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Miso: America’s Most Versatile, Overlooked Ingredient

BY: Sandra Kofler | Oct 16, 2015

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Few ingredients are as enigmatic as miso. Most home cooks have probably not considered cooking with miso, passing by this fermented soybean paste in the grocery store dozens of times, unaware that its humble appearance belies a world of culinary possibilities.

With no real advertising or celebrities touting its charms, it’s not too surprising that humble miso is still mostly invisible in the US. Perhaps that’s also how it also came to suffer from one main misconception.

[People think] that it’s only good for Japanese food and miso soup,” said Chef Edward Kim of the acclaimed restaurants Mott St. and Ruxbin in Chicago. As an expert in Asian cuisine who was once named Chicago’s Breakout Star by the James Beard Foundation, he ought to know.

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Barley koji (dried barley culture), salt, and soybeans before they become shiro miso. Photo by FoodCraftLab.

In fact, miso has a place just about everywhere in the kitchen, even in dessert. Chefs love its salty, umami kick and the way it punches up everything from salad dressings to glazes. If you like eating out, chances are that you’ve eaten a piece of fish, a burger, or even a slice of cake that had a unique flavor that you just couldn’t pinpoint. That flavor might just have been miso.

With its ability to enhance every course, it’s a wonder miso’s reputation hasn’t expanded beyond that one eponymous soup. Here are a few other unexpected places you might taste miso on restaurants’ menus. This list might even inspire you to keep a bit of this special stuff in your pantry to beef up your own cooking.

Sauces

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Kingfish with a miso-sugar-sake glaze. Photo by Alpha.

Miso is an incredibly versatile ingredient,” Chef Kim said. We’d have to agree. From marinara to spicy korean barbecue sauce, you can dissolve a glob of miso in almost any savory condiment to add an instant burst of saltiness.

Marinades and Glazes

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Black cod with miso marinade. Photo by Arnold Gatilao.

Add a dollop of miso to a marinade for fish or beef, and you’ll get a dish that not only has a bit of salty, fermented flavor, but one that browns up better. It also works nicely as a glaze for roasted veggies. “If you're looking for a sweet glaze, it adds a nice caramel quality to the product,” according to Chef Kim.

Dressings

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The Ronin Burger with miso dressing, fried egg, and Japanese slaw from Bachi Burger in Las Vegas. Photo by City Foodsters.

Whether it’s for a salad, slaw, or sandwich (like in the burger above), there’s no need to add much salt to a dressing when miso is in the picture. The ingredient also acts as an emulsifier when whisked into a dressing (keeping the oil and water from separating) and creates a creamy, silky texture without the need for any dairy.

Desserts

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Japanese sponge cake infused with miso. Photo by tpsdave.

Flour, sugar, and butter aren’t the only things that make a great dessert course. We've used miso in desserts that feature apples, and in a crème brûlée,” Chef Kim said. “The miso adds a nice counterpoint to the sweetness in a dessert that might otherwise be cloyingly sweet.”

Everything Else

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Roasted miso paste. Photo by pelican.

If you’re not yet convinced to increase your miso consumption, we’ve got two words: mashed potatoes. “I really enjoy miso in mashed golden yukon potatoes. It adds a subtle nutty quality that is comforting,” he said. It works similar miracles for curries, vegan nut-based sauces, gravies, grilled items, and compound butters.

Top photo of unblended shiro miso courtesy of Flickr user FoodCraftLab under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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