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.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

Dashi (Basic Sea Stock)

Andrew Pockrose
Andrew Pockrose

Adapted from Elizabeth Andoh's Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen (Ten Speed Press 2005).

If you think of miso as a condiment, it will set you free. Use it in place of salt in meatloaf, meatballs, tomato sauce and more.

This simple recipe for a dashi, or homemade stock, requires kombu (seaweed) and bonito flakes (dried, shaved fish), both readily available at Asian food markets and other stores across the country.

Makes about 1 quart

15 to 20 square inches kombu

4 1/4 cups cold water, preferably filtered or spring

1/2 cup loosely packed bonito flakes

Place the kombu in a pot with the water. To draw out maximum flavor and nutrients, let soak for 10 to 15 minutes before turning the heat on to medium.

Remove the pot from the heat as soon as small bubbles begin to break on the surface and at the edge of the pot. Add the bonito flakes, scattering them across the surface of the water. After several minutes, the flakes will begin to sink. The larger the flakes, the longer they'll take to sink. Within 3 to 4 minutes of adding the fish flakes,

pour the stock through a fine strainer lined with cheesecloth or a doubled-over paper towel.

If you're not using the dashi right away, it will keep in the fridge for a few days. (Andoh says it doesn't freeze well.) Let it cool before covering it tightly and putting it away.

Signs of spoilage include a sweet smell (rather than a smoky one), a film forming on the surface or around the edges of the container, or stickiness when pouring.

Miso Soup

Andrew Pockrose
Miso Soup
Andrew Pockrose

Adapted from Elizabeth Andoh's Washoku.

Andoh recommends shiro miso because it's mild and somewhat sweet. But she says you can use any kind of miso in this soup recipe, so if you already have some (ahem) unopened in your fridge, now's the time to crack it open.

Serves 4

1 package enoki mushrooms, about 3 ounces, trimmed

2 watercress sprigs or 2 scallions

3 1/2 cups dashi

1/2 block extra-firm tofu, diced

3 tablespoons miso

Cut the trimmed mushrooms into thirds. Place the pieces with the caps directly into individual soup bowls and the remaining stem portions into a pot.

Chop the leaves and stems of the watercress coarsely. If using scallions, trim away the root and cut both the white bottoms and green tops into thin circles. Divide the garnish among the bowls.

Add the dashi (stock) to the pot holding the mushroom stems and bring to a boil over high heat. When the stock begins to boil, skim away any froth and reduce the heat to maintain a steady but not vigorous simmer. Add the tofu and cook for 1 minute.

Just before serving, place the miso in a bowl, add some of the hot stock from the pot, stir to mix, then pour this through a fine-mesh strainer into the soup. (This will keep out the miso solids so the soup is clear, not grainy.)

Ladle the soup into the bowls that hold the enoki caps and garnish, and serve immediately.

Miso Fish Marinade

In Washoku, Andoh explains how to make a quick and easy marinade for fish.

Mix together:

1/3 cup shiro miso

1 teaspooon coarse salt

2 tablespoons mirin, a rice wine available at Asian markets and some supermarkets

1 tablespoon sake

1 tablespoon lemon or orange zest

Brush on fish and marinate for 20 minutes before broiling or grilling.

Miso Salad Dressing

Recipe from South River Miso company.

1/2 cup vinegar (or lemon juice)

2 tablespoons sweet, white miso

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 teaspoons honey

2-3 tablespoons water

1/4 cup fresh parsley, basil or chives

1 cup sesame or light vegetable oil

In blender or food processor, mix on high speed all ingredients except the oil. Then, with blender on medium, slowly add the oil. More water can be added if a thinner consistency is desired.