By Emma Grace Fairchild:
Miso is synonymous with the cloudy, salty soup served as an appetizer before sushi, but it has a much richer culinary history and application than many people know. Traditionally made in Japan, it is a paste of soybeans and grains fermented with the koji mold, and has a unique umami flavor that varies, depending on the unique recipes and ingredients.
There are different health benefits achieved from eating a high quality miso. First of all, the ingredients themselves provide different flavors, as it is fermented from different legumes, such as soy or chickpea, and whole grains like rice or barley. These foods have long been associated with health benefits when incorporated into a healthy and balanced diet. Beans are a rich source of minerals and proteins and whole grains; and they provide vitamins, nutrient dense oils, and fiber. Another aspect of miso that contributes to a balanced and healthful diet is the fermentation process it goes through, which provides probiotics and releases chemical compounds from soybeans such as phytoestrogens and enzyme inhibitors. Fermentation serves the same purpose as sprouting or soaking your legumes and grains but adds the additional benefit of probiotics. Also worth considering is the prevalence of genetically engineered soy: if avoiding GMOs is important to you, be sure to source miso made from organic soybeans.
Although there are many specific types of miso found across the world, they are all broken down by ingredients and color. Typically, the darker the color, the more umami and salt the miso will have. The lighter varieties (sometimes called white, yellow, or mellow miso) are fermented for the least amount of time and often have a natural sweetness from more grain and fewer soybeans in the initial recipe. The darker varieties, while still having some kind of grain, are often more soybean heavy and can range from a reddish hue to dark brown.
All varieties can be found on the counter, or refrigerated in tubs or pouches in specialty, Asian food, or health food stores. Because it is concentrated, a little goes a long way (sometimes as little as a teaspoon or two), but the upside of this is that, when kept at a cool temperature, it will store for months. Because it is a living and raw product rich with probiotics, keeping the heat low when using miso in recipes is optimal. For example, if making a miso soup from scratch, it’s best to add the miso paste at the end of the cooking process when the water is no longer boiling. Its tasty and salty flavors make it a great ingredient in cooked dishes as well.
Miso is a delicious and healthful addition to many recipes and dishes. As mentioned, the standard is miso soup, which is incredible when made fresh at home with high quality miso paste. By using a base recipe such as this one that uses a macrobiotic approach, you can have a simple meal or appetizer that easily can be modified for personal tastes. For example, you could add shredded carrots or chopped bell pepper, rice or udon noodles, or sliced garlic for additional heartiness or flavor. Noodles in a miso broth uses a richly flavored broth from chickpea miso to flavor hearty udon noodles (but any kind of miso could be used), and mushrooms get a tasty boost in this miso glazed mushroom recipe. Alternatively, many Ayurvedic diets suggest starting your morning with a drink of hot water with miso to alkalize the body and start the digestive system with supportive probiotics and nutrients.
All types of miso can provide a salty component of salad dressings or marinades. Many raw food salad dressings, such as those by Gabriel Cousens and the Rainbow Diet, use miso as the salt component to a dressing while providing valuable enzymes and nutrients. Try this sun dried tomato and cucumber dressing with a mellow miso to dress a chunky salad of chopped veggies and leafy greens.
Finally, marinating veggies, fish or meat in miso paste has endless possibilities as well. Serious Eats suggests marinating all sorts of foods — from different cuts of beef to salmon, scallops or other fish — in a combination of sake, sugar or mirin, and miso.
While starting out, following recipes is a good way to get started, but there’s no need to be strict once you are comfortable using miso. It’s a versatile food with many different flavors and varieties that could very well become your secret ingredient in many recipes. You can find more information and recipes for miso on the web, so go ahead and get creative in the kitchen. Let us know how it goes!