Miso (味噌) is a traditional fermented soybean paste used in Japanese cooking. Learn more about the common uses of miso, types, taste characteristics, and tips on buying and storing miso.
Miso (味噌), fermented soybean paste, is made from soybeans, grains (usually steamed rice or barley), salt, and koji culture (麹, a fermentation starter). It is left to ferment in cedar-wood kegs at ambient temperature for six months to five years.
The different colors of miso types can be an indicator of the different ratios of soybeans and rice used to make the miso and the length of the fermentation period. Usually, the longer the fermentation, the darker and richer the miso is. The taste, aroma, texture, and appearance of miso varies by region.
In Japan, miso is usually categorized by 3 factors: ingredient, color, taste, and regions.
Miso Types by Ingredient
1. Rice Miso (Kome Miso 米味噌)
It is made from soybeans, salt, and rice koji (米麹). Majority of the miso produced and sold are this type.
2. Barley Miso (Mugi Miso 麦味噌)
It is made from soybeans, salt, and barley koji (麦麹). Very dark in color, it’s quite salty but with a rich taste. Barley miso is naturally fermented for one to three years. It is primarily used in Kyushu, Shikoku, and Chugoku region (southern Japan). It’s used for seasoning rich soups, stews, beans, sauces and spreads.
3. Soybean Miso (Mame Miso 豆味噌)
Soybean miso is only made from soybean, salt, and koji produced from soybeans. It undergoes one to three years of fermentation, has a blackish brown color, very savory, and is a very stiff paste. Soybean miso is found in the Tokai region (central Japan). Due to its long fermentation and distinctive soybean-rich flavor, it’s perfect for stews and braises as the aroma and flavor won’t dissipate with long cooking.
Hatcho Miso (八丁味噌) is a specialty soybean miso produced only in Okazaki, Aichi prefecture.
Miso Types by Color
The Japanese categorize the color of miso into red, white and blended, although confusingly outside of Japan, you may hear of other colors such as yellow and black miso. This can be confusing as the color alone is not necessarily an indication of its sodium content, ingredients, production method, or flavor.
1. Red Miso (Aka Miso 赤味噌)
It is made from about 70% soybean and 30% rice or barley. The soybeans are steamed before mixing the koji. The long fermentation period (about 1 to 1.5 years) produces darker colored, strong and salty miso (13%). Red miso contains the highest levels of protein of all types of miso and the color can range from deep amber to chestnut. The color is due to the Maillard reaction when the amino acids in the soybeans react with the sugars, resulting in the browning. Red miso will continue to brown with more time but it will not go bad due to the high salt content.
Recipe suggestions: stir-fries, miso soups, and stews or to make marinades for meat, chicken, and vegetables.
2. White Miso (Shiro Miso 白味噌)
It is made from about 40% soybean and 60% rice or barley. The fermentation period is much shorter compared to red miso, resulting in a slightly less salty and delicately flavored than red miso. The yellowish beige color is due to the boiling process of the soybeans, which prevents the Maillard reaction. Of all miso varieties, white miso contains the most carbohydrates and therefore tastes the sweetest. The texture is very smooth.
Saikyo shiro miso (西京白味噌) is a type of white miso that is solely produced in Kyoto prefecture.
Recipe suggestions: light-colored soups, salad dressings, marinades for fish and in baked goods.
3. Blended Miso (Awase Miso 合わせ味噌)
An all-purpose miso made by blending red and white miso.
Recipe suggestions: pretty much everything!
Miso Types by Taste
The taste of miso is usually categorized into sweet (Ama Miso 甘味噌), mild (Amakuchi Miso 甘口味噌), and salty (Karakuchi Miso 辛口味噌) based on the ratio of salt and koji used.
Koji Miso (麹味噌)
This is my favorite type of miso. This miso is made with large quantities of koji, producing miso with a sweet and mild taste, a chunky texture, deep aroma, and rich flavor. Koji miso can be made of rice, barley, or soybean, but the ratio of koji used in miso is higher and the koji grains are visible.
Miso Types by Regions
You will find regional miso across Japan as the climate, environment, and water differs. Here’s a few notable miso you may find outside Japan.
1. Shinshu Miso (信州味噌) – Nagano area
Originally produced in Nagano prefecture (Shinshu 信州 is its feudal name), Shinshu may also be known as yellow miso outside of Japan. Shinshu miso is made with rice koji, soybeans, and salt. The texture is smooth and the color can range from yellow-brown to beige. It has a long fermentation period, contains less rice koji, and has a 10-12% sodium content. It’s great all-purpose miso as it’s mild and will suit any dish. Around 40% of the miso produced in Japan and abroad is Shinshu miso.
2. Saikyo Miso (西京味噌) – Kyoto area
Saikyo miso is a specialty white miso that is produced in Kyoto prefecture (the Chinese characters 西京 consists of “west” and “city,” compared to the eastern city of Tokyo 東京). Consumed primarily in the Kyoto and greater Kansai area, Saikyo Miso is characterized by its light beige color, smooth texture, and distinctively sweet flavor. The sweet taste is the result of its low sodium content (about 5-7%), higher rice koji ratio to soybeans, and a short fermentation period. Because of its mild flavor, it’s often used to marinate fish and vegetables (Saikyo Yaki), added to baked goods and desserts, and used as the soup base for the special New Year’s Soup called Ozoni that’s specifically consumed in the Kansai area.
3. Sendai Miso (仙台味噌) – Sendai area
A dark reddish brown miso produced in Miyagi prefecture (Sendai is the prefectural capital of Miyagi). Although made with the same ingredients as Shinshu and Saikyo miso, it contains more soybeans than rice. It does have a higher sodium compared to other varieties (11-13%), but the saltiness is suppressed due to a longer fermentation period. Sandai miso is rich and delicious even on its own that it’s often referred to as namemiso (なめみそ, “lickable miso”).
4. Hatcho Miso (八丁味噌) – Nagoya area
Hatcho miso is a special soybean miso with an earthy rich and fudge-like texture. Its production meets a very restricted standard set by the government. This variety is used in many Nagoya cuisines such as Miso Katsu, Doteni (pork offal in a miso stew), Miso Nikomi Udon, and more. Read more about Hatcho Miso here.
The best way to store an opened tub of miso is to keep it in the refrigerator. This is to stop the fermentation process and any growth of mold on exposed areas as miso contains lots of “good” lactic acid bacteria (Tetragenococcus halophilus and others, if you were curious).
Some unopened miso can be kept in a cool and dry place, away from light and heat. Since there are so many different types of miso, always check the labels for storage instructions.
Either way, once you open the package of miso, seal the package tightly when not in use. For extra protection against oxidation, once you open up the packaging, cover the exposed area with parchment paper or plastic wrap. Always use dry, clean utensils to scoop out the paste to prevent contamination and molds.
If you would like to store it in a freezer, the temperature must stay higher than 25F or -5C. At this condition, miso won’t freeze, but the taste and aroma are best preserved.
Since miso is a fermented food, you can generally keep miso for a long time. Once opened, make sure to store the miso in your refrigerator. As long as it’s quality miso, the taste should be consistent for up to a year.
Miso doesn’t really go bad due to its high salt content, but the color does darken over time, especially in a warm environment. That is completely normal and doesn’t mean it has gone off. The taste does degrade if it has been kept for more than a year, so check to taste before use.
Signs of Miso Spoilage
If you notice any change in smell, color, or texture, or any spotty molds, it’s best to be safe and throw away the product.
Helpful Tips when Using Miso
There is no appropriate substitute for miso. If you’re allergic to soybeans, you can find miso paste made of other types of beans such as edamame, quinoa, azuki beans, and chickpeas.
- ¼ cup (60 ml) = 72 grams
- 1 cup (240 ml) = 288 grams
- 1 tablespoon (18 g) of miso per miso soup bowl (200-240 ml dashi)
How to Use Miso in Recipes
While the Japanese consume miso by drinking miso soup in the traditional Ichiju Sansai meal, it’s not just for miso soups! You can use it as a flavor boost in stir-fries, whip up an all-purpose sauce, use as a marinade for protein and even in desserts! Feel free to think outside the box and use miso in non-Japanese cooking as well! Suggestions include a spoonful of miso in tomato or meat sauces, creamy soups, or in glazes. It can add a boost of umami to your dish without raising the salt content.
Here are some delicious recipes using miso:
Make Your Own Miso
Yes! You can also make your own homemade miso from scratch – with just 4 ingredients and a little patience! My simple step-by-step instructions on How to Make Miso will guide you through this process. Get the recipe here.
Where Can I Buy Miso?
You can buy miso at Asian/Japanese supermarkets, health food stores, and online. You may find miso made outside of Japan, both high and low end. Just make sure to check the ingredient list for any foreign additions such as alcohol, stabilizers or other additives. The best way to check for quality miso is to taste it plain. A little goes a long way and you will get what you paid for, so try to find small-batch miso made by the traditional method.
Most Japanese people stock their fridge with 2-3 varieties of miso and combine the pastes to make miso soup. So feel free to shop around for a few brands and varieties to your liking!
Best Brand for Miso
I’ve been using miso from Hikari Miso® for over a decade and I’ve been partnering with the company for several years now. I use various types of miso from Hikari Miso® every day and I truly believe their miso is one of the best tasty miso available in Japan and in the U.S.
For more information about their products, visit HikariMiso.com.