Have You Met… Miso

This post is part of a series meant to spotlight ingredients, providing nutritional background, a little culinary inspiration, and perhaps encourage you to take an adventure into new markets and cuisines.

Have you met… miso?

Perhaps as early as 2,500 years ago miso paste originated in Japan as a convenient, nutritious condiment that could be incorporated into a variety of dishes — most commonly hot miso soup for breakfast — without the need of refrigeration or much storage space in small kitchens. Miso since migrated first to neighboring Asian countries, then further west and beyond, to the point today that it is a familiar ingredient in kitchens around the world.

Miso paste is made from cooked soybeans that are pressed in cedar wood vats with sea salt, small amounts of steamed rice, barley or other grains + koji — a natural, live fungus called Aspergillus oryzae that kick-starts fermentation. Traditional methods vary in terms of fermentation times, ranging from 6 months to 1 1/2 years or longer. As a result of this fermentation process, miso is a source of umami, or the “fifth taste,” naturally enhancing the savory flavors of other foods.

What’s so great about it?

Miso paste, like tofu, contains the full complement of amino acids, making it a complete protein, offering roughly 2 grams per 1 Tbsp. For only about 34 calories, this serving also provides just over 6% + 7% of your daily needs for vitamin K manganese, respectively, and nearly 3% of your zinc DV. Miso has only about 1 g each of total fat sugar, but if you’re watching sodium, note that 1 Tbsp can provide between about 330 mg (mostly in the white miso) to 800 mg or more (in the darker-colored miso) — approximately 22% or 54% of the recommended ideal ≤ 1,500 mg/day, respectively. As you can see above, lower sodium versions are available (our yellow miso has 680 mg; 45%).

Being fermented, miso is a source of the beneficial probiotic bacteria that, when paired with prebiotic foods (e.g., onion + garlic, dark leafy greens, tomato or potato, whole grains, chana dal), helps promote immune + GI health. Fermentation makes it suitable for a low FODMAP eating plan + most store-bought miso is made with gluten-free grains. (Though the latter is the norm, always check the label to confirm. Potential GF grains in Japanese: rice — kome or genmai, buckwheat — sobamugi , or millet — kibi; gluten-containing grains: barley — mugi ortsubu, wheat — tsubu, or rye — hadakamugi).

Based on current research, moderate consumption of whole, unprocessed soy foods — miso, tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy nuts, soy sauce — is considered safe* for menopausal + postmenopausal women and individuals with cancer (may even help prevent breast + prostate cancers). Soy is also associated in some instances with increased fertility, and may protect against oxidative damage in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Recent studies suggest that moderate intake should have no significant effect on sperm count, sperm motility, or male reproductive hormone levels.

If you have thyroid issues and/or a history of breast cancer, please exercise some caution with miso + the other whole soy foods listed above. Consuming smaller amounts on occasion should be fine, and the impressive anti-cancer and other health benefits of soy foods likely outweigh potential concerns. However, it is my professional advice to talk first with your physician about recommendations based on your personal medical history + treatment plan.

If you have an allergy or intolerance to soy, be advised that while the fermentation process breaks many of the nutrients down, some of the proteins in miso paste may still cause an allergic reaction. Though not simple to find, there are soy-free miso pastes available in some areas — these are usually made from chickpeas or adzuki beans.

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Where do I find it? // What do I look for?

Miso paste is a very popular condiment in Asian cuisine, particularly in its country of origin Japan, and is therefore easily sourced from Asian + Indian markets, sometimes Middle Eastern or other specialty foods markets, and more increasingly at regular chain supermarkets. Most often you will find soft or hard plastic containers in the refrigerated section. Our local Asian market sells 2-lb bags of yellow and red misos each for $4.89.

Once opened, your miso should be tightly sealed and stored in the refrigerator where it will keep 12 to 18 months. Our favorite comes in a plastic pouch, which I pop into a zip-top bag and squeeze all of the air out of before refrigerating. If you prefer to transfer the miso into a hard plastic or glass container for storage, cover the top with a piece of parchment paper or plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out.

Miso can also be frozen in its original (unopened) package or, if opened, well-wrapped in an airtight bag or container. Because you use such small amounts at one time, a smart tip is to use an ice cube tray to freeze 1-Tbsp portions, and pop these into a freezer-safe zip-top bag. Use frozen miso within 6 months for best quality; can remain frozen up to 12 months.

Good-quality miso should smell pleasantly fermented, kind of yeasty + slightly sour. If you get a strong alcohol or other “off” aroma, or it has a thin layer of mold on the top or along the sides of the package, do not use it.

How do I use it?

Ranging from white or a light beige to earthy red or dark brown, miso color variations are due to different lengths of fermentation + types of grains mashed in during the process, and taste changes dramatically along the spectrum. In general, you can expect lighter miso pastes to be milder, sweeter + less salty, and darker miso pastes to be more assertive + saltier. If you are new to miso, I recommend starting with white or yellow.

  • White miso (shiro) is light in color, but usually more soft beige than white, due to large percentage of added white rice or barley (about 60% rice or barley to 40% soybean). White miso is fermented for the shortest amount of time (about 3 to 6 months), which translates to a mild, bright + faintly sweet taste, a lower sodium content + a creamy, soft texture. Use in light, broth-based soups; as a butter substitute for mashed or steamed veg; in marinades or sauces (great with citrus) for light-colored seafood, pork, chicken, tofu; whisked into light salad dressings + vinaigrettes (paired with citrus again); or even in desserts.
  • Yellow miso (shinsu) [shown above] is typically made from soybeans fermented for slightly longer with a larger percentage of barley as opposed to rice, giving it a rougher, firmer texture similar to natural nut butter. Yellow miso can range from a richer beige to deep amber, even a light brown, and is slightly saltier with an earthier flavor than white miso, but is still fairly mild. This variety is very versatile and can stand up to use in many types of soups + stews; sauces + vinaigrettes; in stir-frying or in marinades for seafood + poultry; also in richer desserts.
  • Red miso (aka) is more robustly flavored, thicker and saltier than its lighter-hued counterparts, thanks to a longer fermentation period (about 12 to 16 months) + a higher proportion of soybeans (about 70%) to rice or barley or other grains. The color can range from that of rust to a deep brown. Red miso can quickly overpower mild ingredients and pairs best with roasted veg, especially eggplant, broccoli + root veg; in marinades or sauces for beef, pork + chicken; in hearty stews; or with stir-fried dark leafy greens.

There are many other types of miso you might run across, like Awasemiso (a white + red blend), Mugimiso (a brown barley miso), Hatchomiso (a thick, very dark miso that is smoky and pungent, made only from soybeans only), etc. Learn more about miso’s different colorsingredient categorizations + origins.

Thanks to the balance of sweet + salty (umami), it’s as pleasing in savory dishes as it is in sweet. Miso acts as a flavoring + seasoning during cooking, so begin with a small amount; no additional salt should be needed. And keep in mind that boiling miso decreases its flavor + aroma, plus may also diminish some of its nutritive properties — gradually add it to soups at the end of the cooking process over low heat, or stir it in after you’ve taken the pot off the heat just before serving.

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+ Sake-steamed kabocha squash with miso (HGN riff here)
Green bean, pea + mushroom salad with miso-Dijon dressing
+ Spicy miso-glazed potatoes
+ Charred brussels sprouts with orange-miso glaze
+ Soba noodles with miso-roasted cherry tomatoes OR walnut miso noodles with Swiss chard
+ Miso-sesame sweet potato, broccoli + brown rice bowl
+ Edamame miso tuna salad sandwich
Miso blood orange sea scallops
+ Ika no misozuke — Japanese miso-marinated squid
+ Japanese miso-marinated salmon side OR miso salmon skewers
+ Miso ginger braised chicken with barley + bok choy
Ginger miso ice cream perhaps with miso caramel sauce
+ Spiced apricot-cherry miso jam

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Miso is a hugely versatile ingredient, and I’ve loved experimenting with it over the years: check out my golden chana dal hummus with miso, turmeric + roasted garlic, Japanese miso-marinated grilled steak salad, or miso soup (recipe inspiration here + a great tip about blending miso into soup).

Be sure to check back here soon — I’ll be sharing a personal favorite!

Cheers, Heather

Tell me… Are you already familiar with miso? How do you enjoy it at home?

*For more on safety of miso, check out this consumer guide from the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group.

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p.s. I love hearing from you! Check back if you ask a question, because I’ll answer it here.

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Have You Met...


    • Heather Goesch, MPH, RDN, LDN says:

      Morning! As far as I know seaweed is not involved in the production of miso paste. There may be some obscure varieties available in smaller markets or in Japan that do, but those are unfamiliar to me. If that were the case — seaweed used as an ingredient — those who are allergic to iodine would be wise to avoid the product until first conferring with their physician. Great question, thank you!

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