Miso, a traditional Japanese ingredient, appears everywhere in Japanese cooking. For Japanese people, it is the taste of home, of our mother’s cooking.
It’s also a highly nutritious super food that doubles as a flexible and flavorful ingredient in the kitchen. Miso can be thinned, and then used to make a dressing, left in its thick state as a pickling and marinating medium, spread on broiled foods, or added to simmered dishes. But by far, miso is consumed in great quantities in soups served at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Miso is essentially a fermented soybean paste made with cooked soybeans, salt, water, and fermenting culture called kōji, made from rice, wheat, or barley inocculated with a fungus called Aspergillus oryzae. The soybean mixture is left to mature for six months, or even up to three years. It comes in either smooth or grainy texture, and ranges in color from pale cream to almost steely dark brown.
In addition to giving it a deep color and a delicious flavor, this long fermentation is what makes miso a superfood—it is rich in minerals and calcium as well as various vitamins, including vitamin E, which is absent in soybeans before fermentation. And the fermentation process converts soy protein into a more easily digestible amino acid, so you get the full benefit of a plant-based protein. (Here are 4 more healing soups to boost your immune system.)
Linoleic acid and saponin, both natural chemical compounds found in miso, are known to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Good for bones
The isoflavone and vitamin E in miso reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis.
Reduces risk of certain cancers
A 2003 report published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institutethat tracked 21,852 Japanese women for 10 years showed that eating three bowls (or more) of miso soup every day reduced breast cancer risk was reduced by one half—the results were most dramatic for post-menopausal women.
Research into the role of our gut in our physical and mental health have suggested that miso is good for both: a study published in Psychiatry Researchhas found that people who eat more fermented foods, including miso, had fewer social anxiety symptoms.
After a night of drinking, your body wants amino acids, water, vitamins and minerals to flush alcohol out of your system. A bowl of miso soup has all of those things–plus sodium to help you rehydrate. Speaking from my own experience a bowl of miso soup works wonders after a heavy night of drinking!
Miso shares the same origin with many other Asian ingredients such as Vietnamese fish sauce, and Korean kimchi: It all comes down to the ancient knowledge of preserving food by fermentation. It is widely believed that miso was first invented in the pre-historic China in the form of a salty fermented preservative called hishio and was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks in the 7th century. As the Buddhism spread over the country miso became an important source of protein—especially for inland regions. Miso was a valuable field supply for warring samurai between the mid 15th and the end of the 16th century. Even today, despite the tide of westernization of Japan’s foodways, still millions of Japanese people kick-start the day with miso soup for breakfast.
The traditional method for making miso looked like this: Soybeans were first soaked in water, then cooked, crushed, shaped into balls the size of ostrich eggs, and then tied with straw ropes and hung up, so airborne natural bacteria could start fermentation. After a few weeks, these balls—now hard and moldy—were mixed with salt and water to make miso paste. Until recently, one could sill see rice straw ropes of miso balls hanging under the eaves of rural farmhouses.
These days, miso is made on a much larger scale, the basic elements are the same: cooked rice is inoculated with a bacterial culture to make koji. The koji is mashed with cooked soybeans, water, and salt and then fermented.
Though all miso is made basically the same way, there are different types of miso in colors that range from pale cream, to light brown to reddish to dark chocolate, with flavors that can go from mildly sweet to deeply salty with a rich complexity. In general, the color is a good indication of the taste, lighter the color the less salty the miso tends to be.
Different types of miso. paylessimages/getty
Most of the miso you will find in the United States is kome miso (“rice miso”), which is made with rice culture and cooked soybeans (and sometimes barley). The mixture is left to ferment and develop for anything between six months to three years and the color ranges from pale cream, light brown to reddish brown and taste varies from mild sweet to salty rich savory. In the United States, you might see it classified by color:
White miso (shio miso) is creamy soft, smooth textured, and mild flavored. Good for soups, dressing and marinades. Some even use it in dessert recipes.
Yellow miso (shinshu miso) takes its name from the mountainous central part of the main island, Nagano Prefecture, where it is made. It is smooth-textured, and deep yellow in color, tends to be on the salty side in taste, and is a good all-round miso.
Red miso (aka miso), which includes the famous Sendai miso, comes in both smooth and grainy textures. It is salty in taste, and, like shinshu-miso, is another good all-rounder. This hearty, reddish-brown miso paste is fermented for up to three years, giving it a robust, complex flavor. In Japan, red miso tends to be the choice for dinner time soups; it also makes excellent marinades and dips for fresh vegetables.
At Asian grocery stores, you may find additional varities of miso: mugi miso, made with barley or wheat based culture and generally made in warmer regions of Kyūshū and Shikoku Island. Mame miso, bean miso made purely with soybeans alone and is concentrated in area around Nagoya. It tastes extremely rich and salty with a hint of bitterness and comes in steely dark brown. Chōgō miso means“blended miso,” it uses more than two varieties of culture and popular for its well balanced taste and flavor.
Don’t get too worried about which miso to buy
You can cook with all of them in much the same way; you might just want to vary the amount depending on the flavor of the miso you have. But if you are to get just one type of miso, I recommend choosing versatile yellow miso. (And if the miso at your store isn’t labeled “yellow”, just look for one that’s medium-brown in color.)
(Like what you're reading? Sign up for our newsletter to get health insights, clever kitchen tricks, gardening secrets, and more—delivered straight to your inbox.)
Buying And Storing Miso
In the US there is a wide range of organic non-GMO miso paste, some made in US or imports from Japan available in stores and online. Miso is a fermented food and so it keeps well for a very long time if stored in an airtight non-reactive container placed in a cool dark place.
Eden Organic Foods Miso
One of the oldest organic purveyors in the U.S. offers five different styles of organic misos, including genmai miso, made with organic soy and brown rice (most miso is made with white rice), hacho miso, and mugi miso as well as shiro miso. All of them are free of GE ingredients, and are traditionally made, with slow fermentation times that yield a superfood with great flavor.
Marukome Organic Miso Broth
Made from organic rice and organic (and non-GMO) soybeans, this Japanese miso is widely available in Asian grocery stores, as well as on Amazon.
Miso Master Miso
This line of American organic miso pastes includes an organic chickpea miso (which uses garbanzo beans instead of soybeans as its base) and an organic brown rice miso among its offerings. You can find them at Whole Foods Market and many other natural foods stores, or order from Great Eastern Sun’s website.
South River Miso Company Certified Organic Miso
Based in Conway, Massachusetts, this American miso company has been making traditional miso for 30 years. South River offers traditional misos, aged for 1 to 3 years, as well as unusual flavors like a soy-free azuki bean miso and a soup-ready dandelion-leek (made from foraged wild greens combined with their sweet brown rice miso) that then ages for three months.
How To Make Miso Soup
Whichever miso you try (and try many!), to get you started eating this wonderful food, here are some easy recipes adapted from my book; Cook Japanese At Homefor you to cook in your own kitchens.
When making miso soup, avoid boiling the miso—doing so can cook off some of its subtler flavors and kills the probiotics in the miso (so you'll lose some of what makes it so good for you). If you bring your soup to a boil to cook other ingredients, take it off the heat before adding the miso.
Tofu and Wakame Miso Soup
Among countless variations of miso soups, this is an absolute classic, especially for breakfast. You could consider it Japan’s equivalent of a peanut butter sandwich. If you can’t get your hands on wakame (dried kelp), try watercress, snow peas, or even broccoli instead. The beauty of miso soup is its versatility—go ahead and make it your own.
1. Soak the dried seaweed in 4 tablespoons of water for 10 to 15 minutes and drain. Meanwhile, drain the tofu, and cut it into cubes.
2. Pour the dashi (if using) into a saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium–high heat. Put the miso paste in a small bowl, then add a ladleful of warm dashi from the pot to soften and thin.
3. Add the seaweed, tofu to the pan, and let the soup return to a boil for a few seconds, then turn off the heat immediately.
4. Add the miso to the saucepan, stir until it's mixed in. Ladle into the warmed bowls, garnish with the scallions, and serve immediately.
Shiitake Mushroom and Spinach Miso Soup
The beauty of this recipe, apart from its deliciousness, is that by using the soaking juices of dried shiitake mushrooms, there is no need to prepare dashi.
4 dried shiitake mushrooms
7 ounces fresh Asian mushrooms (such as enoki and shimeji) or assorted fresh mushrooms (such as oyster mushrooms)
1 cup roughly chopped spinach leaves
2¾ tablespoons miso (such as a medium-colored miso)
1 tablespoon roasted white sesame seeds, to garnish
1. Put the dried shiitake mushrooms in a saucepan with 3 ½ cups water and set aside for 10~15 minutes while you prepare the other mushrooms. When the shiitake mushrooms become soft in the water, take them out with a slotted spoon and squeeze to extract as much juice as possible. Remove the tough stems (reserve for making stock or another use) and thinly slice the caps, then return to the saucepan.
2. Trim fresh mushrooms; slice to bite-sized pieces.
3. Place the saucepan with the shiitake mushrooms over a gentle heat and slowly bring to the boil. Add the fresh mushrooms and increase heat to medium to return the soup to the boil. Add the spinach leaves. Remove the saucepan from the heat.
4. Put the miso paste in a small bowl, add a ladleful of soup, and mix to soften and thin the miso paste. Pour the mixture into the saucepan and stir until mixed in.
5. Divide between soup bowls, garnish with the sesame seeds and serve immediately.