What Is Miso and How Is It Used?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Miso soup, silken tofu, wakame seaweed, spring onion
Westend61 / Getty Images

Miso is a fermented paste that adds a salty umami flavor to many Japanese dishes. Most miso is made in Japan, where the ingredient has been used since the eighth century or earlier.

Fast Facts

  • Commonly appears in Japanese cooking
  • Flavor: distinctly salty and funky, but some light misos are also sweet
  • Shelf life: a year or longer
  • Found with other Asian products at the grocery or at Asian markets

What Is Miso?

Miso is a key ingredient in Japanese cooking and forms the base of staple dish miso soup. The paste, similar in texture to peanut butter, is typically a cultured mixture of soybeans, a grain (like rice or barley), salt, and the fungus kōji. Depending on the variety, miso can be smooth or chunky, and ferments for a few weeks to several years.

Varieties

There are more than 1,000 types of miso, ranging in texture, flavor, and color. These factors can be influenced by the ingredients, length of fermentation, and the conditions under which the miso is kept. Miso imported to the United States is typically divided into two main categories: light or white miso and dark or red miso. Some miso is labeled "awase" which is a mixture of more than one kind of miso paste.

White or light miso (sometimes called sweet miso) can be light beige to yellow in color and tends to be lighter and sweeter in flavor thanks to a shorter fermentation time. It's made with less soybeans content and more grains, like white rice. Red or dark miso ranges in color from light brown to almost black and is fermented for longer for a stronger, funkier, and saltier flavor. This miso is made with a higher proportion of soybeans and salt for an intense experience.

Different types of miso can often be used interchangeably in recipes but with varying results. Generally, the darker the color, the stronger the taste. Light misos are better for light dressings and sweets, while dark misos are best for long braises and stews.

While the miso selection is somewhat limited in the U.S., a dizzying variety is available in Japan, with different regions specializing in different types of miso. Varieties like hatcho (a dark miso) and genmai (made with brown rice) can sometimes be found stateside.

Miso Uses

Miso is a paste and can be can simply be mixed into sauces, dressings, batters, and soups. It can be eaten cooked or raw. Since miso is a cultured food, it's best to add it to long-cooked dishes at the end of cooking and to be careful not to boil dishes like miso soup. Too much heat will kill the active bacteria in the miso, reducing its health benefits.

How to Cook With Miso

Miso is ready-to-use right out of the container, and while it is typically not eaten alone, it does not need further preparation. The fermented food adds an umami saltiness to anything from marinades to desserts.

What Does It Taste Like?

Miso ranges in color from pale tan to reddish to very dark brown, and the flavor varies along with it. Generally, miso tastes salty, tangy, and savory on its own. Lighter varieties tend to have more sweetness. It is typically smooth, similar to a less oily nut butter, but some varieties can be chunky. While you can taste miso on its own, it's not meant to be eaten that way. The salty funkiness adds a complex, rich flavor to dishes.

Miso Recipes

The most common use of miso is in Japanese-style miso soup, a traditional dish that's eaten for breakfast and as a part of other meals. Miso also adds a unique burst of flavor to marinades, gravy, other soups like udon or ramen, or vegetable and tofu dishes.

While miso can take center stage in dishes like miso soup, it can also add savory flavor to dishes without overpowering the other flavors. Try adding a small scoop to your favorite sauces, salad dressings, or condiments.

Where to Buy Miso

When shopping for miso, you may find it called "miso paste" or "soybean paste." Look for miso in plastic tubs or jars in Asian grocery stores or the refrigerator section of your local health food store. Some large grocery stores stock miso in plastic tubs near the refrigerated tofu.

Look for miso with a short ingredient list, free of stabilizers and preservatives. Choose a variety (light or dark, etc) that will work best in your planned recipes.

Storage

Since it's a fermented product, miso keeps very well. Store it tightly sealed in the refrigerator, and it will keep for a year or longer. Light miso doesn't have the shelf life of the darker varieties, since it had a shorter fermentation time, and should be used in under a year. Miso does oxidize, so placing a piece of plastic wrap directly against the paste after each use will help prevent discoloring.

Nutrition and Benefits

Because miso is a fermented food, it is a natural source of healthy probiotics (also known as "good bacteria") and is beneficial for digestion. This is why traditional recipes for miso soup specify not to bring the soup to a boil. Note that miso is high in sodium, and the levels vary depending on the type and brand.