The What, Why, and How of Miso by Anjuli

Posted on 06-26-09 · Tags: ,

Really bad photo of really good miso

We all know it’s been raining like WHAT??!!, and apparently won’t end anytime soon. While I can’t suggest cures for rain blues and b*tchiness (other than a shot of Whiskey), I can offer up my tricks for the rain: miso, a rain shell with a billed hat (mine is a simple EMS), and giant green rain boots with tiny tennis rackets (yes, that’s right). The shell will keep you dry outdoors, the miso cozy and healthy indoors, and the boots… they let you stomp around in puddles. These tricks (all three) may make you stick your tongue out. I’m not going to argue style and function with you, but I will speak to the food. Miso, how the Japanese eat it, and how any who make it at home eat it, is not how you find it at a Westernized sushi restaurant in a US city.

There are few foods that make my whole body feel comforted. Miso is one of them. Indian dal is another. Until my trip to Japan I didn’t think much (good) of miso. The slimy seaweed felt like slippery thin plastic, the tofu had no flavor, and the gritty, tannish dust floating in a clear broth looked like dirt kicked up from a still water pond. I won’t entirely berate you with my reborn story, but I will say that in the two weeks I was in Japan, I looked forward to that lacquer bowl every meal. And every meal I was surprised with its complexity, its distinction from the last miso I had been served, and how incredibly good I felt every morning waking up. Leaving its warmth, I traveled back to the states, got a cold almost immediately, and stayed sick for about four months. I can’t yet reliably confirm that foods have such a powerful impact (I dream that they do, but need more evidence), but I swear that the miso kept me healthy. That and shochu. Lots of shochu. What I will do is give you a little background and tell you how I make it, in the hopes that if you don’t know, you soon will too.

Westerners commonly compare the restorative and comforting qualities of chicken noodle soup to that of miso. But unlike its Western counterpart, miso is fermented, and as such is a living food made up of a number of microorganisms that have a number of healthful and pleasurable qualities.

We westerners tend to turn to cold tonics as restorative foods (juices, smoothies, enhanced waters, kombucha, etc). Other than the simple facts of their vitamins, minerals, and organisms, these tonics do nothing for us. The very simple, comforting qualities of a warm, easily digestible food are remarkable.

In cooking, miso is very versatile, and can be used like a bouillon in soups, in dressings, sauces, and dips, as a base for sautes, steamed foods, and in place of salt and vinegar for pickling.

About Miso and Fermentation
The ancestor of present-day miso, chiang (pronounced jang), originated in China some 2,500 years ago. It was brought to Japan during the 6th or 7th century by Buddhist priests, where it was transformed into shoyu and miso.

According to my wonderful copy of the 1970s Western treatise to the food, The Book of Miso (my cover is way cooler), the three most common types of miso are: rice (mugi, 麦), barley (tsubu, 粒), and soybean (aka, 赤). The first two are made from soybean, salt, and the respective grain, and the third made only with soybean and salt. Miso can also be found in many other styles and preparations, including layered (awase, 合わせ), made sweet and white with rice (shiro, 白), and made with brown rice (genmai, 玄米).

As far as heath, the preventative, restorative, and digestive qualities of miso have been spoken about for centuries. Although some of them are still argued by scientists, I choose to enjoy miso and experiment for myself. Miso is a good source of protein and B vitamins. Its alkaline quality can help to counterbalance the largely acidic diet we eat (comprised of sweets, meats, alcohol, and coffee), and help to alkalinize our blood.

Fermented foods like miso have also been considered beneficial in fighting off disease. The bacteria in miso is said to be antagonistic to both e. coli and staph infections. Fermenting foods naturally helps to preserve them, make them more easily digestible, remove toxins, help them to function as antioxidants, and introduce new nutrients. And my favorite, fermentation also helps to transform texture, flavor, and aroma, commonly found with milk (cheese), soybeans (miso), grapes (wine), and grains (beer).

A phenomenal book in the strengthening powers of fermented foods is Wild Fermentation, whose author Sandor Felix Katz was sick from AIDS, thought he was going to die, then found fermentation and moved to a commune in Kansas. He has been fermenting, living, and lecturing on the benefits ever since. To quote Katz:

“Humans have always appreciated the distinctive flavors resulting from the transformative power of microscopic bacteria and fungi. One major benefit of fermentation is that it preserves food…It [also] breaks them down into more easily digestible forms. Soybeans are a good example. This extraordinary protein-rich food is largely indigestible without fermentation.”

How Miso is Made
According to my Book of Miso, rice is soaked, drained, steamed, and then cooled. Then a “koji starter” (spores of aspergillus oryzae) is mixed in. Individual strains of koji are highly prized (like yeast starters for bakers), as they impart unique flavor to the miso. The rice is then laid in a moist environment for around 45 hours, at which point the starter grows into a white mold “koji” covering the surface.

The koji is then broken up and combined with the cooked soybeans, cooking liquid, and salt, and a sample of miso from a previous batch. The ingredients are mashed (traditionally with the feet like wine), and laid in 6-foot-deep cedar vats and weighted down. This mold produces enzymes to bread down the protein, starches, and fats into more readily digestible amino acids, simple sugar, and fatty acids. During this enzymatic digestion, a liquid forms on the surface which creates a seal and prevents contaminating microorganisms from touching the miso. Once the ingredients have been broken down, yeasts and bacteria propagate (primarily pediococcus halophilus and lactobacillus delbruekii), which transform the simple sugars into various organic acids which give the miso its unique flavor. The yeast reacts w/ sugars to produce alcohol, contributing to the aroma. Prolonged fermentation mellows the sharpness of salt and blends the aromas and flavors. Slowly the miso goes from tan or yellow to deeper browns. It takes 1 to 3 summers (when the miso is most active) to be ready.

Miso: What/Where to Buy
I buy mine at Sunrise Mart on 9th Street and 3rd Ave, and have happily (but slowly) been making my way through their stock. I strongly suggest buying just miso, not the Iri Dashi (also contains the broth ingredients). While it saves time, making miso this way leads to boring flavors. As is with all soups, you have to take the time to build!

When looking at the labels, you want to make note of the following:

  • Color – Colors go from blond or tan to light brown to a deep red/brown. As is true with wines, it’s fairly common that the darker the color the longer the miso has been fermented.
  • Ingredients – rice, barley, soybean, or combination (rice miso is usually the lightest, followed by barley, then soybean)
  • Iri Dashi – If there is dashi (broth ingredients) present in the paste it will say “iri dashi,” “katsuobushi,” “dashi,” or include “bonito,” “fish flakes,” or “kombu” in the ingredients.
  • Price – From what I’ve seen the range is $4-$15 for around 28oz at the New York Asian marts
  • Saltiness – Miso ranges in saltiness from 5-13% sodium. Check the mg of sodium per tablespoon to determine how salty a particular type is. There’s roughly 15g per tablespoon, so for a miso with 870g per tablespoon, it’s roughly 5.8%. The longer the fermentation, the more mellow the saltiness will be. Sweeter miso works well with dressings and saltier with spreads.

From there you can experiment with different flavors, etc. Also similar to wine, different regions in Japan produce different styles of miso. Kyoto’s pickles, shoyu, and miso all have a distinct lighter, sweeter, and clearer quality. Other than Kyoto, I lean to the saltier, darker soybean miso. Shirakiku’s (Shin-Shu Aka MIso) is a longer fermented rice miso with a deep, ruddy brown that I found to be pretty versatile. Check out the miso wikipedia entry for more ingredients/styles. I am just starting off so for anyone with favorites, opinions, good resources, I’d love to know!

Making Miso Soup

Making the Dashi (出汁, だし)
The dashi is a rich, clear broth flavored with the Japanese seaweed kombu and flakes of skipjack tuna called bonito flakes (or katsuobushi in Japanese). Styles and opinions of dashi vary considerably, but this is the most basic recipe. I love the meaty, savory, buttery quality of shiitake, so I put a dried one in my dashi while it’s boiling.
4″ dried kombu (昆布) or other thick dried Japanese seaweed (available at organic marts, some grocery stores, and Asian marts), wiped clean with a wet paper towel
1 dried shiitake (optional)
1 cup bonito flakes (katsuobushi, 鰹節 or かつおぶし?) (available at Asian marts)
6 cups water

Boil the the water, kombu, and shiitake in a medium heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Once it reaches a boil, remove from the heat and take out the kombu and shiitake. Add the bonito flakes. Allow the water to cool (10 minutes). Strain out the bonito flakes. Dashi can be kept in the fridge.

Making the Miso
5 tablespoons miso paste (available at Asian marts)
A handful of mizuna leaves, washed and woody stems removed -OR- a small handful of wakame (わかめ, ワカメ, 若布?) seaweed in 1/4 inch slivers (usually comes in packets)
2 shiitake mushrooms, cleaned with a wet paper towel and sliced thinly -OR- a handful of enoki mushrooms, washed and bottoms cut off
2 scallions, washed and sliced thinly
A hunk of silken or soft tofu, cut into 1/4 inch dice (available in Asian markets, don’t get the processed American kind available in Whole Foods. Ewwww)

Miso can be kept out at room temperature, but if you do decide to keep it in the fridge, bring it out to warm up as well in advance of making your miso. Put your dashi (or return, depending on if you’re doing it head) in a medium heavy-bottomed saute pan and turn on to high. Add in the seaweed, mizuna, and shiitake. Once it reaches a slow boil, ladle out a cup of broth into a bowl and stir in the miso paste. Make sure to break it up entirely, rubbing the chunks with the back of a spoon. Add the miso+broth into the soup along with the tofu. Turn off the heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Garnish with the scallions and serve with chopsticks and Japanese or American soup spoons.

  1. Wild Fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz

  1. Courtney Bearns wrote:

    This is great! I adore a good miso – it’s my default comfort food. I’ve tried making it “from scratch” before with a similar recipe, but it was decidedly bland and un-tasty. I’m looking forward to trying this method!

    July 8th, 2009 at 4:47 pm
  2. Erech Hilbun wrote:

    I liked your piece very much; but I am new to miso so I need deeper help with the tech part.

    Thank you very much for your insight.


    March 27th, 2010 at 10:27 pm
  3. Geraldine Kirkmeyer wrote:

    I want to know at what temperature the probiotics in miso die so I can avoid that temperature.

    March 15th, 2016 at 10:16 pm

What do you think?