Miso is so much more than the name of a delicious savory soup.

By Kelly Vaughan
Updated May 24, 2019

While we’ve talked about how umami is the insanely delicious, savory essence in many Asian dishes, there is one ingredient that is the epitome of umami flavor: miso. Miso paste is the base of classic miso soup, as well as an unusual (but delicious!) ingredient in dishes like Smashed Potatoes with Miso and Seeded Miso Sweet Potato Bread. So how is miso made and what exactly is miso made of? Read below to learn more, and find some of our favorite recipes that highlight the intense, depth of flavor that miso offers.

What is Miso?

Miso is a fermented soybean paste that is popular in Japanese cuisine. It is typically made by mixing soybeans with salt, koji (a specific moldy rice used for a variety of Japanese culinary purposes), and beans, chickpeas, or another grain. The mixture ferments together for anywhere between a few weeks and a few years, depending on how developed the flavor is intended to be. Miso is known for being salty, a little tangy, and full of strong umami flavor. Because of its potency, most recipes will usually only call for a couple tablespoons of miso paste. The fermentation extends miso’s shelf life, so it can be refrigerated for up to a year as long as it stays covered. Miso is always readily available in Japanese grocery stores, but many gourmet food stores also sell it for between $5-$10.

While miso is traditionally used in Japanese cuisines, it’s popular in a variety of dishes including vegetarian and vegan recipes. You can do so much more with miso than just mix it in soup: it’s delicious in roasted Miso Eggplant Dip, which has the consistency of hummus with the warm, savory quality of miso. You can also whisk it into an easy vinaigrette or glaze for a side like Miso Roasted Radishes or transform a traditional French recipe like Pâte à Choux into Miso Gougères.

Types of Miso

There are three main kinds of miso— white, yellow, and red. All are made with fermented soybeans, but the type of grain used varies. White miso (aka Shiro Miso), which is the mildest version, is made with rice; yellow (Shinshu miso) and red miso (aka miso) are usually with barley. Red miso has the strongest, saltiest flavor of the three. The longer the miso ages, the more the flavor intensifies. White miso is only aged for a few weeks, whereas red miso ages for at least one year but often longer.

Miso Substitutes

Miso’s signature umami flavor can be found in other savory ingredients like soy sauce, anchovies, parmesan cheese, mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes. While there’s no ingredient that has both a similar paste-like texture and flavor to miso, other traditional Asian ingredients like soy sauce and fish sauce will mimic the same salty, comforting essence found in miso.