If you want to add saltiness, sweetness, and more than a touch of offbeat funk to a dish, you can do all of that and more, adding incredible depth and intensity to a rainbow of dishes—all through the magic and mystery of miso.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, miso is a “high-protein fermented food paste consisting chiefly of soybeans, salt, and usually grain (such as barley or rice) and ranging in taste from very salty to very sweet.” And, while that works as a foundational definition, creative chefs have been experimenting with miso in unique ways for centuries—even thousands of years—and it’s a favorite concoction of ours at the Culinary Vegetable Institute.

“We, meaning restaurants and chefs, are in a miso craze right now,” shares Culinary Vegetable Institute Chef, Jamie Simpson, “and I love that. I love that a lot. In fact, at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, we’ve been making miso for six years now—and, because miso takes at least a year to make, we’ve spent a substantial part of the past six years learning through trial and error.”

The in-depth process going into making miso doesn’t frustrate Chef Jamie, though. “I actually love how it takes this much time,” he says, “and how miso can be passed down through generations of chefs and families. This reminds me, actually, of how a new sommelier can go into a restaurant to receive his or her inheritance, which consists of the wines that are already in the kitchen, those that have been shelved there before the sommelier arrived on the scene. Miso, too, can work that way.”

The chef team at the Culinary Vegetable Institute started making miso with white soybeans to discover how to make it, and then how to season and age it. Once the chefs gained this understanding, they then boiled the mixture with celery roots to see how well miso integrated with vegetables.

“This process,” Jamie says, “is fully transformative, with the result being more than the sum of its parts. Yes, soybeans are amazing all by themselves but, when use them as the basis for miso, you end up with something that is so deep, so rich, so full of acidity, sugar, and salt. You take simple ingredients and transform them into something with an incredible intensity, basically by using bacteria and time.”

“I am,” he adds, “greatly attracted to that idea.”

After making miso with celery root, the team switched to using pine nuts, as a way to experiment with the inclusion of seeds and nuts, rather than beans; another ingredient used was pumpkin seed. “We learned a lot along the way,” Jamie admits, “and then we decided that it was time to see what happened when we used Sea Island red peas and Carolina gold rice from the low country. In one way, we were creating a classic southern staple, but one that wasn’t dissimilar from traditional Japanese miso other than the inclusion of koji.”

Through this process, here’s the miso recipe that was created, one that includes a surprising twist on an old favorite.

Red Peas and Rice Recipe with Miso Butter

8 oz. (234 g.) Carolina gold rice

1 ½ c. water

8 oz. (234 g) Sea Island red peas

2 ½ c. water

9 T. salt

2 ½ c. koji

1 T. existing unpasteurized koji

8 oz. water

Other Creative Uses for Miso

After the basics have been figured out, then what? Well, according to the team at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, once you recognize the value of miso in adding depth of seasoning, then it’s time to have some fun! “We use miso now,” Jamie shares, “in rubs, marinades, and sauces. Instead of roasting beef bones with tomato paste for stock, for example, you can use miso while roasting. You can whip miso into butter for your bread service, use it in bread dough, and play around with its use in desserts, such as ice cream and cake, in caramel, anywhere you want an extra layer of depth.”

As another example, imagine a soufflé, baked and airy and fluffy, with a crème à glace that includes miso. “The reality,” Jamie says, “is that miso adds a layer of intensity to otherwise straightforward, simple things, adding saltiness, sweetness, a savory flavor, and of umami.”

Making Miso in Our Zero-Waste Kitchen

At the Culinary Vegetable Institute, we also appreciate how making miso dovetails with our mission of a maintaining a zero-waste kitchen. As part of that mission, we don’t consider putting up preserves to be a trend. Instead, we acknowledge how this allows us to be part of a long-held tradition found in farming communities around the world: that food is simply too good to waste.

Almost every farmhouse has a cellar for putting up its preserves, and ours “celebrates global forms of preservation, which allows us to look at new ingredients with old, sometimes ancient processes, or old ingredients with new processes.” If you took a look at our shelves, you’d find our miso paste that’s made from beans, red peas, rice and koji; allowed to ferment for a year, this paste can remain shelf stable up to 40 years. In fact, if we looked at the items that have graced our cellar shelves the longest to date, that list includes our pine nut miso.

As always at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, there is a story behind the story—and, in this case, Jamie shares, “the reason we created pine nut miso is because we had a guest chef who created a vegan dinner, using hydrated pine nuts for milk. We ended up having leftover pine nuts, already hydrated. In a refrigerator, they might last five days. So, instead, we turned them into a miso so that the ingredient can play a part in dishes for years to come.”

What is Miso, Really? Sharing the Science

So, what really happens when miso is being created? For that answer, we turned to the UCLA Division of Life Sciences and Department of Integrative Biology & Physiology. And, in short, a double fermentation process takes place. In the first phase, enzymes are created that modify starches into simple sugars. A second fermentation takes place where proteins, starches, and fats are broken down into amino acids, fatty acids, and sugars, with simple sugars transformed into organic ones that add to miso’s unique flavor and aroma.

Miso in the News

Miso, we’re happy to confirm, is indeed getting a well-deserved place in the culinary spotlight in 2019, with FineDiningLovers.com calling miso one of the “big ingredients to watch out for” this year. Plus, Waitrose & Partners grocery stores saw a 28% increase in miso purchases in 2018, with Fine Dining Lovers noting how “miso is being used as a flavor enhancer to other ingredients: such as glazed parsnips or broccoli. The fermented bean paste is perfect for giving and adding kick of delicious to vegetables and will create depth when used correctly in many sauces.”

The experts at Fine Dining Lovers also expect to continue to see people using miso butter with “ingredients like vegetables or to add new depth to stews or soups.” As already noted, we love using miso butter in recipes at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, and it actually played a key role in our Four Calling Birds dish at our 12 Days of Christmas Feast. This dish consisted of a slow-cooked, sprouted-grain risotto dish, served family style from a bird feeder, gently doused with a special added touch from a bird whistle: ginger white pomegranate dashi—and this dashi was made deliciously rich from its Parmesan-like umami flavor from butter whipped with white miso.

History and Origins of Miso

The making of miso has a long and storied history, so it shouldn’t be surprising that tales of its origins sometimes conflict. One in-depth history of miso, for example, points out how some people believe it dates back to Ancient China, while others believe it has Japanese origins.

Those who believe that miso’s origins are Chinese point out two different food preparation processes that resemble that of today’s miso. First, there is Shou (Hishio), which is meat and fish that was marinated for more than 100 days and then mixed with salt and liquor. This was then used like modern soy sauce. Around 100 BC, Shi (Kuki) was created by fermenting soybeans and millets. Some people believe that these food processes were observed by a Japanese envoy to China some time during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), with the enjoy then sharing what he learned with people in his homeland.

A very in-depth look at soybeans and miso (nearly 1,400 pages!) shares how the paste of soybeans called jiang was mentioned as a medical prescription as far back as 200 BC in China, with detailed directions about how to make it shared in 544 AD. This source is self-described as the “most comprehensive book ever published about miso, soybean jiang, etc. It has been compiled, one record at a time over a period of 33 years, in an attempt to document the history of soybeans and soyfoods. It is also the single most current and useful source of information on this subject.”

Other people, though, claim that the earliest true form of miso was being made in Japan during the Yayoi period, which dates back to 300 B.C. to 300 A.D., blurring the lines of who really “invented” miso.

No matter which version of miso’s origin that you find to be more compelling, in the year 901 A.D., the word “miso” appears in Japanese text, and this foodstuff was considered to be so valuable that it was given to “high-level bureaucrats” as a salary, offered up as a special gift, or used as a “precious seasoning.”

Another source agrees that, during the 8th-12th centuries in Japan, miso was a true delicacy, “eaten only by the nobility and monks; it was strictly off limits to the commoner.” During this era, miso was placed directly on another food or eaten all by itself, as compared to how it’s considered more of a seasoning today. From the 12th-16th centuries, this was a “staple among samurai,” with miso soup made from soybeans. In this time period, farmers began to make their own miso dishes, which caused it to be included in more people’s diets.

During the 15th-16th centuries, a time of war in Japan, miso paste was provided to soldiers to give them the extra nutrients needed for “securing victory on the battlefield.” Because this added nutrition was so important, more attention was paid to improving the fermenting process. And, over the next three centuries, more sophisticated miso recipes were created.

The word “miso,” referring to a butter, was first used in English in 1779 in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and was appearing in print in the United States by 1847, when a man from Cambridge, Massachusetts mentioned it in a letter to the Farmers’ Cabinet and Herd Book.

Health Benefits of Miso

Recent survey results of 1,342 registered dietitian nutritionists predict that “fermented foods–like yogurt, Kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi and miso–will continue to be highly sought after by consumers in 2019, likely for their powerful benefits from boosting gut health to blunting inflammation.”

HealthBenefitsTimes.com offers up additional health benefits of miso recipes. Besides assisting in digestion, benefits include that miso can:

  • help to prevent high blood pressure
  • help to fight against cancer
  • provide a great source of nutrients
  • help to rehydrate your body

Future of Miso in Menus

A report released in April 2018 suggests that the demand for miso recipes will continue to grow, in part because consumer demand for food that is “healthy and rich in nutrients,” combined with an “increasing popularity in Japanese cuisine” and a “rising global vegan population.” The report also notes that the increasing soy production in countries such as the United States, Canada, and China will facilitate the increase of miso consumption.

Because you never can tell when we’ll use miso recipes in our Culinary Vegetable Institute events, we recommend that you come often! Here are upcoming events.