Food & Nutrition

Miso’s Role in Japanese Cuisine, Plus Cooking Tips, Recipes, and Ideas

Until recently, my experience with miso was limited to the tasty little bowl of miso soup I’d enjoy at Japanese restaurants. I began to appreciate the multitasking brilliance of miso only this year, when I started cooking my way through Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan’s fantastic new vegetarian cookbook, Cool Beans ($ 20, Amazon).

Yonan often calls for his “favorite all-purpose blast-of-umami ingredient” in recipes you might not expect if, like me, you weren’t already clued into the versatility of miso. Think white miso in a lemon-herb marinade for tofu feta, sprinkled on a pinto bean tortilla salad. Or red miso whisked into reserved pasta cooking water for a borlotti bean and bitter greens pasta dish.

With a couple of mostly full tubs of miso in my fridge, I started experimenting with adding a spoonful here and there to my fave veg dishes—pasta, lentils, soups, roasted veggies, sauces, salad dressings, more beans. It’s since become my go-to ingredient for giving a wide variety of plant-based dishes a rich depth of flavor—that extra umami oomph. But I wanted to learn more about miso’s ubiquity in Japanese cooking, and get some expert tips on ways to use it in my own everyday cooking. So I spoke to some pros about the amazing ingredient.

What miso is and why it’s good in basically everything

“Miso is a pantry staple in Japanese cuisine,” Maiko Kyogoku, owner of Bessou in New York City, tells SELF. “It’s not an ingredient that’s really comparable in American cuisine.”

The fermented soybean paste is typically made from soybeans, koji (rice inoculated with a specific type of mold), and salt, and sometimes other ingredients like barley or dashi (fish or seaweed stock), Kyogoku says. The ingredients, the ratios they’re used in, and the fermentation conditions all affect the color, flavor notes (savory, sweet), and texture of the miso, Namiko Chen, founder of the Japanese food blog Just One Cookbook, tells SELF. “In Japan there are many different types of miso, and each region has its own unique miso that is linked to its identity, purpose, and culture,” she says. The three most common types found in the U.S. are red (aka), white (shiro), and yellow (awase) miso. (Generally, a darker color indicates a longer fermentation period and more intense flavor.)

Miso is a “magic flavor booster” in Japanese cooking, Chen says. “You can literally use miso in everything.” Kyogoku believes that miso’s incredible versatility is tied to its roots as a key seasoning ingredient. “In Japanese cuisine you don’t season a lot of things with salt—soy sauce and miso are basically the salt replacement,” she points out.

Although miso’s value as a seasoning ingredient in Japanese cuisine is undeniable, its popularity has also surged in recent years with chefs who have never used it before, beginning with fine dining and trickling down to casual dining and home cooking, Kyogoku explains. “So many American chefs are into it now,” she says.

When you’re experimenting with new ingredients that are based in cultures other than your own, researching the origins of the ingredient and how people who actually belong to that culture use it is such an important practice (and part of my own motivation for writing this piece, TBH). It’s a way to rightfully pay homage, even privately, since cuisine doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And it’s probably the best way to learn about how to use the ingredient in your home cooking. 

In fact, the way Kyogoku sees it, the tremendous amount of mutual respect that French and Japanese chefs show for one another’s cuisine has been integral to elevating miso’s role in fine dining culture in the West. “It is inspiring to see non-Japanese cooks starting to embrace the endless possibilities of miso,” Chen adds.

Tips and ideas for cooking with miso

Okay, so you’re pumped to start cooking with miso more at home. I asked the pros for their best advice for home cooks looking to use the adaptable, multipurpose ingredient in more of their everyday cooking, and they shared some really useful tips, creative ideas, and recipes:

1. Choose the right type.

“The ingredients that you choose and the type of dish dictate the kind of miso you use,” Kyogoku explains. Mike Le, who runs I Am a Food Blog with his wife, Steph, tells SELF: “The flavor notes are very similar to white and red wine: The familiar white miso is buttery and mellow, while the red miso is much more nutty, fragrant, and woodsy.” (The couple live in Japan part-time—visiting every summer, except for this one—and love sharing recipes borrowed from and inspired by various Asian cultures on their blog.)

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