Miso – Ingredient Guide

What is miso?

three types of miso
three types of miso

Miso (味噌) is a commonly used Japanese seasoning that is made from fermented soybeans and is one of the most widely used ingredients in Japanese cooking. 

Miso is made from fermenting soybeans with salt and koji (fungus spores) and sometimes by adding grains in to the mixture such as rice, barley or wheat. The fermentation process is responsible for the unique tastes of different types of miso with the end result being a thick rich paste. The fact that miso varies so widely depending on the region it is produced, the seasons, fermentation time and the chosen ingredients means that there are many differences in the flavours and textures available.

There are three main types of miso and they can be categorised by their colour, white, red and mixed. White miso or shiro miso, is the most commonly produced miso in Japan. It actually contains a smaller amount of soybeans than other miso and it also is fermented for the shortest period of time. If there were more soybeans in the mixture and the fermentation was extended, the colour would deepen and would become closer to red miso. As a result of the shorter fermentation period, the flavour is sweeter and not as bold as red miso.

Red miso or aka miso is the richest of miso. Colours can actually range from reddish brown to almost black depending on the fermentation period and production method used. Red miso is often fermented for more than one year before it is used in cooking. It often has the strongest flavour and aroma and can be used on its own or mixed with other miso to create the third main type of miso known as awase miso, or mixed miso. Mixed miso, as the name suggests, is a blend of different miso and allows for miso with different flavours to be softened or accentuated depending on local tastes.

What is miso soup made from?

Miso soup or misoshiru (味噌汁) is a staple of Japanese cuisine. Many Japanese start their day with miso soup for breakfast or as part of a set meal served at any restaurant. It is a relatively simple dish to prepare and is made from a few core ingredients.

Traditional miso soup is made by combining miso paste with dashi, or Japanese soup stock. Dashi is most commonly prepared by steeping dried fish and dried kelp (kombu), but can also be prepared with dried mushrooms and seaweed for vegetarians. This is the basic combination that makes miso soup.

Other ingredients such as shellfish, vegetables or tofu are also commonly added to miso soup. The ingredients that get added reflect the seasons in Japan and are abundant at the time. Care is taken with which ingredients to add to the miso soup to ensure that is remains visually appealing. As such, floating ingredients such as wakame, a type of seaweed, is combined with other ingredients such as clams which sink to the bottom. The thoughtfulness of this combination reflects the intention of the cook to make the dish not only delicious but interesting and beautiful too.

What does miso soup taste like?

The taste of miso soup will depend on the blend of miso that has been used as the soups broth. Generally speaking, miso soup has a slightly salty but deep savoury flavour. As the range of miso available is wide and varied, so too are the tastes of miso soup.

Miso soup is a dish that can be served at any time of day, with breakfast, lunch or dinner. It is a thin soup that is served hot and often served in restaurants with a lid over the bowl. The lid is there to maintain the temperature of the soup but also to allow for the full aroma of the soup to be appreciated when the diner removes the covering. Miso soup is usually taken directly by raising the bowl to your mouth, rather than using a soup spoon. This way, you can appreciate the aroma of the soup at the same time as tasting it. Solid additions to the soup can be enjoyed using your chopsticks.

What does miso mean in Japanese?

Miso (みそ or 味噌) refers to the Japanese paste that is made from fermenting soybeans with salt and koji (fungus spores) which is most commonly used in making miso soup, a very common dish produced and consumed in Japan.  The character 味 means ‘flavour’ or ‘taste’, while the character 噌 translates to ‘boisterous’. This seems to be reflective of the sentiments many people hold about the product itself and how it is added to dishes as seasoning, rather than being eaten as it is.

Some of the dishes we used miso in our Japanese cooking class are

If you want to learn more about cooking with Miso or how to cook with Miso, book onto one of our fantastic cooking classes in Tokyo or Kyoto now! As Miso is such a key ingredient in Japanese cooking, we’re constantly working with it in our classes.