By Carmen | 26 October, 2021
If you’ve ever been to a sushi or a Japanese restaurant, chances are you’ve probably tried miso soup. But have you ever tried cooking with miso? The paste’s wonderful mouth-filling savoriness known as umami lends itself to many dishes and adds a delightful salty depth to any food.

In this article, we go into a bit of a deep dive on the history of miso, how exactly is miso made and most importantly, how to use miso in your cooking. 


Today miso is an everyday staple in Japan and is deeply associated with Japanese cooking. Its origins, however, can be traced back to China as far back as the 4th century BC. Its direct predecessor was an ancient Chinese seasoning called Hishio - a generic name given to preserved foods at the time.

Hishio was initially invented as a way to preserve soybeans, as they were an important source of protein and were also an important crop for replenishing the soil. As the beans spoiled quickly, the Chinese turned to fermentation to preserve the soybeans and ensure they stay edible. A technique that was eventually introduced to Japan in the 7th century by Buddist monks.

In its early days, miso was perceived as a prized delicacy. In 7th century Japan, rice, a primary ingredient in miso, was considered a luxury product due to limited supply.
At the time, Japanese peasants were obliged to give up 10% of the rice they grew as tax and were even forbidden to use the rice they harvested to make their own miso.
Darker types of miso sometimes referred to as ‘poor man’s miso’, made of alternative grains such as barley emerged as a result of these restrictions.
Miso made with white rice was, therefore, an expensive product only enjoyed by nobility, wealthy landowners, or samurai and was even used as currency to pay wages for high ranking officers or as a gift.

Miso eventually spread throughout Japan during the Muromachi period (1336-1573) through an increase in soybean production and through the Samurai, who adopted the paste as part of their diet, famed for its nutritional and energy-giving properties. A rudimentary version of instant miso soup was even developed for the Samurai going to battle. While on the battlefield, the samurai could pour boiling water over miso infused dried taro stems, braided into long ropes - an instant life-sustaining ration!

Eventually, miso soup and miso flavoured dishes became popular across the entire country and it was enjoyed by everyone from royalty to farmhands by the mid 14th century. During the Genroku period (1688-1704), an era characterised by a rapidly expanding economy and urban culture, the umami paste began to be sold in stores. It remains a popular seasoning of choice in Japan, in particular in rural areas, where many families were making their own miso up until the 1950s.

White Miso Paste
Allegedly, miso was introduced into Europe in the 1060s by George Oshawa - a Japanese man who founded the Macrobiotic diet and philosophy and travelled extensively to share his knowledge.

Today, in the form of a paste or as an instant soup, it is widely available across the world.  


Surprisingly very few ingredients make up this ancient foodstuff. Miso is made using soybeans, grains (usually rice or barley) and salt. Yep, that's it!

It is created using a two-stage fermentation process:

The first part revolves around the production of Koji. Koji is a traditional and naturally occurring fermentation culture that over the centuries has been an essential part of making miso, as well as soy sauce, mirin and sake. To produce it, grains of either rice or barley are steamed and introduced to the Aspergillus culture, also called koji-kin, before being placed into wooden trays and left in a warm, humid environment of around 30˚C. After 48 hours, A thin layer of mould will have taken hold of the rice grains, giving a floral and fresh mushroom aroma.

The second stage of making miso is to mix the koji with cooked soybeans, salt and sometimes cooked barley, and placing the mixture into large vats, often cedar barrels, for a period that ranges from three months to three years. At this stage, a second fermentation occurs. The presence of salt makes the Aspergillus culture die, but the enzymes they had produced will continue to break down the carbohydrates and proteins in the rice and transform it into miso paste. An incredible process!

Soybeans are one of the primary ingredients that go into making miso paste. 
Kept in the refrigerator, miso generally keeps for a very long time, and up to a year once opened.

Today, there are over 1,200 miso producers in Japan and many different types of miso. The differences in colour are a good indicator of the strength in taste, ranging from mild and sweet to pungent and salty. There are two main categories: light or white miso and dark or red/brown miso.

What we tend to find most often in Europe is white miso, also referred to as shiromiso. White miso ranges from a light yellow to a light brown colour and is often made using rice. This lighter type tends to have less salt and more koji, which speeds up the fermentation process. The result is a paste that is only fermented for six months and has a sweeter and light fermented flavor. Shiromiso tends to be produced and consumed in Kyoto, and the Northern part of Japan, where there is a large concentration of rice cultivation.

Dark red or brown miso, also known as akamiso has a deeper flavour and salty edge. This darker type is made using more salt, which enables for longer fermentation time, from one to three years. This yields a paste that has a complex, umami-rich flavor.

The southern Japanese regions tend to use darker miso pastes, often made with barley. 


Miso is a wonderfully versatile seasoning that has a rich, umami, meatlike flavour. It lends itself really well as a base for stock, but can also be used in a surprising variety of dishes. One of our absolute favourite concoctions is used in sauces, stews or marinades.


We use the umami-packed flavours of barley miso to add depth of flavour to this Beef Bourguignon stew. The darker type of miso is richer and stronger in flavour and works well with bold flavours, like this red wine beef stew.

For lighter dishes, such as chicken stews or vegetarian dishes a lighter type of miso would work well. 


Not only does miso enhance meaty stews, but it also is a brilliant vegan flavour bomb. Because it is so concentrated in flavour, it will make your broth taste as though you've been simmering it for hours! It works brilliantly with meaty shiitake mushrooms spinach and tofu in this noodle hotpot. 


Due to its uber savoury properties, miso is wonderful when paired with roast vegetables. Aubergine lends itself particularly well to the combination and comes together beautifully in this Sabich, a stuffed pitta that is particularly popular as Israeli street food. 
Another perhaps lesser use of miso in cooking is with fish or seafood. Once again, its savouriness works to enhance rather than compete with most types of white fish and crab. 


Crab and miso is literally a match made in heaven.
We’ve added white miso into this simple crab linguine dish which turns up all the flavours and really makes it an irresistible meal.
As crab is a rather delicate flavour, do make sure to use a sweet white miso paste here. 


Given that soy and miso share the same origins, it's no surprise that they go well together.  Here, served with a Sweet Soy Marinated Black Cod, and paired with a sweet red pepper puree, miso brings a booming umami glutamate-rich flavour to the dish.


Mixed with just a little water and pepper, miso can turn into a great and speedy marinade. It lends itself very well as a salty addition to this seared tuna with sesame seeds in our French Niçoise salad. 
A more unusual application of Miso, but nonetheless delicious is in desserts! Its saltiness can bring out a rich toffee taste in caramel for example.


We introduced Red Miso Paste in the caramel of our Tarte Tatin recipe where the saltiness balances out the buttery sweetness of the tart and transforms it into an utterly irresistible dessert.
We hope this has inspired you to experiment with miso beyond the classic miso soup. 
Still have more questions on how to use miso in your cooking? Do drop us a note in the comments below. 

If there are any other ingredients you'd like us to do a deep dive on let us know!


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