This protein-rich paste made from fermented soybeans is a staple of Asian cuisine. Nutritionist Jo Lewin explains what makes miso a healthy ingredient and how to use it in cooking...
An introduction to miso
Miso means ‘fermented beans’ in Japanese. In Japan, people begin their day with a bowl of miso soup, believed to stimulate digestion and energise the body. A traditional ingredient in Japanese and Chinese diets, miso paste is made from fermented soybeans and grains and contains millions of beneficial bacteria. There are hundreds of different types of miso and different versions are linked with regional cuisines, identities and flavours.
The protein-rich paste is highly popular as it provides an instant flavour foundation. It adds the fifth taste, known as ‘umami’, to all sorts of dishes including soups/broths, salad dressings, vegetables, stews, glazes, and marinades.
Miso is rich in essential minerals and a good source of various B vitamins, vitamins E, K and folic acid. As a fermented food, miso provides the gut with beneficial bacteria that help us to stay healthy, vibrant and happy; good gut health is known to be linked to our overall mental and physical wellness.
The most common type of miso is made from only soybeans, but the variety and ratio of raw ingredients can vary. Some miso pastes are made from cultured wheat or millet or combinations of different grains and beans. The length of fermentation time can affect the flavour; ranging from sweet and mild to salty and rich. The colour is a fairly good indicator of the strength in flavour. The texture can vary too. Miso made from a wholegrain is typically saltier than that made from a hulled grain.
White Miso (Shiro)
Made from soybeans and rice and fermented for no longer than two months. Shiro (means “white” in Japanese) is light in colour and sweet to mildly salty. Shiro is a great gateway miso, very versatile and provides a bit of oomph to salad dressings or sautéed vegetables.
Yellow Miso (Shinsu)
Another mild type that is fermented for slightly longer than white miso. Yellow miso is adaptable in a wide range of recipes.
Red Miso (Aka)
If a recipe calls for dark miso, you’ll want to use an aka or red miso. Russet in colour, this type is made from a higher proportion of soybeans, is fermented for up to three years, and is saltier and deeper in flavour. Its full flavour is best used in hearty dishes like stews and tomato sauces. Use with caution - its flavour can over-power other ingredients.
Barley Miso (Mugi)
Made from barley and soybeans, mugi miso usually has a longer fermentation process than most white miso. It has a strong barley aroma, but is still mild and slightly sweet in flavour.
- Miso is a source of copper, manganese, vitamin K, protein, and zinc.
- The fermentation process means that miso is rich in enzymes. Fermentation enhances the number of beneficial bacteria in the food. These bacteria are known as probiotics and are thought to help a wide range of health issues, especially for digestion, absorption and assimilation of nutrients.
- By consuming fermented foods you are adding beneficial probiotics bacteria and enzymes to your overall intestinal flora, increasing the health of your gut microbiome and digestive system and enhancing the immune system.
- Studies in 1997 and 2013 have shown that fermented foods synthesise vitamins in the gut, primarily vitamin K and vitamin B12, as a by-product of their metabolism.
- Miso is considered to be high in salt (approximately 2.3g per tablespoon) and should be consumed with the guidelines of no more than 6g per day in mind.
- There is much research on the benefits of including soy products in the diet. Although miso is made from soy beans, the quantity consumed is quite small and unlikely to have a profound oestrogenic effect.
- Soy products are widely produced from genetically modified (GM) soybeans. Many favour organic soy products to ensure a lower risk of unwanted pesticides. To make sure miso is made from organically grown, not genetically modified soy beans, make sure to read the label. The label will also indicate if the miso is gluten free.
How to select and store
When buying miso, choose the unpasteurised, live, enzyme-rich product that will need to be stored in the fridge. This type is loaded with beneficial microorganisms. After opening, the texture, colour and flavour may change so keep an eye on it. Some can be kept for quite a long time without any concerns or variations to quality.
Miso makes a delicious marinade:
Miso-glazed tofu steaks with beansprout salad & egg strands
Jo Lewin holds a degree in nutritional therapy and works as a community health nutritionist and private consultant. She is an accredited member of BANT, covered by the association's code of ethics and practice.
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