What Is Miso and How Can You Use It?

There's more on the menu than miso soup

Miso soup, silken tofu, wakame seaweed, spring onion
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Miso is made from fermented soybeans and is a thick paste-like substance. It doesn't sound particularly delicious, but it has a great umami flavor. It's an essential ingredient for many Japanese food dishes, including the popular miso soup. 

Taste and Color of Miso

Miso is brownish and slightly reddish in color and tastes extremely salty and tangy on its own. Take a little bite if you're curious, but miso is not meant to be eaten plain out of the container as a condiment like hummus. While the most common use of miso is in Japanese-style miso soup recipes like miso ramen soup, miso also adds a unique burst of flavor to salad dressings, sauces and marinades, baked tofu, or vegetable dishes.

Because miso is a fermented food, it is a natural source of healthy probiotics (also known as "the good bacteria") and is great for your digestion, but for this reason, make sure that you never bring your miso soup to a boil, as this kills the healthy bacteria in miso. Just heat until hot, without simmering. 

Varieties of Miso

While traditional miso is usually made from soy, miso can also be made from barley, rice, or other grains. Miso can also look different based on how long it is allowed to ferment and certain regions of Japan tend to specialize in a particular variety.

Different types of miso can be used interchangeably in recipes, and as a general rule, the darker the color, the stronger the taste. If you find the taste unpleasant, look for white or yellow miso rather than a darker brown miso.

Traditional Japanese miso made from soy is gluten-free, but miso made from other grains may not be. Be sure to read the labels carefully if you follow a gluten-free diet.

At the grocery store, you'll usually find miso described by its color or ingredients, such as "red miso", "white miso", or "barley miso". Occasionally, you'll see the Japanese words printed in English on the package too. If you're curious about the Japanese terms for miso, here are a few different types:

  • Kome miso is the most popular and widely produced. Made from soybeans, white and red varieties can be sweet, while light yellow and other red varieties tend to be semi-sweet or full-flavored.
  • Mame miso uses a rice malt and tends to be dark brown with a rich taste.
  • Mugi miso is made from barley malt. The light yellow variety tends to be sweeter than the red, which is very flavorful, very salty, and "full-bodied."
  • Shiro miso is common in the United States and is also sometimes called white miso. It's a bit less salty and made with both soybeans and rice. 

Where to Buy Miso

When shopping for miso, you may also find it called "miso paste" or "soybean paste." Look for miso in plastic tubs in Asian grocery stores or the refrigerator section of your local health food store.

Most larger grocery stores stock a brand of miso which comes in white plastic tubs near the vegan margarine, refrigerated tofu, dairy substitutes, and vegetarian meat substitutes. At Asian grocers, you may be able to find a larger variety of miso. Some of these might come in a sealed plastic bag or a clear plastic tub.

Storing Miso

Because it's fermented, miso keeps very well. Store it in the refrigerator inside a container with a tight seal and it will be good for nine months to a year. Light miso doesn't have the shelf life of the darker varieties. Just to be safe, you should always pay attention to the best-by dates.

Recipes With Miso

While the most common use of miso is in Japanese-style miso soup, miso also adds a unique burst of flavor to sauces and marinades, ramen, or vegetable dishes. You can also use it to make Asian-style salad dressings, such as this recipe for a gingery miso dressing.

If you enjoy potatoes and gravy or need something to top off your Thanksgiving Tofurky, try this five-star creamy miso gravy which is savory and delicious. Another fun way to use miso is this miso-baked tofu recipe, which can be enjoyed as a side, cooked into a variety of vegetarian dishes, or simply served as a sandwich.

There are some people who enjoy a spread of miso on their morning toast. This is going to be a matter of personal taste, though, as it can be rather salty. But, if you're looking for an interesting alternative to vegan margarine or nutritional yeast on your toast, it's worth a try.