What is in miso paste? Learn more about this soy bean paste

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 30, 2020

If you’re familiar with Japanese food, you’ve most likely heard of miso paste.

It’s a delicious umami flavored paste, used as a seasoning or condiment in many Japanese dishes, especially soups and sauces.

Miso is a fermented seasoning paste made from soybeans, grains, fungus (koji), and salt, but let’s dive more into that in this article.

Learn more about miso paste

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

The Japanese (and not only) swear by it, using it as a condiment in all types of dishes.

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

What is in 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).

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. The three main types of miso paste are:

  1. White miso – shinomiso – 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.

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

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:

A brief history of miso

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.

What does miso paste taste like?

Most people agree that it tastes like umami – one of the five tastes or flavors in Japan, considered to be a “savor” taste.

When you first taste it, it’s going to seem salty, combined with a hint of tanginess, sweetness, and earthiness.

Depending on the intensity of the paste, it will taste either slightly sweet or very meaty and salty.

The texture is similar to peanut butter, some miso is very pasty and smooth, while some are chunky.

When cooking with miso, you only need a small amount because it’s such a savory and flavored food, a little goes a long way.

How is miso made?

The ingredients are left to ferment naturally for varying lengths of time. The longer the mixture ferments, the stronger the flavor of the paste and the darker to color.

The manufacturing process is quite simple:

First, the fungus (koji) must be made. You have to add some spores to a small portion of your grain and soybeans.

You can use steamed rice, mix it with the soy, and let the culture develop. The fungus will start to form, and the starch in the mixture will turn into sugar and glutamate.

This is what gives it that specific umami flavor.

The ingredients (grains, soybeans, salt, fungus, and any additional unique ingredients) are mixed and left to ferment for a period of a few weeks for light miso and a couple of years for very dark miso.

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:

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.

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.

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

Honzokuri low sodium miso
Honzokuri is the best low sodium miso brand without MSG you can use in your dishes.

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.

Best Miso Paste Brands

If you take a look at the most popular Miso pastes on Amazon, you’ll notice that customers are increasingly searching for organic and healthy options.

Non-GMO, organic, and additive-free varieties are common miso pastes that people buy. Here is a list of the best selling miso pastes on Amazon.

Hikari Organic Miso Paste, White, 17.6 oz Organic Miso

Hikari organic white miso

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Hikari is the most popular brand of miso, used by many restaurants. It is Japan’s #1 organic miso paste brand.

Hikari is known for the great value it offers. Their pastes cost about $14 and are sold in tubs of 17.6 oz.

This product is a bestselling miso paste on Amazon. It is popular with customers because of the light, flavorful taste. It is also an organic product, with no MSG, no harsh additives, and it is gluten-free.

Check prices and availability here on Amazon

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Hikari ORGANIC Mild Miso Paste

Hikari organic mild miso paste

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This is a mild miso paste with low sodium content. It is excellent for those on a low salt diet. It gives all the great taste of dark miso.

It is a high-quality paste at a low price, and that is why customers love this product.

Check it out here

Aka Red Miso Paste Soybean paste NON-GMO No MSG Added 35.2oz Miko Brand

AKA red miso paste

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Miko is part of the Miyasaka USA brand, best known for instant miso soups. They also sell different varieties of miso paste.

This is a very popular brand of red miso. It has an intense taste, well suited for soups and stews.

Customers love this miso because it is made from NON-GMO soybeans and has no unhealthy additives like MSG.

Check the latest prices here

Shirakiku White Miso Soybean Paste (Shiro Miso) – 2.2 Lb

Shirakiku shiro miso

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Shirakiku is a popular Western brand, specializing in Asian food. It has become a staple in grocery stores across America.

This is a white, light-flavored miso paste. This is a large family size pack for those who use miso often.

Shirakiku brand miso paste is gluten-free and less salty than other brands.

Buy it here from Amazon

Yuzu Miso – Aged 3 Months by Namikura Miso (17.6 ounces) Chunky Miso

Yuzu miso

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Namikura is a family-owned Japanese brand with a long tradition in manufacturing miso paste.

This type of miso paste is uniquely flavored. It is made with yuzu fruit and fermented for only three months.

It has a light, slightly floral, and sweet flavor with a hint of tartiness. It is chunky miso, to be used in a smaller quantity than others.

Check the latest prices here

Takeaway

Don’t hesitate to give miso paste a try because you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to cook with it.

Get your quick start in enjoying Japanese cuisine here with our top recommended tools

If you’ve been hesitant to try it, keep in mind that miso paste is a healthy, active culture food, just like yogurt!

It contributes to a healthy gut, and it also tastes great, giving flavor to all kinds of foods.

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.