Now reading The Lucky Peach Guide to Miso

The Lucky Peach Guide to Miso

Everything you need to know about ten varieties of miso.

This story comes from “Lucky Peach #2: The Sweet Spot. For more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine!

Miso is fermented soybean paste—but let’s be more specific. It takes only a glimpse of pale, sweet shiro miso or burly, fudgy hatcho miso to see that “miso” casts an enormous net: varieties of miso can be as different as night and day.

The long and short of making miso involves taking soybeans, rice and/or barley, salt, water, and koji (rice that’s been inoculated with special mold spores and looks like Rice Krispies), mashing them all together, and waiting. Within that framework, every little thing matters: the way the beans are prepared, what the weather is like, the length of fermentation, the soil in which the grains grow, the type and quantity of salt, the time it takes for everything to ferment (which might be days, or years).

Sometimes categorized by color, other times by ingredient, still other times by the town or region in which they’re made, the types of miso are varied enough to make you think twice (and thrice, and again after that) about what’s going into your miso soup. Though traditional miso is, as just mentioned, made from rice (kome), soybeans (mame), barley (mugi), or any combination thereof, other varieties have been made from chickpeas, buckwheat, hemp seeds, millet, quinoa, corn, amaranth, lima beans, and azuki beans. (And other things, too. The list could probably go on forever.)

The point is that miso-making is always an exercise in balance. All those variations only mean that producing a specific product is a delicate balance of time, ingredients, and technique.

Miso Strong

Miso_strongAka Miso

Tokyo’s preferred miso is aka miso, a red miso made primarily with soybeans, in addition to some barley or rice. Along with shiro miso, aka miso is one of Japan’s most popular misos. Red to dark brown in color, it packs a powerful savory wallop: assertively salty, subtly sweet, slightly bitter. The deep flavor and dark color owe themselves to several factors: a lengthy fermentation of up to three years, steamed (rather than boiled) soybeans, and a chemical occurrence called the Maillard reaction, which occurs during fermentation and causes browning, creating flavor compounds. Of all misos, red miso has the highest salt content and lowest percentage of carbohydrates, making it one of the least perishable. (Other misos, like shinshu, aren’t so shelf stable.) It can be stored at room temperature indefinitely, and it gets better with age. Traditionally, aka miso pairs well with tofu and eggplant, but its heartiness makes it a natural accompaniment to cold-weather foods: soups, stews, braises, and meat dishes.

Made from: Mixture
Color: Red
Fermentation time: Up to 3 years

Miso Sweet

Shiro MisoMiso_sweet

When miso was first mentioned in an English-language publication, in 1727—in a book called The History of Japan, by Englebert Kaempfer—it was spelled midsu and described as “a mealy Pap, which they dress their Victuals withal, as we do butter.” It’s likely that the “mealy Pap” that Kaempfer encountered was shiro miso. Made from rice and fermented for a brief two to eight weeks, shiro miso is sweet, creamy, and mellow, and makes a fine topping for pancakes. Shiro belongs to the category of white misos, which range from beige to golden in color. It’s sometimes called “Kyoto-style miso,” because it’s preferred by denizens of the former imperial capital. (Kyoto-ites often apply it to corn on the cob, which is then wrapped in foil and grilled.) Shiro miso pairs well with root vegetables like taro and daikon, and is well suited for meat glazes and marinades, and dessert, too. (Miso manju is one such dessert: steamed pastries filled with miso and red-bean paste.) It’s also ideal for making miso soup. “Ore no miso shiro wo tsukutte kureru?”—which literally translates to “Will you make my miso soup?”—commonly means “Will you marry me?

Made from: Rice
Color: White
Fermentation time: 2 to 8 weeks

Miso Legendary

Hatcho Miso Miso_legendary

Legend has it that hatcho miso was a favorite of the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu, who swore by the soup made from it and fed it to his armies. Hatcho is as potent as miso gets: it’s pungent, dense, and dark as chocolate. To cut into it with a knife is not unlike cutting into a grainy brownie. (A brownie that tastes like Hoisin sauce, maybe.) Made entirely from soybeans, hatcho gets its richness from long fermentation—three winters’ worth. (In central Japan, where hatcho miso is made, winters are generally very mild.) The name hatcho was functional: it told you how to get to the miso shop. Ha means “eight,” and cho means “one city block”—the hatcho-miso factory was located eight blocks from Okazaki Castle, where Tokugawa lived.

Made from: Soybeans
Color: Red
Fermentation time: 2 to 3 years

Miso Versatile

Shinshu Miso Miso_versatile

Once upon a time, four hundred and fifty  years ago, a powerful samurai named Takeda Shingen developed shinshu miso as sustenance for his troops. The soldiers consumed the miso before battle, allegedly in the form of hōtō, a soup of flat udon noodles in a miso broth that Takeda is also credited with inventing. The name given to the miso refers to an ancient province north of Tokyo (now Nagano Prefecture) home to a light, golden miso that was salty (but not too salty) and faintly tart: an all-purpose variety. Traditionally, shinshu miso was aged for at least one year, but these days, commercial shinshu miso ferments in less than a month—it’s a smooth, quickly produced miso made from rice. This is one reason shinshu miso is among the least expensive misos; factory production of shinshu miso, which began in earnest after World War II, is another reason for its affordability. Unfortunately, it also means that shinshu is sometimes fortified with vitamin B2, bleach, and/or food coloring. Because of its relative ease of production and inexpensiveness, it’s the most widely available miso in the U.S.

Made from: Rice
Color: Yellow
Fermentation time: 1 month

Miso Mellow

Amakuchi Mugi MisoMiso_mellow

Amakuchi means mild or mellow, and amakuchi mugi miso is the mild, yellowish-brown to russet-colored barley miso popular on the island of Kyushu. It’s sometimes called “ten-day miso” because of its quick fermentation: usually one to two weeks, or sometimes as little as four to six days. Amakuchi mugi miso is sweet, though by no means as cloying as shiro miso; compared to sweet rice misos, it is much higher in salt. It’s also extremely perishable, making it difficult to export. In Japan, it’s used in dengaku, which are essentially miso-coated kebabs of vegetables and tofu.

Made from: Barley
Color: Yellow to brown
Fermentation time: 10 to 20 days

Miso Korean

Doenjang and Gochujang 

On paper, doenjang and gochujang sound just like miso: beans plus rice plus mold equal wonderful, savory paste. But where miso is all about subtlety, Korean jang—“soybean sauce”—doesn’t bother with that. Assertive in flavor, and even more assertive in odor, both doenjang and gochujang are used liberally, doled out by the generous, long-handled spoonful.

Doenjang, made from boiled soybeans, has been around for as long as Koreans have grown soybeans. It is said to have five virtues: devotion (it retains its taste even amid other flavors), steadfastness (it doesn’t decay), the merciful heart of Buddha (it removes fishy odors—just like Buddha?), generosity (it neutralizes spicy tastes), and harmony (it harmonizes well with other foods). It is the key ingredient in doenjang jigae, the Korean answer to miso soup.

Gochujang, most famous, perhaps, for being the fiery dollop in one’s bibimbap, first appeared in Korean cooking sometime after chilies were introduced to the country in the sixteenth century. A paste made of soybeans and sun-dried red chilies fermented together in a sunny spot, gochujang is spicy, pungent, intriguingly savory, and sweet. The sweetness comes from sweet glutinous rice or barley and a bit of sweetener (traditionally malt syrup, but sometimes molasses or sugar or even, these days, corn syrup). Used in innumerable Korean dishes, it’s also a terrifyingly addictive dip that rivals any guacamole.

Made from: Soybeans
Color: Red (gochujang), yellow (doenjang)
Fermentation time: Gochujang, 1 month to several years; doenjang, about 5 months

Miso Chinese

Dajiang and Doubanjiang

Dajiang, literally “great sauce,” is popular in northern China, and similar to doenjang in texture and flavor, if slightly less smelly. It’s an ingredient in zha jiang mien, a dish of wheat noodles covered in brown bean sauce and ground pork, like a Chinese spaghetti Bolognese. When it’s too hot to cook, Northerners coat raw vegetables in dajiang, using it like a salad dressing.

Further south, there’s doubanjiang. Essential to infamously spicy Sichuan cookery, doubanjiang (“beans mixed in sauce”) is the spicy fermented bean paste that makes mapo tofu and twice-cooked pork so magical. The relevant koji is made from sprouted broad beans (fava beans) and combined with chilies and soybeans. Depending on how long it’s aged, doubanjiang can be fresh-tasting and bright, or deep and earthy.

Made from: Soybeans
Color: Yellow, red
Fermentation time: 1 to 8 years

Miso Funky

Karaguchi Mugi Miso Miso_funky

Odor-wise, karakuchi mugi miso ranks among the funkiest. Mugi refers to miso made from barley, and karakuchi means “strong”; karakuchi mugi miso, it follows, is a deep brown barley miso. Though barley is usually cheaper than rice, karakuchi mugi miso tends to be more expensive than rice misos: it requires a lengthy natural fermentation and is made only during the colder months of the year, when the barley crop is new and flavorful and there are fewer potentially contaminating microorganisms in the air. (Miso scholars suspect that barley miso may have been the very first miso, actually predating soy and rice misos.) Karakuchi mugi miso isn’t an ideal miso for soup, because of its chunkiness, but if texture is no object, its funky, savory flavor is unequaled in stews, as well as in dishes involving mushrooms.

Made from: Barley
Color: Dark reddish brown
Fermentation time: 1 to 3 years

Miso Pale

Amakuchi Tanshoku Miso Miso_pale

Amakuchi tanshoku miso is all about shortness and sweetness: inexpensive, pressure-cooked ingredients and a short fermentation time in a temperature-controlled environment amount to maximum profits. The name indicates a very light-colored, quick miso. Similar in style to shinshu miso, amakuchi tanshoku miso can’t technically be called shinshu because it doesn’t adhere diligently enough to the guidelines of shinshu-making. This miso is yellow or tan, sometimes even bleached or colored to achieve the desired paleness. It’s an in-between miso in more ways than one: between red and white, between sweet and salty.

Made from: Rice
Color: Tan, biege
Fermentation time: 3 to 4 weeks

Miso Lickable

Namémiso Miso_lickable

Namémiso is an umbrella term for a number of “special misos.” Namémiso translates to “finger-licking” or “lickable”; misos of this stripe are prepared with finely chopped salt-pickled vegetables, spicy seasonings, whole soybeans, and whole-grain wheat or barley koji. The resulting miso winds up like applesauce or chutney in consistency, and is addictively, lickably sweet. It can contain pieces of kombu, pickled eggplant, ginger, or melons; it can be used as a topping or condiment for baked or deep-fried potatoes, fresh raw vegetables, mochi, porridge, or basically anything. It’s spreadable, too, making it ideal for applying to toast or crackers.

Made from: Mixture
Color: Varies
Fermentation time: Varies

Miso Country

Inaka Miso Miso_country

Inaka means “rural countryside,” and inaka miso is old-timey farmhouse miso, made in the traditional way. Usually made from barley, it’s a rich, medium-strength red miso with a very high salt content. Water is also key: it’s important that the water be delicious, and ideally it’s drawn from a family’s own deep well. Inaka miso is often made and aged in a special kura, or storehouse, with a slightly humid interior designed for aging miso. The texture of inaka miso is rustic and coarse—akin to chunky peanut butter. In recent years, country-style miso has experienced a resurgent popularity in Japan, especially among folks with do-it-yourself inclinations. Health-food stores now sell miso-making kits, and homemade miso (called temae miso) is again becoming a point of pride.

Made from: Whatever grain is available locally; usually barley (sometimes wheat is added)
Color: Red
Fermentation time: 1 to 3 years