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Miso paste packs a major umami punch. Here’s how to use it.

Clockwise from top: Kyoto-style white miso, red miso, and mellow white miso. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

When we talk about umami, red meat, mushrooms and soy sauce often come to mind. But there’s another widely used, intensely flavored ingredient that packs a major umami punch: miso. The fermented paste is most known for flavoring soup, but it’s a seasoning powerhouse with tons of range.

“There are countless varieties of miso, made with a variety of grains and beans — including rice, barley, wheat, millet, adzuki beans, and garbanzo beans — that undergo fermentation with salt and koji (the mold Aspergillus oryzae),” Sonoko Sakai wrote in “Japanese Home Cooking.” A combination of rice and soybeans is one of the more common bases for miso, which can ferment from about six months to a few years.

Miso is most commonly associated with Japanese cuisine, but its origins trace back to China, and you can find versions of the ingredient across Asia, Sakai told me over a video call. She remembers trying a version from Laos that included chile peppers. “I’d never tasted anything so spicy. This was a real discovery,” she said.

And the category of miso continues to grow and evolve. “A lot of American people or Europeans have gone beyond the basic grain and have come up with miso using their own legumes or whatever it is that is available to them.”

Miso as a whole is a big topic to tackle — I’m just going to scratch the surface here — but for if you’re ready to learn the basics of cooking with this versatile flavoring agent, here’s an introduction.

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Depending on the base ingredients and their ratios, where it’s produced and the length of fermentation, the flavor of miso can vary greatly. “It’s absorbing the things in the environment, a little bit like sourdough,” Sakai said.

One simple way to categorize miso is by color: white and red.

  • White (shiro) miso has a higher proportion of rice and is fermented from four months to one year. It’s milder and sweeter compared to other types.
  • Red (aka) miso tends to have a higher proportion of soybeans and is fermented longer, from one to five years according to Sakai. It is often more robust, saltier and has a higher level of protein.
  • Mixed (awase) miso are blends of white and red that offer a middle ground and some view as an all-purpose version.

Certain regions in Japan are also associated with certain types of miso. “Nagoya, for example, is famous for a type of miso that is very dark and robust, called hatcho miso. It’s almost black in color,” Sakai said.

Saikyo miso, a type of white miso, “is a little bit on the sweeter side,” chef Shota Nakajima of Taku in Seattle told me over the phone. “It is more used in the Kansai region that includes Kyoto and Osaka.” Saikyo is his favorite type because it’s “the most mellow and elegant, but very umami-forward.” Nakajima says it’s also lower in sodium compared to other varieties.

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Though you can make your own miso at home (Sakai includes a recipe in her book and teaches classes online, and Nakajima’s mom makes it, too, so he often takes some home after visits), it’s not something I plan on doing anytime soon. “If you are buying miso, look for pastes that are naturally fermented with no added alcohol or flavor additives such as dashi and amino acids or MSG,” Sakai wrote in her cookbook. She also recommends looking for unpasteurized miso in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, as pasteurization kills the good-for-your-gut probiotics found in the product.

Marukome is a very well known brand that both Nakajima and Sakai recommend. The company touts itself as the number one miso of Japan, and it’s premium white miso paste is Nakajima’s favorite. Miso Master is another option that Sakai recommends and is widely available in stores such as Whole Foods. Sakai also likes South River Miso. “It has some American flavor to it,” she said. “It’s not Marukome miso, but it’s delicious in its own way.”

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Sakai recommends people try different brands and types to find what they like best. “It’s like coffee, you know, you figure out what suits your palate,” she said.

Unless it has been pasteurized, miso paste is a living ingredient that will continue to ferment as time goes on. For this reason, it should be stored in the refrigerator to slow down the fermentation process. If refrigerated, the flavor profile should remain relatively consistent for about a year. After that, it should still be safe to eat, but the continued (albeit slow) fermentation will cause the flavors to concentrate. “So you just have to keep tasting it and make sure it’s okay,” Sakai said. “And if you taste anything that tastes acidic, that means it’s been contaminated by another bacteria or mold” and you should throw it away.

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If you’re new to cooking with miso paste, Nakajima recommends using it as a replacement for mustard in aioli or salad dressing as a starting point. However, he cautions not to make a direct swap, because you need to factor in miso’s sodium and umami. Similarly, “Miso varies in degrees of saltiness, so use it sparingly to season soups and stews, and taste as you go,” Sakai wrote.

Beyond soups and salads, the possibilities are endless. “It’s a very versatile seasoning that everybody should keep in their pantry,” Sakai said, who has used it in tomato sauce, pound cake, minestrone, risotto, curry and granola. “Dilute it with a little sake or mirin and you have an instant marinade,” Sakai said. (Nakajima warns that it can burn fast, so be on the lookout when cooking.) Lastly, those looking to reap the full health benefits of the probiotics found in miso paste should add it at the end of cooking, as the probiotics are heat sensitive.

Recipes using miso from Voraciously:

Miso-Parmesan Pasta With Chili Crisp

José Andrés’s Miso-Roasted Asparagus

Caramelized Onion Grilled Cheese Sandwiches With Miso Butter

Miso-Ginger Roasted Chicken and Pears

Miso Dressing