What are the different types of miso? [full guide to miso]

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  November 15, 2020

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Miso paste is a common ingredient in Japanese cooking, thanks to its umami flavors. It is often made using fermented soybeans and various grains like barley, rice, and wheat. They make for a great marinade with meats and vegetables, or even to make hearty soups.

But did you know that different types of miso serve different cooking purposes? Here’s a guide to recognizing the different types of miso and how to cook with them.

Different types of miso

What is miso, and how is it made?

Miso is a fermented paste made from soybeans, rice, and other grains like barley or buckwheat. It is very popular in many Japanese dishes, especially soups and sauces. It has an ‘umami’ flavor – translated as ‘savory’ in English. Miso paste is versatile, and the Japanese use it in a variety of dishes. Think of it as a type of condiment.

Miso is made with the help of a fungus called koji. This fungus is used to make a variety of fermented dishes.

Koji is a fungus also called Aspergillus Oryzae, and it’s used as the base or starting fungus spore to create fermented foods. To start making the miso paste, people add koji to steamed rice or soybeans, and in some cases, a combination of the two.

As the Koji starts to develop and incubate, it releases glutamate. This is a result of starches turning into sugar. As a result, the paste gets that umami flavor. The koji is mixed with rice, soybeans, and barley (or other grains) to make the miso. This mixture undergoes a fermentation process.

The flavor of the umami depends on how long the fermentation process is. The longer it ferments, the stronger the miso’s flavor and the darker the color.

History of Miso

The precursor to the Japanese miso was a Chinese fermented paste called Jiang. 

It’s believed that this fermented paste made of soybeans was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks from China. Many Asian countries developed their own variations of miso but the paste still has similar ingredients and a familiar umami taste.

In Japan, the locals made miso with fermented rice and soybeans. Mass production began in the 17th century. Since then, miso has grown in popularity because people realized how healthy and tasty it was. Miso gives any bland dish a deep earthy flavor.

Different types of miso

The most commonly used miso are white, yellow, and red. These are the basic types of miso; however, there are various other misos used for different types of Japanese dishes. You’re probably wondering, “what is the difference between the various types of miso?”

Miso manufacturers can play around with the flavors, so there are actually dozens of miso flavors. It depends on the amount of koji, soybeans, rice, or barley is in the mix.

In this section, I’ll explain all of them and what they’re good for.

White miso

White miso or Shiro miso is the miso you’ll often see being used in soups and salads. It’s made of fermented soybeans and rice, and despite being called the white miso, the paste actually carries a slight yellow tinge. Unlike the other types of miso, white miso is usually only fermented for a short period and has a mild sweet taste. Due to its light taste, white miso is considered the most versatile type of miso in the market and can be found in most recipes.

How to cook with white miso: The best way to cook with white miso is to use it as a marinade or in salads. If you’re looking to make miso soup, white miso would also be the ideal pick as it isn’t overpowering to taste.

Want to try white Miso? Check out Miso Tasty Organic Shiro Cooking Paste

Yellow miso

Yellow miso is also known as Shinshu miso and is what you’ll often see in many pictures. Like the white miso, the name yellow miso does not completely reflect the miso’s true color as it looks more like a brown paste. Yellow miso is usually made by using fermented soybeans and barley. Dishes made with yellow miso typically carry a stronger umami flavor because they are left to ferment a little longer than the white miso.

How to cook with yellow miso: You can use yellow miso when preparing salad dressings or sauce glazes. As yellow miso’s taste is stronger than white miso, some chefs or family cooks may also opt to use yellow miso to prepare soups.

Red miso

Red miso is the most pungent of the various types of miso in the market. It’s also known as Aka miso and is perhaps the only miso that is true to its name because you’ll see it in the form of a dark brown or red paste. Red miso is usually made using fermented soybeans and barley or other types of grains. Red miso is usually left to ferment for a longer time than those of white and yellow miso to achieve this color. Due to the fermentation length, red miso is also very salty, so you’ll have to use it with care in your cooking. Most home cooks would only use a little red miso for a meal that is packed with flavor.

How to cook with red miso: Red miso typically carries strong umami, making it great to use when cooking meats or vegetables. Unlike the white and yellow miso, red miso is not always suitable for use in soups.

Check out Red Hikari Organic Miso

Black Miso

It’s a bit unclear what the exact recipe for black miso is. Some people make it entirely out of soybeans, while in some parts of Japan, it’s made with fermented soybeans and dark grains, usually buckwheat. This type of miso is very flavorful and strong.

How to cook with black miso: It’s powerful in taste, so use it sparingly and add it to soup and fish, or other meat dishes for extra-strong umami flavor.

Barley Miso

Although less popular, barley miso is still flavorful and tasty, especially in soups. The flavor profile is in-between the red and white miso. It has a yellowish brownish color. This miso paste is most popular in two regions: Kyushu and Shikoku.

How to cook with barley miso: This type of miso is perfect for soups and marinades. But many people love to include it in salad dressings. As well, it complements many vegetables, so you can use it as a seasoning.

Popular Unique Miso Flavors

Kome Miso

This is the most common and most beloved type of Japanese miso paste. It’s made of white rice and comes in several different colors.

Genmai Miso

Genmai is another popular type of miso. But, this one is made with brown rice instead of white. Therefore, it has a nutty flavor, similar to nutty cheese. It’s popular in Japan and gaining popularity in North America too.

Mugi Miso

This type of miso requires a very long fermentation period compared to others. It is made of barley grains, and it has a dark red color. This one has a powerful earthy flavor that’s hard to miss if it’s in your dish.

Mame Miso

Mame is also called Hatcho, and it is a dark-colored miso paste. It’s made from soybeans and only a minimal amount of grains. It has a rich, deep flavor; thus, it’s a Japanese favorite.

Soba Miso

Like soba noodles, soba miso is also made out of buckwheat. The flavor is similar to soba noodles, too, but it has a similar fermentation process to the white and yellow varieties. Although it’s tasty and flavorful, this type of miso is less popular than the others.

What is the best type of miso?

Depending on what you’re looking to cook your miso with, the yellow miso is a highly versatile miso paste to have in your kitchen. You can often use it in place of red miso, although you may need to scoop a little extra for stronger umami flavors. Thus, many home cooks would regard the yellow miso as the best type of miso.

This, however, may depend on your preference. So, it’s a good idea to try out each type of miso to see which you prefer best in your cooking.

Is miso healthy?

Fermented foods are generally healthy because of their high probiotic content. Miso is a type of ‘superfood’ with many health benefits. Since miso is a cultured and fermented food, it is great for the digestive system. It contains good gut bacteria, which contributes to a healthy digestive system.

Miso is full of amino acids, copper, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and K vitamins, as well as manganese.

The one thing to be careful about is the high sodium content. Therefore, if you can’t consume salty foods, only consume miso in moderation.

To get the most nutritional benefits from miso, add it to the food when it’s not very hot.

Miso FAQs

There’s a lot of contradictory information about miso, but we’re here to shed more light on it.

What kind of miso do you use for soup?

The most popular miso for soup is yellow, white, and red. The yellow has a milder almost sweet taste, whereas the red miso has a strong distinct savory taste.

Does miso go bad?

Since miso is a fermented food, it doesn’t go bad too quickly. The miso is a preservative food because it is salty and full of cultured bacteria. It doesn’t go bad as long as you keep it in the fridge. The taste doesn’t alter and you can keep the miso for approximately one year in the fridge.

The shelf life of miso is between 9-18 months.

Can you eat miso without cooking it?

Yes, you can eat miso without cooking it. You can take a spoonful and put it in salads or sauces without prior cooking. It’s a simple fermented paste, so you can use it for everything.

Is miso vegan?

Most miso varieties are vegan. The paste itself doesn’t contain ingredients derived from animals. However, miso soup is not always vegan. The paste is added to the soup which may contain meat or other non-vegan ingredients. Some miso soup is made with dashi and bonito flakes, which are certainly not vegan.

How do you dissolve miso?

You can pour water into a saucepan and add the miso. With a whisk, start to blend it together until the paste dissolves. Don’t use boiling water or you risk inactivating the probiotics. You can also dissolve miso in dashi stock.

How do you store miso?

Miso paste has a long shelf life as long as you store it properly. After you open the miso, place some plastic wrap and cover it before putting the lid back on. Store the miso in the refrigerator.

Over time, the color of miso gets darker, but it doesn’t mean that it’s gone bad, it’s a natural process so you can use it. If there is mold formation or a pungent bad odor, then throw the product away.

Conclusion

If you want a savory yet healthy condiment for your favorite Japanese dishes, then you must try miso paste. It’s good for your digestive system and it makes soups, sauces, and all kinds of dishes much more flavorful and tasty.

You can even use miso in all kinds of Western-style dishes if you’re looking for umami flavor. You can always experiment with the different Miso flavors to find your favorite.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.