A comprehensive guide to types and usages
Miso is a traditional fermented soybean-based paste used in Japanese cuisine. It is perhaps most famous in the West for its use in the eponymous miso soup, but it is in fact a highly versatile ingredient, used in numerous cooking styles to create a wide range of flavours.
Miso is a considerably more complex and variable group of products than many people realize, and the nomenclature and variety is often misrepresented. Regardless of the variety, traditionally made miso is flavourful, simple to use and nutritionally dense, though generally high in salt.
Miso is occasionally marketed as miso paste. In Japanese, miso is みそ or 味噌. Other words are added to the word miso to indicate the type or variety. It should not be confused with any of the other soybean-based pastes found in Asia, including doenjang (Korean), huangdou jiang (Chinese), or doubanjiang (Chinese).
AKA MISO (赤味噌) or Red Miso – A relatively strong but very versatile miso, fermented naturally for 1-3 years or using controlled temperatures for 3-4 months. Possibly the most versatile of all rice-based miso varieties, it is well-suited to a broad array of dishes. It also tends to be one of the saltier miso varieties, and one of the lowest in carbohydrates. Famous Japanese varieties include Sendai, Echigo, Sado, and Tsugaru. Most modern varieties are relatively chunky. There are a few sub-varieties that may be encountered, including:
- Mellow Red Miso (Amakuchi Aka Miso) – A red miso prepared with normal salt levels and substantially reduced koji culture levels, this miso is lower in carbohydrates and a little sweeter than normal red miso. Normally fermented for 6-12 months, there are also Note also that there are Hawaiian mellow red misos, but these are not the same product (see below).
- Sweet Red Miso (Edo Miso, Edo Ama Miso) – A Tokyo specialty with lower salt and higher carbohydrate levels, this mellow, pleasingly sweet miso has long been popular for making simmered dishes, desserts and sweet treats. It begins to change in flavour fairly quickly after being made, making it difficult to export or obtain outside of Japan. A reasonable approximation can be made by mixing 3 parts red miso and 1 part honey.
SHIRO MISO (白味噌) or White Miso, – A Kyoto specialty that has now become popular around the world, this sweet, mild miso is made with a large proportion of rice koji. White miso is quite sweet and very popular in desserts, light soups and stews, and alongside fresh or lightly cooked vegetables (it has become a popular salad dressing component). It is also popular as a pickling agent (i.e. for miso-zuke), but this is only true in regard to pasteurized versions. It has the highest proportion of carbohydrates and the lowest salt level of any miso and ranges in colour from a yellowish white to a medium yellow. Though it can slightly chunky, it is generally fairly smooth. Because white miso is quick to produce (its high levels of sugar cause it to undergo fermentation rapidly), it is not as shelf-stable as some other miso varieties. Unfortunately, this has led to the production of many heavily adultered versions, including bleaches, preservatives, and sweeteners. Many of these are also pasteurized. Fortunately, good quality, traditionally made white miso is becoming easier to find as interest in the product grows. This product should always be refrigerated – older white miso may redden slightly and develop a slightly alcoholic taste (though it will remain usable in this state).
SHINSHU MISO (信州味噌; often called Yellow Miso, but also confusingly called White and Red Miso – see note below) – When made traditionally made, this miso from Nagano Japan resembles a lighter, less salty, tangy Sendai red miso. In its modern form, it is generally a quickly-produced smooth miso with a smooth, yellow to yellow-brown, with a light aroma and a mellow, slightly tart flavour. It tends to be a little lower in salt and protein than other miso varieties. Many modern quick-misos are made in this style, and some of these have colouring, flavouring, or preservative additives.
NOTE: Shinshu miso is a name that can only be applied to miso made using traditional ingredients and processes (at least in Japan), and so the quick-made varieties use other names. In English, the name yellow miso is very commonly used for this purpose, while a variety of Japanese names may be used (many of which are, confusingly, used for both traditional and quick miso pastes). That being said, thanks to the vagaries of translation, any number of English names may be used for quick misos, and the term yellow miso may still be used to refer to a traditionally made variety. When in doubt, try to consult the ingredients and, if possible, the fermentation method.
AWASE MISO (aka Mixed Miso) – Technically any miso can be mixed together (resulting in Chou Miso, which also means mixed miso), but this variety specifically refers to a mix of red and white miso varieties.
GENMAI MISO (玄米味噌) or Brown Rice Miso – This miso is made with brown rice instead of white rice. Genmai miso is deliciously nutty and rich, and generally fermented for 6-18 months. It’s well suited to the same sorts of dishes that would use red miso, though its flavour profile is quite different. It can be a little tricky to make, but good varieties from reputable companies are becoming easier to find. Interestingly, genmai miso has generally been more popular in North America than in Japan.
MELLOW HAWAIIAN MISO – Sometimes called Hawaiian-style miso, these mild, relatively sweet, less potent miso pastes were developed in Hawaii, and are still predominately found there. They tend to function as something of an ‘all-purpose’ miso, easily added to sweet and savoury dishes without overwhelming the flavours already present. White mellow miso is the most common, but red miso is made as well.