What Is Miso Paste? What It’s Made Of & How To Use It

closeup texture of miso

Miso is a fermented soybean paste that is nutritious and has a distinct umami flavor. Soups and ramen can be given a boost of flavor with just a small amount of this Japanese staple ingredient. In addition to its savory flavor, miso is also beneficial to your health. Miso paste contains probiotics which are healthy bacteria that may help boost your immunity and improve the health of your gut.

While miso has long been associated with Japanese cuisine, it is now being recognized as a useful ingredient in various dishes outside the country’s borders. Aside from soups, it can also be used in dressings, marinades, sauces, toppings, and many more.

What is miso paste?

jar of homemade miso
a jar of miso I’m making at home–very excited!

Koji, a fungus commonly used in Japanese fermented foods, is the starting point for miso production. Its scientific name is Aspergillus Oryzae, and it’s used to create complex flavors in food. Steamed rice or a mixture of rice and soybeans are added with spores to create koji.

To create miso paste, soybeans, salt, and water are combined, which are then fermented with koji. Sugar and glutamate are released by the koji as it ferments, creating umami flavor. Additionally, the mixture could include barley or rice or rye, and other grains. It takes anywhere from a few months to a few years for the mixture to develop its unique flavor. The miso paste also darkens and deepens in flavor over time.

For more than 1,300 years, the Japanese have consumed miso. They rely on miso as a seasoning almost exclusively. However, miso is believed to have originated in ancient China as a fermented food. Therefore, it is most likely that it arrived in Japan from China and the Korean Peninsula during the Asuka period in the 7th century.

In the 10th century, miso was an ingredient only accessible by the wealthy, and most people could only afford a small dab of miso on rice or pickled vegetables because of its high cost. However, in the Muromachi period, soybean production increased, and farmers began making their own miso. As a result, hosting miso soup parties became a popular pastime, and miso soup as we know it today was born. In addition, it became a popular food preservation method for the general public during this time. 

Miso eventually spread throughout Japan, with each region having its own distinct miso variety. As a result, it’s also become a common and affordable ingredient used by the majority of Japanese people. Nowadays, it is widely used worldwide and is regarded as one of the most popular Japanese ingredients.

Miso paste ingredients

miso ingredients label

The umami flavor of miso paste adds depth and complexity to a wide variety of dishes. It may appear to be a time-consuming and difficult process to replicate at home. Fortunately, this isn’t true at all! While patience is required to make the fermented bean paste, it is also forgiving, and the process itself isn’t difficult. When it comes to making miso paste, you only need the following ingredients below.

  • Soybeans, barley, or rice
  • Salt
  • Rice koji
  • Water

Miso is made from soybeans, barley, rice, or a combination of these three ingredients.  Salt is an absolute necessity that cannot be substituted when making miso. Then, the fermentation process requires rice koji. Finally, water is used to establish the paste’s thickness and to aid in mixing all the ingredients together.

Koji-inoculated grains such as rice, barley, or soybeans are used to make different miso types. The two-step fermentation process used to make miso is the same regardless of whether the process is manufactured or homemade. After soaking overnight, draining, steaming, and cooling, the grain used for incubating koji is cultured with koji spores and held in a humid anaerobic condition for two days. Simple sugars are broken down by good bacteria into various organic acids, which give miso its unique flavor and prevent it from spoiling.

Types of miso

refrigerated section of miso tubs

As far back as the 6th or 7th century, miso has been a staple of traditional Japanese cooking. Hundreds of miso varieties are now on the market in Japan. The type of miso used in traditional Japanese dishes depends on the region of Japan, ingredient, color, and taste. There are four main types of miso based on ingredients.

Rice Miso made with rice, soybeans, rice koji, salt, and water. The rice starches in this miso are quickly converted to sugars, resulting in a shorter fermentation time. As a result, it is less salty than the other types and has a milder and more delicate flavor profile. Rice miso is available in two varieties, white miso, which takes six months to ferment, and red miso, which takes twelve months.

Barley Miso – made of barley, soybeans, and salt. This miso, also known as mugi miso, has a 6 month or sometimes longer fermentation process than others. Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kyushu are the three main regions in Japan where barley miso is produced. It is very aromatic, but the flavor is softer and slightly sweeter, making it ideal for simmered dishes. 

Soybean Miso – made of soybean and salt. Also known as mame miso, it is produced mainly in Chukyo, a prefecture of Japan. This miso takes between two and three years to ferment. Known for its dark color, chunky texture, and robust flavor, mame miso is an excellent addition to hearty winter broths. 

Blended miso – made by blending two or three types of grains. In addition, miso that is not made from rice, barley, or soybeans is also referred to as blended miso. Awase miso, or white and red miso, is the most common type of blended miso. As a result of its delicate and rich flavor, it’s widely used as a flavoring in various foods. 

In Japan, miso is also classified according to its color. However, a miso paste’s color doesn’t necessarily indicate how pungent or light the flavor is. The three main color types of miso paste are detailed below.

White miso fermented for a shorter time and contains less salt than darker miso. As a result, it’s milder, more delicate, versatile, and has a smoother texture. In addition, white miso is the sweetest of all miso varieties because it contains the most carbohydrates. 

Yellow miso – a milder, longer-fermented version of white miso that can be used in a wide range of dishes, from soups to glazes. Its color ranges from light yellow to light brown.

Red miso – flavor is bolder than light yellow and white miso. Red miso has a longer fermentation period and includes darker red and brown varieties. As a result, richer soups, braises, glazes, and marinades benefit the most from this miso type. Among all the miso varieties, red miso has the highest protein content.

Miso can also be classified based on the taste or flavor of the paste and the region from which it originated. Hiroshima, for example, produces fuchu, which is white in color and sweet in flavor. The aizu type, which is red and savory, is produced in Fukushima. Tokyo also produces the edo amamiso variety, which is red and sweet. These are just a few of the more than 15 types available based on the region.

What does miso taste like?

spoonful of miso paste

On its own, miso typically has a salty, tangy, and savory flavor. The flavor can change depending on the ingredients used and the length of fermentation. Some of the flavors are a little sweet, while others are more robust. Other miso pastes might be more earthy than others as well. Nevertheless, one thing they all seem to have in common is a flavorful umami punch.

Where to buy miso

Miso is widely available these days, and you can usually find it in the refrigerated section as well as the Asian section of your local grocery store. In addition, miso is frequently available in specialty grocery stores, particularly those specializing in healthy and organic products. This is due to the fact that miso is well-known for its health benefits.

American supermarkets where I can find miso:

  • Albertsons
  • Sprouts
  • Ralphs
  • Whole Foods

Most Asian supermarkets, particularly Japanese supermarkets, carry miso and usually with a variety of types you can choose from. However, if you cannot find it locally, you can always order it online. In fact, you’ll find the most miso paste varieties available online. Near me I can find miso at:

  • Mitsuwa
  • H Mart
  • 99 Ranch

How to use miso paste

marinating cod in miso

It’s amazing how many different ways miso can be used. The wonderful thing about miso is that it can enhance the flavor of a dish without increasing the amount of salt used in the dish. Here are some of the many ways to use miso paste, ranging from soup to stir fry to dessert.

  • Miso soup – this is quite possibly the most popular way to use miso. Miso paste is combined with dashi and other optional additions such as wakame, tofu, and diced vegetables.
  • Miso dressing – another popular way to use miso is to make a dressing by combining miso paste, rice vinegar, sesame oil, and honey.
  • Miso-marinated black cod – umami flavor is imparted to food by marinating it in miso. It is combined with sake and mirin to marinate cod in this recipe.
  • Miso-glazed salmon – it can be used as a glaze because it works well with sweet, savory, or both flavors to balance and round out the flavors. 
  • Miso caramel – miso can be used to make a caramel sauce with sugar, heavy cream, and water, which can be used as a topping on desserts such as ice cream or donuts.

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