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Here’s a little secret: miso isn’t as intimidating as it seems. The fermented soybean paste might give the impression of a specialty ingredient strictly suitable to expert kitchens, but in reality, it’s worthy of a venerated place right alongside your good olive oil, sea salt, and butter.
"Miso is a daily product," says Hiroko Shimbo, author of "Hiroko’s American Kitchen: Cooking with Japanese Flavors.” “Just think of it as a source of sodium; it doesn’t have to be used in a strictly Japanese way.” (Read: Consider miso whenever you’re about to add more salt!)
Miso is more than a salt substitute, though; it contains glutamate, a building block of umami, which helps lend a complex, savory note to dishes. Understanding how to use it is a simple matter of getting to know the three major types of miso: akamiso, saikyo miso, and shiro white miso. Their range in hue—dark brown to ivory to amber—is due to the amount of time the soybeans ferment, says Shimbo. A darker hue indicates a saltier, more pronounced flavor.
Dark brown akamiso is a rich mixture of rice and miso that has fermented between one and three years. It’s intensely salty, which Shimbo says makes it a good pairing for hearty or oily proteins. Mix it with mustard, ginger, garlic and oil in a marinade flexible enough for steak, lamb, or pork. Or try it with fish; braise thick slices of whole mackerel in a ginger-scented miso sauce.
On the other end of the miso spectrum is saikyo, or “white miso,” a young version originating from the Southern island of Kyoto. Whereas akamiso is profoundly salty, saikyo miso is mild, and subtly sweet. It contains just a fraction of akamiso salt content, thanks to its short fermentation period of only three weeks. Shimbo recommends using saikyo miso with delicate white fish, lobster, or crab. We like the looks of this take on chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s famous miso-steeped black cod.
Shiro White Miso
Occupying the middle ground between akamiso and saikyo miso is shiro white miso, a mellow miso that Shimbo tells us is fermented for up to a year. Despite the “white” in its name, shiro miso, as it is sometimes called, is light yellow in color. It’s a good middle-of-the-road miso, suitable for both heavy and light dishes, like this miso-glazed tuna kebabs or this Asian winter slaw.
There are other types of miso, too. Awasemiso, a blend of several types of miso, is a common sight in American supermarkets. Others are made with barley, brown rice, and a variety of other grains. (For those seeking to become miso experts, check out "The Book of Miso.")
But don’t be dissuaded by the many types; a basic container of miso from the supermarket will serve you well. It’ll last forever in your fridge, you’ll be surprised by its versatility, and c’mon: Why settle for basic salt when you can be a miso master?
Find all three types of miso at Asian specialty stores or online (Shimbo likes Great Eastern Sun), and always keep it refrigerated.