By Cary Neff, Experience Life
In Japan, making miso — a basic cooking ingredient and condiment that’s aged like wine and cheese — is an art. But that doesn’t mean it’s complicated to prepare or eat. A good alternative to straight salt, miso is a snap to use in soups, sauces, spreads, salad dressings, dips and marinades.
Miso is a fermented soybean paste, or sometimes a rice or barley paste, that is similar in consistency to nut butters.
Savory, complex, rich and salty, miso is considered a umami flavor. (Umami is the fifth flavor — after sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Learn more about it in “The Secret Flavor,” from our July/August 2009 archives.) Miso comes in a variety of colors and variations: Red miso has a rich, savory, salty flavor; light yellow miso is less salty with a subtle tartness and smooth texture; and white miso features a more delicate flavor. You see this variety because some misos — in addition to their base of legumes or grains, and the mold, called koji, added to ferment them — can contain brown rice, white rice, barley, wheat, buckwheat or ginger. Miso’s flavors also become more complex over time; “bean paste” may be fermented for months or years. You can find miso — which is sold refrigerated in a plastic or glass jar, a sealed bag, or in bulk — in Japanese and natural food markets and, increasingly, in conventional grocery stores.
One tablespoon of miso provides 2 grams of easy-to-digest protein and a rich array of probiotic (healthy) bacteria. Miso is also a good source of tryptophan, which helps the body synthesize that protein; manganese, an enzyme activator; zinc, critical to the immune system; and manganese and copper, which are essential for antioxidant functioning and energy production. It’s of particular value for vegetarians because it’s high in vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids (primarily found in animal sources). Miso is high in sodium, though, so don’t go overboard with it as a seasoning.
Miso is a delicate, living food, so take care to add it at the end of cooking. It’s good practice to remove your dish from heat and then stir in miso. If reheating, use low heat and bring to a light simmer. Avoid boiling.
- For a quick and easy miso broth, mix 2 cups of water with 2 tablespoons of miso. Adjust the amount according to the type of miso used and your taste preference. Add any desired ingredients.
- For miso mayonnaise, combine 1/3 cup of mayonnaise with 2 tablespoons of white miso. Use in salads or on sandwiches — anywhere you would use mayonnaise.
- Miso marinade or basting sauce is delicious with tofu, chicken, beef or salmon. Mix 2 tablespoons of red miso, 1 teaspoon of canola oil, 1/2 teaspoon of agave nectar, 1/2 teaspoon of grated ginger, 1/4 teaspoon of minced garlic and 2 tablespoons of water.
- If smaller containers are available at your grocery store, try buying a variety of miso flavors to test in different recipes.
- Miso paste will keep several months in the refrigerator. For miso in plastic bags, take care to remove excess air from the bag after opening, or move the miso to an airtight container. If purchasing in bulk, buy from vendors who practice safe food handling and be sure the miso is fresh.
Chef Cary Neff is the president of the consulting firm Culinary Innovations and the author of the New York Times bestseller Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002).