A New Winter Tradition
By Abigael Birrell
Photography by Alexis Abel
My recent fascination with making homemade miso began last year with a familiar problem. A mystery ingredient in my winter community-supported agriculture (CSA) box that I was determined not to waste. Anyone who has signed up for a share in a local farm’s subscription program has inevitably come across an ingredient that instead of inspiring delight and anticipation elicits a feeling of dismay. Like opening a hotly anticipated Christmas present as a child, dearly hoping it’s a skateboard but instead it contains sensible shoes. An impossibly large bag of locally grown soybeans were the sensible shoes of my CSA box.
They lingered on in my cupboard, long after all of the beautiful kabocha squash and hearty greens were gone. Soybeans are not the most glamorous legumes, to say the least. They don’t find their way into rustic Italian stews or French cassoulet. They don’t even have a place in that great egalitarian meeting ground for beans, American chili. And yet, here in the Midwest they are a ubiquitous sight, rotating year after year with the corn. Mostly, those soy fields belong to big agribusiness and are destined for animal feed.
Fortunately for us, there are some smaller farms growing a variety of organic legumes, and two pounds of organic Nebraska soybeans found their way to me.
It took a phone call to a friend to remind me of the exciting possibility of turning my soybeans into miso (pronounced mee-soh), the delicious, fermented soybean paste that is the basis of much of Japanese cuisine. I had the good fortune to live on a farm a few years ago where the farmer followed the Japanese tradition of making miso every winter. I had enjoyed many meals seasoned with her homemade miso but had yet to try making a batch myself.
It’s hard to find an apt comparison in familiar Western foods for miso. Miso is a paste of cooked beans fermented with rice that has been inoculated with the mold Aspergillus oryzae. The rice mold is called “koji,” and it is the secret ingredient that turns salty, mashed soybeans into an umami-laden flavor bomb. Think of miso as an all-purpose savory condiment, with a consistency that can range from thick, smooth paste to something not unlike chunky peanut butter. While most Americans have their first experience with miso in soup, its culinary possibilities are vast. It can be blended into sauces, salad dressings, marinades and spreads. In any recipe that wants salt, miso can be added for greater depth of flavor.
Miso originated in China but came to Japan sometime in the early seventh century where it quickly became an indispensable ingredient. Today, its uses and permutations are seemingly limitless. There are 1,300 varieties of miso found regionally in Japan. Broadly, they can be broken down into three categories, rice (kome) miso, barley (mugi) miso and soybean (mame) miso. The main ingredient of all of these miso types is soybeans, but they are categorized by the type of koji used in fermentation. Miso is also categorized by color, which can range from pale straw to deep rust red. The color is a good indicator of the strength of flavor, age and saltiness of the miso. Generally speaking, the lighter the color of the miso, the sweeter and younger it is. Dark red and brown miso can be intensely salty with almost meaty flavors.
In addition to being delicious, miso also has a reputation as a nutritional powerhouse. A study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found a link between miso consumption in Japanese women and reduced rates of breast cancer. Unpasteurized miso is also a good source of probiotics, the active cultures found in fermented foods that can help promote a healthy digestive tract. To preserve the beneficial bacteria in unpasteurized miso, many recipes recommend adding miso into dishes at the end of cooking and never letting it boil.
Miso is traditionally made in the early winter or early spring in Japan, the time of year that is ideally neither too warm nor too cold. The cool temperatures mean less contaminating bacteria present in the environment, which can cause off-flavors or spoilage. Early winter miso making also takes advantage of the fresh crop of soybeans and rice, using them when their flavor is at a peak.
Making miso at home turned out to be much simpler than I imagined. I easily ordered the culture, koji, online. Gem Cultures and Cold Mountain Koji are both reputable sources. After soaking the beans overnight, I cooked and mashed the soybeans and then mixed in the salt, koji and a couple of spoonfuls of store-bought, unpasteurized miso, which acts like a sourdough starter. I packed the soft mixture tightly into a sterilized crock, covered it with parchment and weighted it down. Altogether it was 20 minutes of active work. I realized the hard part comes afterward, waiting impatiently to taste the end result. Miso is the ultimate slow food, started in the cold winter months and then left alone in a dark corner of the house for a full year to ripen. Sweet white miso can be eaten after two months, but for the richest-tasting varieties, time is the key ingredient. Aged red miso needs a year or more to ripen, ideally stored in a cool, dark spot like a cellar.
One way to make the wait more bearable is to make it a community effort. Plan an afternoon of miso making with friends. Try a few variations and then set a date roughly a year later to reunite for a tasting of all the different batches and celebrate with a miso-centered feast. Making miso might even become one of your winter traditions. Next fall when the new crop of soybeans makes an appearance at the farmers market you will have a reason to get excited.
Further Adventures in Miso
Here are a few more recipe suggestions to try once your miso is ripe and ready to eat:
- Make a sesame-miso vinaigrette for a hearty kale salad or winter slaw.
- Add a few spoonfuls to give greater depth of flavor to a basic chicken soup.
- Blend 4 tablespoons of butter with 2 tablespoons of miso to make an umami-rich compound butter, perfect to melt on steak or vegetables.
- Melt a tablespoon or two of light miso into homemade butterscotch and serve over ice cream for the perfect savory-sweet pairing.
- Glaze and roast salmon or black cod in a thick marinade of miso, mirin, sake and ginger.
- Turn miso soup into a satisfying dinner by serving over rice and topping with a poached egg.
- Toss buckwheat noodles in carrot-miso sauce with loads of shaved vegetables for a perfect cold lunch.
- Slather corn on the cob with light miso before wrapping it in foil and throwing it on the grill.
If you still can’t get enough miso, check out The Book of Miso by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi. It’s the definitive book in English on miso preparation and is available free online from the authors. For other miso-making tips and explorations into the world of fermentation, Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation is an invaluable guide.
Homemade Sweet White Miso
Yield: Approximately 1 gallon
2 pounds whole, dry soybeans, well rinsed
2 pounds firm granular rice koji
¼ pound + 1½ teaspoons sea salt, divided
2 tablespoons mature miso, unpasteurized and preservative-free, store-bought is fine
Wash beans thoroughly, drain and place in a large cooking pot. Soak beans with enough water to keep them covered as they expand for roughly 12 to 14 hours.
Drain soaking liquid and cover beans with fresh water. Bring covered beans to a boil over high heat. Skim off any foam that collects on the surface. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 3 to 4 hours or until the beans are very soft and easily mashed. Stir frequently to avoid burning and, if necessary, add more water so that beans remain covered the entire time. When the beans are soft, pour the beans into a colander set over a large bowl and reserve the cooking liquid.
Return the cooked beans to the pot and, using a potato masher, pestle or pastry cutter, mash the beans until only ⅓ of beans remain whole. Allow beans to cool until you can comfortably touch them, around 110°, before adding the koji.
In a separate small bowl, dissolve salt with 2 cups of the cooled, reserved cooking liquid and mature miso. Whisk together.
Once the beans are cool, add koji to the bean mash and mix well. Add the salt mixture to beans and stir to thoroughly distribute. The mixture should be moist and have the same consistency as mature miso. Add more reserved cooking liquid in small increments if the mixture seems too dry.
Wash and dry a large wide-mouthed earthenware, glass or plastic crock. Sprinkle ½ teaspoon salt over the bottom of the crock. Pack the miso into the crock, pressing firmly so there are no air pockets. Smooth the surface of the miso and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of salt.
Cover surface with parchment paper or plastic wrap, top with a plate or wooden disk and then a 5-pound weight. Cover entire mouth of container with paper or cloth tied around it to keep dust out. Label the crock with the variety of miso, date it was made and date it may be finished. Keep in a warm spot for the first week to get the initial fermentation started then move to a cool location like a basement or garage and allow to age 6 to 8 weeks. Open 2 times to stir and taste during the aging process. Some harmless mold may grow on the surface of the miso. Simply scrape off and discard when the miso is ready.
Store finished product in the refrigerator and use within 3 to 4 months.
—Adapted from The Book of Miso and The Art of Fermentation
Homemade Red Miso
Yield: Approximately 1 gallon
2 pounds whole, dry soybeans, well rinsed
1 pound firm granular rice koji
0.4 pounds sea salt
2 tablespoons mature miso, unpasteurized and preservative-free
Follow the same cooking procedures as the Sweet White Miso. Age at least 6 months, although flavor is often best after 18 to 24 months.
Abigael Birrell is a farm-focused chef and all-around bon vivant who has recently relocated to Lincoln, Nebraska, from the Pacific Northwest. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to share her fascination with miso with the Edible community here in Nebraska. Look for her behind the stove at Lincoln’s newest farm-to-table restaurant, Hub Cafe, opening this winter.