Miso Guide

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Miso is highly affiliated with the flavour sensation known as umami. The thick paste is deeply savoury, with a nutty, funky and salty/sweet richness. This source of umami forms the base of many delicious Japanese meals.

Miso Guide

How Is Miso Made?

Miso paste is made through a two-step fermentation process. Grains such as rice or barley (but sometimes soybeans) are inoculated with a mould called Aspergillus oryzae which create a product called koji. These koji spores are mixed with cooked soybeans, water, and additional salt. This mixture then ferments for a few months (and up to 10 years!), unleashing the effects of yeast and lactic acid. The resulting flavour rich paste is ready to use in an array of cooked and raw dishes.

Because of hydrolysis (the breakdown of starches to sugar, in the presence of water), the natural sweetness and toasty flavours found in grains and legumes are drawn out during the fermentation process. Meanwhile, koji-kin (the fungus also used in soy sauce and sake production) are hard at work, breaking proteins down into amino acids. These free amino acids are much easier for our palate to access, detecting umami.

Miso develops funk from the controlled decay of beans and grains, sweetness from the conversion of starch to sugars, saltiness from the salt working to inhibit bad bacteria, and umami from the koji doing its enzymatic work. Length of fermentation will contribute to the colour and texture. Typically, miso which has been fermented for a year or less is lighter in colour, while older miso will turn a darker, moodier hue.

Types Of Miso

The different varieties of miso are defined by tiny but impactful iterations. Not only do flavours, aromas, texture, and colour vary seasonally and by region, the decisions made during fermentation (duration, temperature, vessel) and seasoning (added salt and koji strain) will produce a slightly different outcome.

There are three common types of miso found easily in Australia (white, yellow and red) and each one has its own unique flavour profile. There are of course, many other types, but these are the ones you are most likely to encounter at the Asian grocer or supermarket.

White (shiro) miso is the most commonly produced type of miso. Made with rice, barley, and soybeans, shiro miso is a softer expression of the form, with a mild, sweet taste. Its distinct sweetness makes it ideal for salad dressings, light vegetable dishes and for adding depth of flavour and saltiness to desserts.

Yellow Miso is a ‘middle of the road’ miso which resides somewhere in between white and red. Its flavour is a perfect addition to soups, stews and sauces without overwhelming other components of the dish.

Red (aka) miso refers to miso made with koji-inoculated white or brown rice, barley, or soybeans, and the requisite steamed soybeans and salt. It is rich, with a deep umami flavour that is best used in hearty dishes, glazes, or sauces for root vegetables. Red miso is aged for longer than white and yellow miso, which gives it a deeper hue. As the colour shifts to a rusty red, the saltiness deepens, and the flavour increases in intensity.

There can be variation within each colour, depending on aspects like fermentation time, strain of koji used, and how much salt the miso was fermented with.

Other variances in miso include:

  • Kome (rice) miso - One of the most widely available miso pastes found in different colours that vary in strength and sweetness.
  • Awase miso - Meaning ‘mixed miso’, awase is exactly what it sounds like: a mixture of several types, allowing for different versions of flavour between them.
  • Mugi (barley) miso –This light-yellow miso made from barley malt tends to carry a deeper sweetness when compared to aka (red) miso.
  • Mame miso & Hatcho miso are reddish-brown (dark) misos made entirely of soybeans, with no grains used even in the koji.
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