Mastering Miso's Mysteries Every fall, ever-optimistic food writer Betsy Block buys a jar of miso, a healthful fermented paste of soybeans and grains. And every year, it sits unopened and unused in the back of her fridge. This year was different.

Mastering Miso's Mysteries

Soup and salad, miso-style. Think of the fermented paste of soybeans and grains as a condiment, and cooking with it becomes a lot less daunting. Scroll down for the recipes. Andrew Pockrose hide caption

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Andrew Pockrose

Soup and salad, miso-style. Think of the fermented paste of soybeans and grains as a condiment, and cooking with it becomes a lot less daunting. Scroll down for the recipes.

Andrew Pockrose

A Miso Primer

Author Elizabeth Andoh talks about four common types of miso (although there are many more):

  • Shiro miso, made with rice, is creamy, light and sweet. It's used in making sweets, such as a citrus sauce for fruit or to marinate broiled fish.
  • Mugi miso, which is soy mixed with barley or rye, has yeasty overtones and a whole-bodied graininess. It is often used in soup (strained to eliminate extra texture) or in combination with other types of miso in making sauces or marinades.
  • Hatcho miso is made only from soybeans. This dark, smoky, rich miso originated in China and is somewhat reminiscent of hoisin sauce. It's often slathered on tofu or vegetables or used in soup.
  • Sendai miso is salty and deep brown with bits of beans and rice visible. Andoh says it's wonderful for flavoring meatloaf, hamburger, pasta sauce and ratatouille.

Tips for Using Miso

  • Read the label to make sure there are no added sweeteners.
  • For novices trying to integrate miso into their diets, Andoh recommends starting with light, sweet shiro miso.
  • In general, darker miso has been fermented longer and is saltier and stronger tasting.
  • Never boil miso because high heat kills the aroma (and, some say, healthful enzymes).
  • Andoh says that blue or white mold can be scraped off and the rest of the miso used within a week or so, but if you see pink mold on your miso, throw it out. (This is where Andoh and I part ways. In my North American home kitchen, regardless of coloration, "mold" and "edible" are mutually exclusive.)
  • Although miso loses aroma and flavor over time, it can be stored in the fridge for up to a year. (I can attest to that.)

About the Author

Betsy Block is a Boston-based freelance writer. She is a regular contributor to Kitchen Window and the voice of the blog Mama Cooks.

Every fall, in the midst of one of my optimistic fits of self-renewal, I buy a jar of miso. This fermented paste of soybeans and grains, which is a staple in the Japanese larder, has origins as cloudy as the soup it makes. Many scholars, however, believe it was first used in China more than 2,000 years ago, and that it was brought to Japan, along with Buddhism, in the 6th century.

While there may be some question about its origins, miso is indisputably ancient and revered -- even Confucius wrote about it. But it's also mysterious, at least to me. It is made with rice, barley or rye. It can be salty or sweet, mild or rich, dark or light. There are hundreds of misos out there. Plus, it's heat-sensitive. It loses aroma and healthful enzymes if boiled. If it's so confusing, why bother?

Because not only does it taste great, it's virtuous. Some claim miso neutralizes the effects of smoking and radiation, discourages the growth of cancer, and breaks down cholesterol. Others say it preserves beautiful skin and counteracts the effects of aging. If even a couple of these are true, we should certainly eat more of it.

And so every fall, I'm off to the store to buy some kind of miso made with some kind of grain that I sincerely hope I'll figure out how to use sometime soon.

I then leave the newly purchased jar in the refrigerator for an unspecified amount of time, remember it, dig it out, check for an expiration date, don't find one, wonder whether something that's already fermented can go bad, then throw it out.

Hope, however, springs eternal, which is why I once again have a jar shoved unceremoniously into the back of my fridge. This time it's handcrafted, 3-year-old, organic barley miso, wood-fired, unpasteurized and based on a recipe from the Japanese farmhouse tradition. It sounded good, so I bought it.

A year ago.

This time, though, when I "discovered" it in my refrigerator, instead of chucking it and buying a new jar, I contacted Elizabeth Andoh, renowned Japanese food expert and author of Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen (Ten Speed Press 2005) and asked for help.

Not surprisingly, she was horrified to hear of my wasteful ways. It turned out my current jar was from South River Miso based in Massachusetts, which, Andoh informed me, makes some of the best miso available in the United States. And I was ready to throw it out? "We have to change that," she said firmly, then gave me a quick primer (see left).

After talking with Andoh, I finally understood that miso is nothing to fear. It's just a condiment. I was now in the driver's seat on the miso bus.

It turns out that the dashi, or stock, is incredibly easy, and from there, making miso soup with Andoh-recommended shiro miso is an absolute cinch. In fact, I was feeling so self-confident, I made a second batch at the last minute, riffing on the basic recipe by finally using the miso that had been aging in my fridge for the past year and adding some diced, leftover roasted vegetables. (Andoh later told me that in Japan, sweet potatoes and carrots are usually paired with darker hatcho miso, whereas I had used mellower mugi miso, but, not knowing any better, my family and I liked it anyway.)

I wound up with two gorgeous, delicious miso soups, plus a killer salad dressing that couldn't have been easier to whip up. I had a little swagger in my step as I carried my Japanese version of soup and salad to the table.

I won't be throwing out any more jars.

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