Miso: Taste the Rainbow


Maria Robledo

To try Sally's recipe for an earthy miso broth made with porcini mushrooms, click here.

It took me 30 years to discover miso, the homely soybean paste that is a cornerstone of Japanese cuisine. I had been stuck in my antiquated notion of it, formed in the '70s, as a stodgy health food store staple.

Then I spent an afternoon tasting misos—a fraction of the more than 1,000 kinds made in Japan but enough to get an idea of their extraordinary range of colors (from palest tan to yellow to red to brown), textures (from silky to chunky), and flavors (smoky, sweet, tart, bitter). The simple act of tasting changed all my ideas about this mysterious ingredient and made it an essential ingredient in my pantry. It is the prime mover in several of my most treasured recipes.

Misos are made by blending cooked soybeans with water, salt, and a grain, generally rice or barley, that's been inoculated with Aspergillus mold. The mixture ferments for three months to several years before it is ground to a paste. Each miso is a product of the artfulness of the maker, the kind of grain used, the quality of the ingredients, and the vagaries of fermentation. Rich in protein, calcium, and trace minerals, miso is extraordinarily healthful.

Miso is also extraordinarily versatile. Beyond its obvious affinity for Japanese flavors, some misos are wonderful in Western-style recipes. Generally speaking, the darker the miso, the stronger and saltier its flavor. Darker misos tend to go well with more robust preparations of red meats, poultry, and wild mushrooms. Light-colored misos are sweeter and less salty due to the addition of grains like rice or barley, and go well with more delicately flavored foods such as fish and vegetables. The most common, sweet white miso, forms the base of a marvelous classic Japanese-style glazed fish that is always a big hit at dinner parties. It gives the fish a mildly sweet, winey flavor; succulent flesh; and caramelized exterior.

I discovered that blending white and red miso yields a marvelous, meaty vegetarian broth, which I spike with porcini mushrooms and Madeira. It is more akin to veal or beef broth than miso. I use it as a base for improvised soups, adding baby or roasted vegetables, wild mushrooms, cooked beans or greens, or some plump raviolis. Sweet white miso makes an amazing vinaigrette in league with hazelnut oil and orange juice. Mixed with roasted almond butter it makes a fabulous spread for bread.

Although I consider white and red misos staples, I continue to experiment with different varieties, including the innovative American-made misos of corn, millet, and chickpeas. I have only scratched the surface of their delicious possibilities. You can also find a recipe for miso-glazed fish fillets and steaks at the improvised life.

Recipe: Rich Porcini-Miso Broth