Miso is a fermented paste that is an essential part of Japanese cooking, but has also started to show up in recipes for everything from roast pork to soup to butterscotch sauce. I started reading about miso, and then picked up the bag of shiro (white) miso in the picture from The Japan Centre. If you’ve had miso soup from somewhere like Wagamama, or even Pret, you have an idea of the sort of savoury flavour that comes from miso.
While reading up about soy sauce, I came across this interesting idea:
“soy sauce and miso paste were originally the same
preparation, but the liquid became soy sauce, and the solids
left behind became miso”
Miso and soy sauce are both produced by fermentation. Miso can be produced by many different grains, but the most popular types are produced by soybeans with rice and/or barley, and some rice colonised by an Aspergillus fungus, called Koji.
Miso is has both savoury and sweet aspects. Both of these elements come about because the fermentation creates enzymes that break down both the starches and proteins in the soy and rice grains. Breaking down starch produces sugars, (starch is just the name for a long chain of sugar molecules joined together). Breaking down proteins produces amino acids for the same reason. Glutamate is the amino acid which creates the taste of umami.
Cooking with miso
As I read more and more about miso, it became clear that there are a huge number of different types of miso, all with different characteristics. Still, the ones you are most likely to find easily in the UK are shiro miso, or white miso – a pale, fairly sweet miso; and aka miso or red miso, a more savoury and stronger paste. Both of these can be used to make miso soup, by combining them with dashi, a savoury stock made from dried kelp and dried bonito (tuna) flakes.
However, the sweet-savoury nature of miso makes it much more versatile. The current issue of Lucky Peach, an American food quarterly, includes a recipe for burnt miso butterscotch sauce and for miso mayonnaise. (You have to love a magazine that entitles an article on different types of miso paste ‘Miso Horny’. And if you don’t love that, then Lucky Peach is probably not the publication for you.)
You can use it to enhance the flavour of soup, to glaze steak or pork, to marinade salmon, or in salad dressing. It’s a flavour enhancer, which makes it very versatile. I’ll be trying to use more of it this year.
The recipe I started with was Smitten Kitchen’s Carrot and Miso soup. You can head over to her site for the details, but a summary of what I did is below. This is a great way to introduce yourself to miso. The carrot soup is fine without the miso, but with it you get a rounder flavour that brings together the sweet and vegetal tastes of the carrots.
Carrot and miso soup
- Chop two small onions, a couple of garlic cloves and about 10 medium carrots.
- Cook gently in olive oil until the onion is translucent.
- Add a thumb-sized piece of ginger, chopped finely. Submerge everything in about a litre of Marigold vegetable bouillon (made weak so it’s not too salty). Simmer until the carrots are soft.
- Blend in the pan with an immersion blender.
- Take a ladleful of the pureed soup out into a small bowl, and mix in a couple of tablespoons of white miso. As soon as you mix the miso with the hot soup, you get a burst of that miso soup smell. Mix the soup back in and taste. If it needs more miso, repeat this procedure.
- Serve with a few dots of toasted sesame oil on top.