Know Your Miso: A Guide to the Three Main Styles

It's the Key to Umami

jar of miso paste
Martí Sans/Stocksy

You’ve likely seen miso in many different menus and woven into recipes, but you may not really know what it is and how to use it. Miso is a fermented paste that’s made from grain, soybeans, salt, and kōji, a type of fungus that’s used to make soy sauce and saké. It has a savory flavor, adding that extra oomph you didn’t know you needed in your life.

Miso was birthed in ancient Japan, where each region and subculture imparted their own impression on a basic recipe. As such, it’s a deeply meaningful ingredient in Japanese cooking and today, there are literally hundreds of varieties of miso. They can generally be divvied up into three categories: white, red, and awase. Each differs based on the primary grain they use as well as the length of time they’re fermented for, dictating its color and flavor.

A great tip to live by when it comes to miso? The deeper its color, the more intense its flavor. Keep a hunk of it in on-hand to put a little funk into your soups, sauces, dressings, and even desserts. When stored in either the fridge or the freezer, it can keep for up to a year and depending on the quality of the miso, it may even taste better with time. You can readily find miso in grocery stores these days, but if you want one of the more uncommon varieties, your search may lead you to an Asian market. It’s a wonderful and unique ingredient—learn about the three main miso styles, along with a few niche varietals, and what to expect from each one. 

White Miso

Also referred to as shiro miso and sweet miso, this can be thought of as the gateway variety due to its delicate and subtly sweet flavor. White miso is made with a high rice-to-soybean ratio and is fermented for a short period of time, from a few days to three months. It can have a slightly chunky texture, but most often it’s ground into a creamy paste that dissolves quickly and is easy to work with. Being more mild than pungent, we liken its character to a young cheese, but it still adds plenty of complexity in dishes. Use it in this classic Japanese miso soup or swap it for the salt in this recipe for quick pickled vegetables. It will also meld perfectly in vegan miso dressing, great for drizzling on any crispy, fresh salad. Or, you can be a miso maverick and stir a dab of it into your chocolate fudge to round out its rich flavor. White miso is versatile, so you can really bend some rules with this variety.   

Red Miso

Red miso is also known as aka miso and its color can range from ruddy red to nearly black, while its texture is often chunky. It uses more soybeans than white miso and while it also can use rice, it’s common to see other grains like barley or rye on its ingredient list. Red miso is also fermented for longer, ranging anywhere from one to three years. This creates its pronounced flavor, which is both salty and umami. Red miso will overpower simpler, fresh ingredients, but it makes for a unique addition to heartier meals, like braised pork belly or earthy mushroom risotto. Or, how about that unsalted butter that’s been languishing at the back of your fridge? Chop some chives up and fold a spoonful of red miso into it. Now you have yourself an ultra-chic compound butter, perfect for smearing over crusty bread or poached cod.  

Awase Miso

For those of us with taste buds like Goldilocks, awase miso may be your match. It’s a mix of both white and red miso, so it’s both a tad sweet and a tad sharp. Swap it for the white miso in this marinade or make an Asian-inspired aioli. Pair it with a teriyaki dipping sauce and roasted Brussels sprouts at your next dinner party. Your guests will swoon.

Specialty Misos

Miso is enjoying increased popularity stateside, allowing several niche varieties to emerge on market shelves. If you love what the basic misos do for your food, keep an eye out for both genmai and hatcho miso. “Genmai” translates to “brown rice,” which is the primary grain used in this type of miso and a departure from the usual white rice found in others. It makes for a nuttier miso that deepens the flavor of grilled vegetables and the dashi stock in agedashi tofu. Hatchō miso is a brazen beast, made only with fermented soybeans and salt. It’s dark and intense, with a flavor that sticks on the palate. To avoid an overly powerful flavor, use it in otherwise simple dishes, like seared salmon, drizzled with cold-pressed sesame oil