Miso (味噌), fermented soybean paste, is made from soybeans, grains (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 are indicative of the different ratio of soy beans and rice used to make the miso and the length of the fermentation period. The longer the fermentation, the darker and richer the miso is. The taste, aroma, texture and appearance of miso all vary by region.
Miso is usually categorized by the 3 factors: ingredients, color, and taste.
Rice Miso (米味噌)
It is made from rice, soybeans, rice koji and the majority of miso sold here in the US and Japan is kome miso (米味噌), a combination of soybeans and rice.
Barley Miso (麦味噌)
It is made from barley grains, soybeans and barley koji, and has a very dark color and quite salty but very rich taste. Barley miso is naturally fermented from one to three years. These days this type of miso is not as popular as before. It is used in southern parts of Japan.
Used for seasoning rich soups, stews, beans, sauces and spreads.
Soybean Miso (大豆味噌)
Soybean miso is only made from soybean and the koji produced from soybeans.
A special type of soybean miso is Hatcho Miso (八丁味噌). Hatcho miso has a distinctive soybean flavor and slight sweet aroma. Hatcho miso should be aged for at least 16 months and it is reddish-brown, somewhat chunky.
Used to flavor soups and sauce.
Koji Miso (麹味噌)
It is made using large quantities of koji culture, producing miso with rich taste and noticeable sweetness. Koji miso can be rice, barley, or soybean, but the ratio of koji used in miso is higher.
Aka Miso (赤味噌) – Red Miso
It is made from about 70% soybean and 30% rice or barley. The long fermentation period (about 1 to 1.5 years) produces darker colored, strong and salty miso. It contains about 13% salt by volume. Red miso contains the highest levels of protein of all types of miso.
Used for stir-fries, miso soups and stews or to make marinades for meat, poultry and vegetables.
Shiro Miso (白味噌) – White Miso
It is made from about 40% soybean and 60% rice or barley. It is a yellowish beige color and the fermentation period is shorter than for Aka Miso. Shiro Miso is slightly less salty and less robust in flavor than Aka Miso. Of all miso varieties, the white miso contains the most carbohydrates and therefore tastes the sweetest and the texture is very smooth.
Used to make light colored soups, salad dressings and marinades for fish.
Awase Miso (合わせ味噌)
It is a combination of Aka Miso and Shiro Miso and it’s all-purpose. Since my mom has been using Awase Miso (mixed miso) for her cooking, I also uses it for most of my dishes unless stated otherwise.
Used for almost everything in my recipes unless otherwise noted.
Saikyo Shiro Miso (西京白味噌)
As shown above, it has a light beige color and distinctive sweet flavor. It’s sweet due to its low sodium content (about 5-10%). It’s made with more rice and less soybeans with a short fermentation period. Because of its mild flavor and less saltiness, , it’s used to marinate fish and vegetables (Saikyo Yaki) and make a special New Year’s Soup called Ozoni (Kansai style).
The taste of miso is usally categoriezed into sweet (甘味噌), mild (甘口味噌), salty (辛口味噌) based on the ratio of salt and koji used in miso.
If you want to read more about essential differences between soybean, barley, and rice misos, continue reading here.
I’ve been using Hikari Miso brand miso for years because I feel it’s one of the best tasty miso I can purchase. For more information about their products, visit HikariMiso.com.
Substitution: There are no substitute for these.