shelf-stable misos have been heat-treated and are devoid of the beneficial bacteria that make real miso one of the healthiest foods you can eat.
Speaking of that beneficial bacteria, several of the techniques listed in tomorrow’s list of miso recipes will, indeed, kill it by heating it. This is not ideal from a health standpoint, but even miso that has been boiled or baked is a superbly healthy product. If you are buying miso that you know will be heated, you might want to save a few dollars and buy the shelf-stable brands, as long as they are organic or state that the soybeans are not genetically modified.
For more information on the health benefits of miso, the vintage classic The Book of Miso has all the info you need, and lots more.
Once you have your miso, it can be stored in your refrigerator almost indefinitely, slowly improving with age. But there are many reasons not to let it languish on a shelf in the refrigerator–coming tomorrow, 40 uses for miso!