I have been meaning to write a post on miso for some time now, but have avoided it because of the complexity and depth of the topic. Miso is regional and has many different variations. Writing a post on miso is akin to trying to write a single post on wine or cheese. So that said, here I go with a very basic post on a wonderful ingredient.
What is miso?
At it's basic, miso is fermented soybeans and salt. Some miso varieties also contain rice, barley and other ingredients. Miso has been fermented in China going back 2,500 years. The Japanese began fermenting miso in the 6th century AD. Maruya Hatcho Miso is the oldest operating miso maker in Japan, and has been in business since 1337.
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Types of miso
Miso is highly regional, so there are many many varieties. To test this, visit your local Asian market and take a look at their miso section. You will find a rainbow of shades of miso from almost white, to yellow, to orange, to red to dark brown, to almost black and everything in between. So here are the basics:
White and yellow miso (Shiromiso and komemiso)
Light colored miso are the mildest, sweetest and fermented the shortest amount of time, as little as 3-6 months. Their mild flavor is perfect for mild fish or chicken.
Red miso (Akamiso)
Red miso can be made from the same ingredients as white and yellow miso, it is just fermented longer. Red miso is more potent and works well with stronger flavored proteins like pork and beef. I also like to use red miso with salmon as I think the stronger flavor holds up well to the stronger flavored salmon.
Barly miso (Mugimiso)
Soy is fermented with barley or wheat grains. This is obviously a miso that is not gluten-free.
Mixed miso (Awasemiso)
Mixed miso is a combination of white and red miso, and is considered a good starter-miso for those just learning to cook with miso.
Hatchomiso, considered "the Emporor's miso,"is a regional miso from Okazaki with strong flavors resulting from three years of fermentation. Hatchomiso literally translates to "Eight blocks from the castle" for it's location just 8 blocks from Okazaki castle.
Why cook with miso?
As a marinade, miso tenderizes animal protein and breaks down vegetable fiber. Miso, particularly aged miso, is full of umami, which enhances the savoriness and literally makes food delicious.
Nutritional and health benefits of miso
There is some controversy about the health benefits of miso. Here are the pros and cons:
Miso health benefits
Miso, a fermented food is a probiotic. Miso is considered a healthy superfood by many. With only 11 calories per gram of protein, miso is high in fiber, protein, minerals, vitamins K and B12, and omega 3 fatty acids. The health benefit claims for miso are many, but not always fully substantiated. They include:
- Boosts immune system
- Aids digestion
- Reduces risk of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer
- Protects against radiation
- Improves skin
- Slows aging
- Reduces symptoms of menopause
- Lowers LDL cholesterol
- Protects against heart disease
There are concerns with miso. Miso is high in sodium and soybeans are one of the 10 most common allergens. Additionally, there are test tube and animal studies that show that soy products can actually promote cancer growth. There are concerns that soy is an estrogen stimulator that encourages cancer. From my readings, the concern over soy products needs to be refined. The studies that show soy encourages cancer were done with highly processed soy products, and not whole food soy, including miso. Other studies show that consuming fermented soy (not just plain soy), such as miso and tofu, reduces cancer rates. There are two science-based web articles that discuss the pros and cons of miso: An indepth, well-cited article by the George Matlin Foundation and The Truth about Soy Foods by Mercola.com. This second article cites a lot of reasons to avoid soy, but goes to great lengths to distinguish unhealthy soy from healthy fermented soy products like miso.
What to look for when you buy miso
Non-GMO organic miso
Look for organic non-GMO miso. Up to 90% of the soybeans in the world are GMO soybeans that have been genetically modified to be resistant to pesticides. To avoid pesticide residue, avoid GMO soybeans.
Look for unpasteurized miso, as the pasteurization process will kill off beneficial probiotics that are created during the fermentation process.
Avoid additives and sweeteners
There is no need for additives like MSG or sweeteners.
- Miso will last refrigerated for up to a year.
- Don't overcook miso as it will kill off the beneficial probiotics. Add miso to soups at the end of the cooking process and don't bring to a boil.
- If you are buying miso at a general grocery store, you will likely be limited to a white, yellow or red miso. Which is fine and will be a good place to start your miso experimentation. For fun, visit a Japanese market and take a chance on a miso that's packaging is written entirely in Japanese. That's what I do, and so far I have purchased only great miso. I once asked a Japanese friend how she selects her miso. With a smile, she told me she watches to see what other Japanese people buy!