Miso Paste Explained: The 4 Types & Millions of Uses

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  August 20, 2022

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Miso is a seasoning paste produced by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji (Aspergillus oryzae) used in Japanese cooking to give a strong “umami” flavor. It is used a a base for sauces and marinades and best known for its use with dashi as miso soup.

Miso has a lot of minerals and vitamins and is high in protein, so miso played an important nutritional role in feudal Japan.

Miso has been widely used in Japan ever since, both in traditional and modern cooking, and has been gaining in populaity worldwide.

Favorite Asian Recipes
Favorite Asian Recipes

Miso is typically salty, but its flavor and aroma depend on various factors in the ingredients and fermentation process. Different varieties of miso have been described as salty, sweet, earthy, fruity, and savory.

What is miso paste

The traditional Chinese analogue of miso is known as dòujiàng (豆酱).

There are at least one thousand varieties of miso paste, with different colors, flavors, and textures.

It’s time to explore: what is this miso paste actually made of, and why is it popular?

Miso paste is versatile, and the Japanese use it in a variety of dishes. Think of it as a type of condiment.

What is in miso paste?

Learn more about miso paste

Miso paste can be made of a selection of ingredients to achieve three types of miso. The basis of all miso paste is soybeans, salt, koji (fungus), and either rice, barley, or buckwheat (grains) are added to achieve different types..

The essential ingredient in miso paste is Koji (Aspergillus oryzae), which is the Japanese word for fungus and mold.

Miso is a cultured food, dependent on bacteria and fermentation.

Koji is a fungus also called Aspergillus Oryzae, and it’s used as the base or starting fungus spore to create fermented foods.

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.

What are the different types of miso?

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.

The four main types of miso paste are:

  1. White miso – shiromiso – has a very light yellow color and a mild taste.
  2. Yellow miso – shinshumiso –yellow color and a stronger flavor than white – it is usually made with barley instead of rice.
  3. Red miso – akamiso – dark color – the most intense flavor, very salty and pungent.
  4. Awase miso, a combination of two or more miso paste types, most often shiro and aka.

In North America, there is also a fourth mini category called awase, which is a mixture of the white and the red miso paste.

White miso – Shiro

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 – Shinshu

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 – Aka

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

Gourmet miso paste

Since there are so many varieties of miso, there are also some options that have added ingredients. Here are four popular miso varieties:

  • Genmai miso: made with brown rice and has a nutty flavor.
  • Soba miso: made with buckwheat and has a taste similar to yakisoba noodles.
  • Mugi miso: contains only a little bit of grains, it has a higher concentration of soybeans.
  • Dashi miso paste: this paste contains dashi in it, making it the perfect base for miso soup. You can make it without dashi stock, just by using this paste, adding hot water, noodles, and vegetables.

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.

Why is miso paste popular?

Besides the fact that it is delicious and flavorful, miso paste is also healthy.

Since miso a fermented food, it contains probiotic “good” bacteria, also known as healthy gut bacteria, which aid in digestion.

Miso paste contributes to the well-being of the digestive tract. It is also a good source of vitamins B, E, K, and folic acid.

Therefore, you can consider this food nutritious and healthy for the body. The only thing to be careful about is the high sodium content.

That’s what contributed to miso’s popularity over time worldwide, especially since 2010 when searches for miso began to grow exponentially.

Miso is salty, but there are low-sodium miso paste varieties available, such as this one from the brand Honzokuri.

This paste is low sodium, meaning the salt content is much lower than in regular miso. There is also no MSG in the product. It is yellow miso with a medium flavor.

How do you store miso paste?

The shelf-life of miso paste is at least one year, even more, if it is stored in the refrigerator, once opened.

The best way to store miso paste is in its original container in the fridge. Once you use it, place some plastic wrap over it to prevent oxidization.

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

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.

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.

Miso 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.

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.

Origin 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.

There is an ongoing debate about the exact origins of miso paste. Miso is, in fact, not a Japanese invention. A similar paste was first used in China in the 4th century.

It was made by mixing soybeans, alcohol, salt, and wheat and letting the mixture ferment.

The name ‘miso’ first appeared in written form in the year 800, and since then, it has become a common ingredient in many Asian dishes.

Miso migrated to Japan via Buddhist monks sometime in the 7th century. It is there that it became ‘miso’ as we know it today.

Some of the ingredients were changed, and the flavor was improved. The Japanese version of miso paste is the one that is most popular today.

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.

Also read: Miso vs. Marmite, How to Use Both + Differences Explained

What foods do you use miso paste in?

Miso paste is most commonly used in soup. Miso soup is a very common dish in Asian countries and North America.

In Japan, it is a tradition to have miso soup for breakfast. Thus, miso has become a staple in Japanese households, restaurants, or for takeout.

The paste actually has many uses. Here is a list of the most popular types of foods you can add miso to:

  • Soups
  • Sauces
  • Dressings
  • Batter
  • Stews
  • Marinades
  • Ramen
  • Noodle dishes
  • Vegetables
  • Tofu
  • Salads

When you use miso paste, you want to make sure you never put the paste into boiling dishes. You want to add the paste into a dish at the end of its cooking period.

If you boil it too much, the heat will destroy the healthy bacteria and cultures of the miso, and you’ll be left without the health benefits of this paste.

miso soup

When you buy a new ingredient to use in a recipe, don’t you hate to just end up with a big jar of ingredients that clutter your refrigerator? Me, too.

I’m a little obsessed about keeping the random bottles in my fridge to a minimum … or at least keeping them in the fridge door ‘quarantine’.

I go on a ‘mission’ when I get a new ingredient to find ways to use it in other recipes, quickly, and with lots of tasty discoveries … my kind of project.

Also read: use this healthy vegetable stock instead of chicken broth

Salad dressings

Miso brings to a vinaigrette a stunning, savory quality. Whisk 1 spoonful of sherry or wine vinegar, 2-3 spoonfuls of extra virgin olive oil and 1 small teaspoon of miso paste together for a salad for two. Or try the recipe we’ll share at the end of this article.

Main course soup

Miso soup is probably the first thing you think about miso. The traditional presentation is usually a light broth with some seaweed and some tofu cubes.

Yet miso soups can also be beautiful meals on their own…

Bring 3 cups stock to a boil then stir in 1-2 tablespoons of white miso. To make it more meaningful, add veg, protein and/or noodles. This can serve 2 people.

In stir-fries

Miso tastes incredibly delicious in stir-fries. However, since it’s very delicate it’s better to finish cooking your stir fry and let it cool down a bit before adding the miso into the mix.

Onions for burgers

A super delicious way to bring your burgers to the next level. I pinched the concept from brilliant chef Dan Hong from Sydney.

In a little butter, cook your onions until they’re soft, then remove them from heat and stir in a little miso to season. Usually, one to two teaspoons are enough.

In marinades

Use miso in a marinade to get all these savory flavors really embedded. You don’t even need to wait for it to marinate overnight, 5 to 10 minutes can be more than enough.

Combining 6 tablespoons of white wine or mirin or Chinese Shaoxing wine with 2 tablespoons of miso is a good place to start. That’s enough to marinate meat for 2 people. Pan fry or barbecue.

As a sauce served on the side

In a little oil, cook the meat or fish. Remove the pan from the heat and put the protein to rest on the serving plates.

Add a tablespoon of wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons of white miso, and a tablespoon of hot water to the pan juices, and sprinkle over your meat/fish.

Conclusion

Miso is a fermented paste that gives it a very strong flavor, something you won’t find in other cuisines, yet it’s the base of so many Japanese dishes.

It’s great to experiment with and get used to the flavor combinations you can make with it.

Also read: these are the best miso paste brands and flavors to use

Check out our new cookbook

Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.

Try it out for free with Kindle Unlimited:

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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.