Essential guide to miso

There are few ingredients as versatile, impactful and easy to use as miso. Most commonly utilised in paste form (though freeze-dried crystals can be used to make soup or broths), miso is produced by fermenting soy beans, barley or other starches with salt and a flavourful fungus known as ‘koji’. Over the course of months – or years – the koji consumes the beans or grains, deepening and transforming their flavour into something entirely unique.

Once utilised mainly in Japanese cuisine, miso is now a mainstay in homes and restaurants around the world, used to add both umami and a hint of sweetness to not only savoury marinades, spices, dressings and glazes, but to cakes, pastries and desserts as well. Popular chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi champion the ingredient as a ‘flavour bomb‘, using it to bring nuanced depth to countless dishes.

Miso can serve as the primary flavouring of a dish, be it glazing salmon or chicken (check out our all-purpose miso marinade recipe below…), flavouring a simple miso soup or braising beef short ribs, or makes a terrific hidden weapon, adding a savoury oomph to a dish without imparting its own flavour; use it to punch-up your next bolognese, stir into a gravy, mix with butter and slide under the skin of a chicken before roasting, or try this incredible miso and potato rosti.

Choosing between the many available miso varieties– red miso, white miso, barley miso, sweet miso and plenty of other others- can be daunting, but their differences are often subtle and many can be interchanged with excellent results.

The guide below will help you decipher the differences between each miso, but if you’ve never cooked with this remarkable ingredient before, we recommend simply choosing one and adding a small spoonful wherever you want a boost of flavour.

Dried miso vs. miso paste:

Miso paste is the aged combination of koji-inoculated rice, salt and soy beans, barley, chickpeas or some combination of these (or similar) carbohydrates. Freeze-dried miso takes the form of fine crystals and is most commonly used to make miso soup.

Which miso should I choose? 

Despite the international popularity of miso – or perhaps because of it – there are many inconsistencies in how miso is labelled. What one producer might label ‘chickpea miso’ another might call ‘yellow miso’, while yet another brand’s ‘yellow miso’ might include no chickpeas at all.

While we’ll do our best to outline the respective qualities of each variety, the general rule-of-thumb is: the darker the miso, the longer it’s been fermented and the more powerful the flavour.

White miso
White miso, as its name suggests, is the most pale in colour. It is generally the youngest of the miso varieties, having been fermented for six months or fewer, but can also refer to a higher percentage of rice and/or koji. Usually less powerful in flavour, white miso is perfect for use with fish, seafood, chicken breasts and vegetables like eggplant or cauliflower, or for salad dressings and compound butters.

Red miso
Produced either by ageing white miso for longer (up to two years), incorporating more flavourful carbohydrates like barley or red lentils, or a combination of the two, red miso has a deeper flavour profile with rich savoury notes balanced against sweeter caramel flavours. Use in braises, meat sauces, marinades, or hearty soups.

Yellow miso
Usually made with chickpeas, barley or other similar carbohydrates (and can be known by names like barley miso), yellow miso has an earthier flavour, and sits somewhere between red and white miso in intensity. A delicious alternative for those unable to consume soy, which is a common ingredient in white and red miso.

Sweet miso
While all miso has subtle sweet notes, sweet miso is blended post-fermentation with sugar (or honey) and other ingredients. It can be used directly as a condiment or sauce, stirred through steamed beans, dressing noodles or glazing pan-seared salmon.

Chilli miso and other mixed miso
Like sweet miso, chilli miso begins as a normally fermented (usually red) miso, then has chilli added to it before being packaged. This adds a hit of both umami and spice when used as a marinade, sauce or dressing.

Freeze-fried miso soup
Freeze-dried miso crystals are combined with dehydrated tofu, spring onions, seaweed and aburaage (deep fried tofu) to make a mix that simply needs boiling water to be transformed into a hearty, delicious soup.

Simple miso marinade recipe:

This aromatic sweet/savoury marinade adds rich flavour to chicken, salmon, eggplant or any number of other delicious headliners. 30 minutes marinating will do the trick, but a couple of hours is optimal for maximum flavour.

100mL mirin
3 tbsp miso paste of your choice
2 tbsp cooking sake
2 tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp finely grated ginger
3 cloves garlic, finely grated
1 tbsp soy sauce

Combine ingredients in a bowl, then add your preferred protein (chicken thighs, salmon fillets, or similar) and marinate for at least 30 minutes.

Remove excess marinade before roasting, frying, grilling or barbecuing.