What Is Miso?
Ah, miso! This simple looking thick paste is an essential Japanese staple, and is used across the world in countless recipes. Miso packs a delicious punch of umami flavor that’s both savory and just a little sweet. It adds a wonderful complexity to any dish, which is why it’s such a beloved part of Japanese cuisine – and culture too!
But did you know that there are actually quite a few varieties of miso, named for their different colors?
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular types of miso, and explore why it’s remained so popular throughout Japan’s history.
What Is White Miso?
So what is white miso specifically, you may ask? White miso is a fermented soybean paste that forms the base of soups, ramen stock, glazes, marinades, sauces, and any dish that needs a boost of savory umami.
Also known as shiro miso or kome miso, it’s high in probiotics and contains plenty of vitamins and minerals, making it both healthy and deliciously nutritional.
But it’s not simply eaten by the spoonful. Not at all! Instead of being used as a condiment, miso is added in varying amounts to the cooking process, usually by whisking it into a pre-existing stock or liquid. It’s often thinned out with soy sauce or rice vinegar too.
Where Does Miso Come From?
Miso is so embedded in Japanese history that it’s virtually impossible to accurately trace it back. However, there are theories that say miso first originated in ancient China, and was brought across to Japan by Buddhist monks in the 6th century.
At first, miso in Japan was regarded as such a luxury product that only the upper classes could enjoy it. The nobility sometimes even received their salaries in miso! Back then, miso was used as a spread instead of a seasoning
When soybean production increased in Japan, miso started to become more commonplace. Regional varieties were made by fermenting different ingredients like barley or wheat.
However, the unifying ingredient in these varieties was always koji: either cooked rice or soybeans that contain a starter culture called Aspergillus. It occurs naturally in Japan, which is why there’s so many fermented ingredients in Japanese cuisine - and it’s also what enables the creation of soy sauce, sake and mirin.
How Is Miso Made?
Miso is made by a process of fermentation. Soybeans are first soaked overnight before being cooked, mashed into a paste, and mixed with a few key ingredients (like salt, koji rice, water, and different additions like barley, wheat, or even seaweed). Your prepared miso is then left to ferment – and to do its own peculiar magic.
While you can feasibly make miso at home as the process isn’t particularly complex, it does take a significant amount of time – two days for the preparation of the paste itself, then anywhere up to 12 months of fermenting until the miso has matured.
White Miso vs Yellow Miso vs Red Miso
Three of the most popular and commonly used misos are known colloquially as white, yellow and red.
The difference between these types of miso comes down to the amount of rice used, and the length of time that each is left to ferment. Generally, the lighter the color of the miso, the milder the flavor.
White miso, also known as shiro miso, is the mildest of the three that we’ve outlined here. White miso is only fermented for three months and is made with a large percentage of rice, which means the resulting miso is a light color and has a mild taste.
While there are many ways to describe miso depending on your particular palette, it’s usually known to be gentle and mild with a slightly nutty and sweet flavor. It’s best used for making light sauces, dressings and glazes.
The most pungent of the three, yellow miso has a similarly mild flavor to white miso but there’s also an earthiness present. Also called shinshu miso, this type of miso is fermented for a little longer than white miso and has usually been made with barley-fermented soybeans.
It’s certainly an adaptable miso, ranging in color from a pale, light yellow to a lightish brown. You can use yellow miso for plenty of dishes: generally you’ll see it in condiments as well as glazes, marinades, and soups.
Red miso, or aka miso, uses more soybeans and is often fermented for a much longer time, between 1 to 5 years. This means the color becomes much darker, ranging from a pale brown to a near-black, and the flavor is much stronger and saltier too.
As such, dark misos like this one are suited for hearty dishes: we’re talking heavy soups, marinades and deliciously rich stews. The strength of red miso’s flavor means it can easily overpower a simpler dish.
How to Cook with White Miso
When cooking at home, it’s best to use white miso. The mild taste is perfect for the majority of dishes you’ll attempt, and as it’s less pungent it won’t sully the entire dish if you accidentally use too much!
Miso soup is the most well known meal that utilizes this ingredient, but there are plenty of others to try too. Some of the best meals you can make using white miso paste include:
- Miso ramen: adding miso to your ramen stock elevates the meal to a different level entirely. That said, you could also try this delicious instant ramen with a miso-based broth which takes mere minutes to make.
- Miso soup: the all-time classic use for miso, which is both simple and sophisticated. Why not try it with added kinoko (mushrooms)?
- Miso dressing: you might not think it’d work, but miso combined with soy sauce and orange juice makes a fantastic and versatile dressing! Try it on salads or fish dishes.
- Miso stir fry sauce: to balance out the umami from the miso, use rice vinegar, sugar and soy sauce along with some cornstarch for thickening. You’ll be left with a quick and easy stir fry sauce that’s wonderful with noodles.
- Miso marinade: particularly well suited for salmon or steak strips.
- Miso glaze: this is perfect for fish, meat, vegetables – whatever you fancy glazing! We love miso-glazed ham in particular, though a miso-charred aubergine is pretty spectacular too.
How to Store Miso
Once it’s been opened, a pot or jar of fresh white miso paste will last for a long time in the fridge. It’ll probably taste the same for around a year, but the best quality will be for about three months after opening, as long as you keep it airtight. That’s because miso has a high salt content which labels it as a ‘preservative food’, and being kept at a low temperature allows it to remain unspoiled.
In fact, miso’s fermentation process means it’s actually alive, in a way, and fermentation continues to occur (albeit extremely slowly) while in its packaging. How’s that for a fun fact?
Where to Try White Miso
Whether it’s savory dishes or sweet treats, there’s a place for miso in almost every type of meal. Why not try out your own Japanese snack box from Bokksu Boutique? We have plenty of delicious Japanese treats for you on our shelves - and many of them are miso flavored too!