What is Miso? How Do You Cook With It?

by Emi Noguchi

For those with a passing interest in Japanese cuisine, the eponymous miso of miso soup and miso ramen might be dismissed as a flavor. Though miso paste is certainly a flavor powerhouse, it's actually an ingredient—and the soup base—for both dishes. Thus, the names: miso ramen. Miso soup. But what exactly is it?

What is Miso? How Do You Use It?

Simply put, miso is a smooth paste of cooked, mashed, salted, and fermented grains or legumes (typically edamame). It’s used in countless dishes. Udon, nabe (winter hot pot), and marinades contain miso, as do some festival sweets! Miso paste varies in sweetness, saltiness, and that slippery fifth taste, whose name we English-speakers must borrow from Japanese: umami. Perhaps its popularity comes down to its high umami content. Umami (and thus miso) lends a dish a healthy dash of that “crave-it” factor. It’s why so many snacks are coated in umami, like these Whole Oyster Senbei. Senbei, already a deliciously crunchy cracker, is made all the more irresistible by that sweet, salty, umami miso.

The History of Miso

At the grocery store, you’ll likely find small plastic tubs of “white” or “red” miso. White is typically milder and sweeter, while red tends to be saltier, earthier. Today, most miso is machine-made in large batches in carefully calibrated environments. Temperature, air exposure, and humidity can dramatically change a batch’s flavor. Since about 300 BCE, however, miso and its predecessors were homemade. Mothers, grandmothers, and aunties heated their soybeans or grains by boiling or steaming them, then mashing and salting. Koji, an essential fermenting fungus abundant throughout Japan, would be introduced to the mix. Spread in a thin layer and stored in the ceiling for up to a year, homemade miso was subject to climate, weather, and varying light and air exposure through its woven containers. All of these “ingredients” would give the finished product its particular, localized taste. Today, though, most foreigners will experience “red” or “white.” No harm in that! In fact, many Japanese use machine-made miso. Not all apartments have the beams and rafters to support fermenting food for even a day.

How to Use Miso Paste

So, how to use miso paste? I’s called for in many a Japanese recipe, but we recommend you get creative with it! Of course, you’ll want to start with some miso soup to bring that restaurant (or back-home) feeling to your kitchen. You can experiment mixing miso inso soy sauce glazes for squash and other roasted vegetables. Another use for your miso paste? Incorporate it into a marinade for the barbecue. Remember, though: miso is delicious, mighty, and sometimes high in sodium. Proceed with a pinch of caution and a whole lot of excitement. Your meals are about to get elevated. 

How to Make Miso Soup

Finally, you’ve made it to the recipe! It all comes down to ingredients. Though we appreciate flexibility, any miso soup recipe really does require some specific ingredients: dashi (Japanese soup stock), miso paste, and something solid (green onions, soft tofu, tiny clams, nori, mushrooms, etc). Can you make your miso soup recipe vegetarian? Absolutely. Once you’ve read through, you can pick the direction that suits your cooking style, time constraints, and dietary restrictions.

Rice and Shijimi Miso Soup

If you’re interested in making your own miso soup or want a quick fix after a long day of work (or even at lunchtime), Bokksu’s got you covered. We have a wide range of instant miso soups and other dishes so good, you’ll wonder whether there’s not really fresh eggplant in your bowl! If you’ve got a foodie friend, you might gift them a specialty Tuna Japanese curry, so elegantly packaged it needs no wrapping. If you really want to leave an impression, consider this extraordinary Rice & Shijimi Miso Soup Set From Izumo. Even when packaged for consumption across the world, it retains a reverence for local specialization. 

Now back to our recipe: start with the dashi. Dashi is, incidentally, an umami-rich soup stock generally made using two dried ingredients: kombu (a kind of kelp), and bonito shavings, or katsuoboshi. (Vegetarians, you can skip the latter.) If you’d prefer to learn how to make miso soup quickly and easily, we recommend some dashi powder—just measure and stir into boiling water. 

Looking to make your own dashi? Combine katsuboshi (a kind of pink-brown ultra-thin shavings, which you can buy in sets of single-use packets) and dried kombu in hot water. We won’t get into more details, but combine those three, and you’ve got a basic soup stock for your miso soup! Add some miso paste, cubed soft tofu, and your choice of other ingredients you might like. 

Author Bio

Emi Noguchi is a fiction writer, blogger, and freelance writing instructor, and co-founder of MFA App Review. After studying standard Japanese at Columbia University, she picked up Kansai-ben while living in Osaka and some Awa-ben in her paternal hometown in Tokushima. Emi is a 2020 recipient of the John Weston Award and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. You can read her work in Essay Daily, The Spectacle, and Fairy Tale Review. Emi is currently writing a novel about diasporic illnesses, art-making, and traditional Japanese puppetry.