What is Miso?
My first “miso moment” came as I was searching for a vegan pesto recipe. I wondered if there could really be a substitute for the salty, earthy, slightly tangy undertones of parmesan cheese. The pesto recipe in The Candle Café Cookbook called for one tablespoon of sweet white miso along with basil, oil, nuts, and garlic. I was desperate to find a solution to my pesto problem, so I drove to the nearest natural food store and wandered the aisles until I found miso. The result was an epiphany! The pesto was as good as any I’d ever eaten. I was smitten. I’ve since tweaked Candle Café’s approach and created my own Gracious Vegan Basil Pesto recipe. Of course, the irreplaceable miso is still there.
Miso basics. Miso is a paste made from infusing soybeans with a mold called koji. The mixture (with salt added) is fermented for weeks, months, or even years, and the enzymes in the koji break the beans down into a thick paste. Traditional miso is made from soy, but miso can also be made from barley, rice, or other grains. Japan is the birthplace of miso, and the paste’s history goes back thousands of years.
What miso tastes like. Miso is not spicy-hot at all. It has a salty, earthy flavor. There are many kinds and colors of miso, so you might hear about “red miso,” “white miso,” or “barley miso.”Generally speaking, the lighter the color of the miso, the lighter and sweeter the taste. Red and brown misos are the tangiest, with a deep earthy (or umami) flavor. If you’re reluctant to try new things like miso, start with white miso.
How to find miso. Most large grocery stores stock small white plastic tubs of miso near the tofu, dairy substitutes, and vegetarian meats. Asian grocers often carry a larger variety of miso, some in sealed plastic bags or clear plastic tubs.
How to store miso. Miso keeps a long time, like most fermented foods. It can last 9-12 months in the refrigerator in a container with a tight lid.
What to make with miso. Miso is not meant to be eaten straight out of the container. The most common use of miso is miso soup. It can also star in gravy, stir-fry sauces, and as part of a paste for broiling tofu. Here are two of my favorite dishes with a healthy dose of miso: Candle-Café-Inspired Stir Fry and Creamy Broccoli Soup.
As in my pesto recipe, miso can also be a small but foundational ingredient in vegan cheeses (see my Gracious Vegan Parmesan Cheese and the Mascarpone in my Rich and Creamy Vegan Tiramisu).
Don’t boil miso if you can help it. The healthy probiotics that miso contains (because of the fermentation process) can be broken down in boiling liquids, so it’s important to heat foods containing miso just until hot, not to the boiling point.
Miso’s nutrients. Although miso has a relatively high level of sodium (200-300 milligrams per teaspoon), recent research has shown that miso does not seem to affect our cardiovascular system in the way that other high-sodium foods can. Miso contains copper, manganese, Vitamin K, and a number of phytonutrients that nutritionists are just starting to understand.
There appear to be only upsides to eating miso. Given how its unique flavor adds a flavor bump to all sorts of dishes, it’s worth a try if you don’t use it already.