Miso’s popularity has surged in global cooking over the past decade. A staple ingredient of Japanese kitchens for centuries, this wonder ingredient has been bubbling up in unexpected places in the past few years, from soft, gooey miso chocolate chip cookies, to honey-miso barbecue sauce begging to be slathered on your bone-in jackfruit ribs. Miso has even enjoyed its own viral TikTok moment, thanks to Beatrice Laus—better known as award-winning indie singer-songwriter beabadoobee, who’s just one of millions who crave the warm, earthy delight of miso soup.
Suffice to say, miso is beloved by cooks all over the world for its umami qualities, nutritional value, and widespread accessibility. This is great news for the culinary world, because cooking with miso means using some of our favorite words: plant-based, gluten-free, inexpensive, long-lasting, probiotic, and of course, delicious. Miso adds unexpected complexity to everything it touches, enhancing the likes of marinara sauce, baked goods, ice cream, and much more.
But we bet you didn’t know that miso also instantly ups the sustainability of your diet. That’s because when it comes to miso production, both its water footprint and carbon footprint are low. Soybeans can root deeply, requiring less water. And once this fermented food is stored in your fridge and sufficiently closed or covered, it can last up to a year and still offer a consistent flavor (how many fridge staples can claim that?). With frozen vegetables, tofu or other proteins, and miso on hand, it’s easy to have a readymade weeknight meal while minimizing spoilage and food waste.
An estimated three-quarters of Japan’s population—over 125 million people—eat miso every day. With its remarkable taste, it’s not a surprise that this unique cultural food has had a diaspora of its own, beloved by chefs and home cooks across the United States, Europe, Australia, Africa, and the Middle East. Miso is easy to appreciate in a range of recipes, including soups, marinades, glazes, dressings, and even baking, but understanding its rich, complex history augments our culinary appreciation of this storied ingredient.
Understanding a culinary historical treasure
“Miso defines our cuisine and culture, and has been the center of Japanese cuisine, along with soy sauce, for centuries,” says Los Angeles-based Japanese donabe (clay pot) expert and cookbook author Naoko Takei Moore. “It’s one of our main seasonings.”
According to culinary historians, miso was originally brought to Japan from China more than 1,000 years ago, and was reserved exclusively for nobles. “At that time, miso was commonly used on its own as a topping for food, or as a medicine,” she adds.
The qualities of miso’s chief probiotic strain, A. oryzae, have long been touted for supporting healthy digestion and gut health, but ongoing research about miso also suggests potential protection against hypertension, lowering nighttime blood pressure despite its sodium content (scientists have hypothesized that miso’s sodium may perform differently than pure salt alone). Miso may also have potential applications in fighting cancerous tumors and protecting against radiation injury, according to a study published by Hiroshima University’s Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine.
The majority of Japanese follow Shintoism, an indigenous religion that encourages a lifestyle of purity, simplicity, and connection to the power of nature. Traditional Japanese foods known as washoku, like rice, fresh produce, sea vegetables, fruits, and soybean-derived miso and tofu, are part of a traditional diet, and are offered to gods and ancestral spirits on household and temple altars alike.
But miso wasn’t always widely available. Misa Takahashi, head of procurement at online specialty market Japanese Taste, sources dozens of miso products, from pastes, powders, and concentrates, to special whisks and strainers specifically designed for usage with miso. “Miso was very expensive at first, so only Buddhist monks or rich people could buy it,” she says. “After miso soup started becoming popular with samurai around the 12th century, the production of soybeans increased, and miso became popular with Japanese farmers.”
Hang on … samurai? Yes, indeed—according to Takahashi, the ancient military fighters found a portable, warming, nutrient-rich battle ration in miso soup cooked à la minute.
Miso’s pivotal role in Japanese society can be seen in spiritual folklore. In one folk tale, it’s so tasty, it’s used to lure out a malicious miso-loving god who haunts houses with bad luck and financial ruin. In another, traveling samurai taste miso that’s so delicious they travel back a far distance just to get more. And in yet another, a kind charcoal-maker learns from a miso-maker that hard work, like the labor required during miso production, is more important to invest in than dreams of finding sudden fortune.
The origins of a traditional medicinal ingredient
Miso has been used in cooking as well as in traditional medicine as far back as the 4th Century B.C. Miso’s fermentation process relies on koji, a rice-based source of fungal enzyme that also lends its transformative prowess to soy sauce, sake, and mirin, and is sometimes referred to as “Japan’s national mold.” Miso’s color depends on the amount of time it was aged, how the soybeans were cooked, and the added ingredients—like rice, barley, and buckwheat—that contribute to each kind’s unique flavor, hue, and texture.
“The more aged the miso, the darker the color,” says Takei Moore. She makes her own miso at home, a once-common practice she says has been largely replaced by commercial brands. “In terms of the ratio of soybeans and koji, more koji normally means a lighter color. If the soybeans are boiled, the color also tends to become lighter, and if they’re steamed, the color of miso can become darker.”
Learning the rich spectrum of miso
The most common types of miso are white, red, and yellow. White is slightly aged with a mild, mellow flavor, yellow is aged longer with a complex earthiness, and red is aged the longest with a bolder, saltier flavor. Varieties like genmai miso (brown rice), mugi miso (barley), and soba miso (you guessed it—buckwheat) each bring their own unique characteristics to a dish. All miso is vegan and rich in probiotics, and most miso is gluten-free, except varieties that contain wheat, barley, and rye.
Miso is readily available at international and specialty markets in a wide variety of forms: traditional tubs of paste, thinner pourable miso in bottles, and long-lasting miso powder that can be rehydrated, or added directly to soups, stews, and marinades.
Playing with miso’s versatile flavor notes
Miso is a pure expression of umami: salty, savory, and satisfying. In its pure form, it’s thick and creamy, with the flavor of the salt and the richness of the soybeans enveloping your tongue first. The fat, protein, and pure heft of miso adds gustatory satisfaction to the taste.
When blended into larger dishes, its effects are subtler, but often even more seductive, since this magical ingredient plays nicely with a melange of food. Americans’ first exposure to miso is typically in a simple miso soup at a Japanese restaurant: light, salty, umami-rich and a touch sweet. (A heads-up, however: Many restaurants make their miso soup with bonito flakes (made from dried tuna) for a hit of extra flavor.)
Similar to tahini, another ancient ingredient enjoying a revival in modern baking, miso’s subtle sweetness and salt infusion helps spotlights the flavors in complementary sweet ingredients like stone fruit, maple, and coconut, as well as accents like ginger and baking spices.
How to cook with miso
Cooking with miso goes far beyond Japanese cuisine—though that’s a perfectly logical place to start—and is incredibly simple if you follow a few easy pointers: don’t boil it, be aware of its salt content, and use caution when substituting. You can use lighter miso in place of darker, but not the other way around (especially when baking). Recipes with miso are unlikely to need additional salt, so always taste before seasoning.
Make a traditional miso soup
An important note is to avoid boiling miso, as this will kill off its beneficial probiotics and may concentrate the salt. “If you want to get the best health benefits, heat for a very short time, or eat raw to best enjoy the flavors,” says Takei Moore. “When you make miso soup, you should add the miso right before or after turning off the heat.”
Dress up and get saucy
Though soup remains the most popular use of miso, many of miso’s most versatile uses involve no heating at all–such as dipping sauces, dressings, and marinades (especially for cruciferous vegetables and barbecue proteins). For a simple stovetop application, try stirring a little miso and a tiny splash of soy sauce into melted vegan butter. Brush this magic three-ingredient concoction over roasted vegetables for a delicious side dish, or stir into your tofu scramble just before you take it off the heat for extra-rich savoriness.
Add miso to baked goods
Looking to bake with miso? Substitute the salt in a recipe by whisking or creaming two tablespoons of miso per cup of flour into the wet ingredients in order to ensure a smooth, even texture to your dough or batter. Try adding miso to chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies (especially with nuts), brownies, and banana bread, and you may never bake them without it again.
How to lengthen miso’s life
“Most people stock miso in the refrigerator, but if you want to preserve the flavor unchanged for a longer time, you can also freeze it,” says Takahashi. “Because miso is a fermented food and contains sodium, it will not freeze, and you will not ruin the texture or flavor.”
If you refrigerate miso, keep it tightly sealed, preferably with a layer of plastic wrap pressed gently over the surface. If exposed to the refrigerator’s cold, dry air, miso will harden from a soft paste into a solid miso rock. While it’s not spoiled until you see some evidence of spoilage, such as off-colors or mold, rock-hard miso is nobody’s friend.