At first glance, those new to miso may find the idea of a fermented soybean paste less than appetizing. But if you give it a try, the flavor, versatility and health benefits of miso are bound to change your mind.
How is miso made?
Soybeans are usually the main ingredient in miso, but barley, wheat or rice can also be added. Regardless of the variety of grain or soybean used the most important ingredient is the “koji”. Koji consists of yeast inoculated with a specific type of beneficial bacteria called Aspergillus Oryzae.
After the koji is added to the soybeans and grain, the mixture is allowed to ferment for anywhere from a week to a number of years, depending on the flavor and quality of miso being made. While this may sound a bit strange to newcomers, fermenting food to increase its nutritional value and flavor is nothing new. This ancient process has been used for thousands of years and koji is also incorporated in the making of soy sauce and sake.
As the miso ferments, the healthy micro-organisms in the koji produce enzymes that help break down the proteins, carbohydrates and oils in the grain and soybeans. This process makes the nutrients they contain easier for our bodies to digest and absorb (the benefit of all fermented foods.) After the fermenting process is complete the miso is ground into a smooth tangy paste that is filled with vitamins, protein and beneficial bacteria (the good guys found in our guts.)
The intensity of flavor and color of different misos go hand in hand. “White miso” is less salty and has a mellower flavor, red miso is rather salty and has a notably intense flavor and so on. There aren’t just two types of miso to choose from though; the flavor, texture, color and degree of saltiness also depend on where the miso is produced, how long it is ferments for, if it is pasteurized and the ingredients used.
The four main miso categories you’ll find in stores are:
Shiromiso “White Miso”
Akamiso “Red Miso”
Genmai Miso “Brown Miso”
Awasemiso “Mixed Miso”
There are a number of other varieties though (all fermented with soybeans):
Hatcho Miso “Just soybeans”
Mugi Miso “Barley”
Tsubu Miso “Whole/Wheat Barley”
Soba Miso “Buckwheat”
Natto Miso “Ginger”
Moromi Miso “Unblended”
Nanban Miso “Mixed with chili pepper”
Taima “Hemp Seed”
Nari “Cycad pulp” [found in Buddhist temples]
No matter the variety of miso you choose (as long as it’s unpasteurized and additive free) you’re bound to enjoy the health benefits.*
* Certain studies suggest to receive the optimum benefit miso should be fermented for anywhere between six months to two years.
Cool Facts About Miso and Its Health Benefits:
-With as little as 11 calories per gram of protein, it’s a great source of healthy protein.
-A low fat, high flavor addition to dishes; the strong flavor of miso means a little goes a long way, allowing you to cut down on calories and salt.
-It keeps your systems in balance by alkalizing the body (the body needs to be in an alkaline state, as opposed to an acidic state, to maintain wellness. Acidity is created in the body as a reaction to substances such as animal protein, coffee and sugar.)
-An excellent source of B vitamins, which may include B12 (There are conflicting reports on whether miso is a viable source of B12. This disagreement may be due to the variation of fermentation time and where and how the products being tested were produced.)
-Aids digestion and nutrient intake (This is possibly due to the digestive enzymes, lactobacilli, salt-resistant yeasts and beneficial micro-organisms present in miso) These benefits can be lost if cooked away, so avoid boiling or overcooking miso.
-A good source of manganese, tryptophan, zinc, phosphorus, copper, omega 3 fatty acids, lecithin, and linoleic acid.
A number of studies also claim that miso:
- Strengthens your immune system
- Protects against radiation
- Reduces the risks of cancer including, but not limited to, breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer and colon cancer
- Helps keep the skin soft and youthful (due to its linoleic acid content.)
- Slows aging due to its high antioxidant content.
- Helps reduce the signs of menopause. (This is linked to the isoflavones in miso which has been shown to reduce hot flashes.)
- Supports overall body functions and capacity to rebuild and maintain blood vessels and bones.
Choosing and storing your miso:
It’s good to try different flavors, colors/brands of miso, as each has its own unique flavor. We most often use Cold Mountain’s “Mellow White Miso” which is created using a mixture of brown rice, organic soybeans and sea salt. It’s delicious, smooth, mild-tasting and an excellent addition to any salad dressing, vegetable sauté, sauce, or soup.
There are a couple of important things to check when picking the perfect miso:
1. No GMO soy. Read the label carefully to make sure you’re getting organic, GMO-free soybeans.
2. The miso should be unpasteurized. If you want the digestive and overall health benefits of the fermentation process, then the miso needs to be unpasteurized.
3. No added preservatives or MSG. Miso is flavorful and salty enough on its own.
Miso is often sold in tightly sealed plastic or glass containers, although some stores sell it in bulk containers as well. After you get your miso home, it’s best to store it in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container. If stored correctly miso can last for up to a year.
Finding the perfect miso for you really depends on what you plan to use it for. I find the subtler and smoother flavors of white miso most appropriate for dressings and light sauces. The darker colored misos can also be used in small amounts in these sauces and add some depth and intensity of flavor. I tend to use the darker misos for hearty vegetables and soups though, where their flavor will not overpower the dish. Whatever miso you choose there are a myriad of uses!
Now that you’ve learned a bit about how miso is made, the different varieties, its health benefits and how to choose the right miso for you, the question remains: What do you do with it once you get it home?
Here are five simple ways to incorporate miso into your meals.*
How to use Miso.
1. Salad Dressings:
- Example: Mix white miso with vinegar and olive oil and mustard to make a delicious dressing.
- Example: Create a miso broth for soups (dissolve the miso in hot water before adding it to your pot of soup. This is best done at the end of the cooking process as you do not want to boil the miso.)
3. As a marinade.
- Example: Mix dark miso with ginger, black pepper, a splash of vinegar and molasses to create a wonderful veggie marinade.
4. As a tea or coffee replacement.
- Example: Pour yourself a cup of hot water and mix a teaspoon or less of miso into the water and enjoy. (If you find it difficult to dissolve the miso in a full cup of water try pouring a small amount of water in, dissolve the miso, and then fill the cup to the top.) Many people use this as a nutritious and satisfying morning coffee or tea replacement.
5. As a dipping sauce.
- Example: Blend garlic, onion, miso, tahini, lemon juice and dill to make a yummy dipping sauce.
Miso can be added to almost any recipe as a salt replacement or to add flavor, including vegan tofu white sauces, stir fries, spreads and more. So experiment and enjoy!
Look for more miso recipes coming soon!
*I would recommend keeping your intake to around 2 tsp. or less a day to keep your salt intake in check.