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What is Miso, and Why It's Our Favorite Bean Paste

Created December 16, 2019
bowls of miso paste
If you think miso is just for soup, boy do we have some big news for you!
Miso paste isn’t just used for soup, people! From dinner to dessert, miso is quickly becoming our favorite way to add saltiness to a dish.

What Is Miso Paste?

In short, miso is a salty bean paste. It’s made from fermented soybeans, salt and koji (cooked white rice with a fungus added to it). Some types of miso have barley and even fish added to them for additional flavor. Miso is incredibly salty, making it a rich substitution for sodium in your dishes. Miso also comes in a lot of varieties, from white to red, and the color often reflects the flavor. Think of miso like a fine wine. A glass of white wine is light and fresh. The same goes for white miso paste. A red wine is more robust and darker—same for a red miso paste.

If you’re new to the world of miso paste, start with white miso. Red and yellow miso pastes have additional ingredients and longer periods of fermentation and are great for many uses, but if you’re new to miso, white is the way to go. It’s not as rich and funky as red or yellow miso pastes, so it’s approachable for newbies to the miso scene. Salty, fermented and sweet, white miso paste (also known as shiro miso) has layers of flavor while still being mild enough to meld with many other flavors.

Why We Love Miso Paste

  • Complex yet versatile: If you’re looking for a secret umami agent, look no further. Miso paste is umami in a tub. The flavor is complex but it’s also versatile enough to use in a variety of dishes.
  • Thickness: Unlike soy sauce, miso is a thick paste, which adds texture and body to vinaigrettes, sauces and soups.

What to Look For

We’ve tasted a lot of miso pastes to get an idea of what we’re looking for in terms of flavor. Here’s what we look for out of a winning paste:

  • Balance: Miso paste should be thick, relatively smooth and salty, but sweet, with a hint of piquant yet mellow fermented flavor. It shouldn’t just be salty; it should add complex umami flavors in addition to its punch of sodium.
  • Tradition: During our taste test of white miso pastes, we preferred the brands that we found at an Asian market over the more Americanized grocery store versions. The traditional brands generally had a more balanced, well-seasoned flavor and pleasant texture.

What to Make with Miso Paste

roasted sweet potato miso hummus

We all know you can use miso paste to make miso soup, but there are so many other opportunities for miso paste to shine. Check out our complete list of miso-enhanced recipes.

How to Use Miso in Daily Cooking

Like we said—it’s not just for miso soup! Stir miso paste into mashes, purées and soups to add a rich umami flavor. It’s great added to a marinade for fish, chicken or steak. It adds great depth of flavor to aioli, hummus, salad dressing and other dips and spreads. Balance its deep flavor with sweet ingredients such as honey, brown sugar or maple syrup. Mix with butter and spread on grilled bread or veggies like corn on the cob, eggplant or zucchini. Make “umami bombs” by adding a little miso paste to recipes with other umami-rich ingredients such as cooked tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and mushrooms. But be careful as a little goes a long way! Use a small amount and consider reducing other salty elements in your recipe.