Miso is a traditional Japanese condiment made from fermented soybeans. The process involves salt and a koji starter, which usually contains the Aspergillus oryzae fungus. You’ve likely seen miso soup on the menu of a Japanese restaurant.
It’s traditionally used as an ingredient in sauces, spreads, soups, to pickle vegetables and to marinate meats. It has a salty and savory flavor, often called “umami,” and can be various colors, including brown, yellow or red. You may want to limit or avoid miso if you’re trying to adhere to a low-salt diet or are allergic to soybeans. Talk to your health care provider if you are on a blood-thinning medication before introducing miso since it has a fair amount of vitamin K in it.
Miso offers a variety of health benefits, from improved digestion to immune strengthening. It’s rich in nutrients, including manganese, vitamin K, copper and zinc. Since it’s fermented, it’s also a good source of probiotics.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that live in our digestive tract and help digest food, synthesize vitamins and support our immune systems. A. oryzae is the main probiotic found in miso, which is different than the more commonly found probiotics — Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium — traditionally in cultured dairy foods like yogurt. A. oryzae may help reduce symptoms in irritable bowel disease. Fermented foods like miso also help to improve how we digest and absorb food, making it easier for our bodies to absorb the nutrients we’re consuming.
So how do we use miso? You’ll most often find miso in the Asian section of the grocery store or local health food store. Like other fermented foods, you also can make it at home. It’s very versatile, and you can use it as a flavoring agent in broths, marinades, sauces or even casseroles. Be sure to refrigerate miso paste once it’s been opened, but since it’s fermented it will stay good in your refrigerator for up to a year.
Interested in trying miso out at home? Try this recipe for a simple and classic miso soup.
EASY MISO SOUP
Makes 2 servings
4 cups vegetable broth
1 sheet nori, cut into squares
3-4 tablespoons white or yellow miso paste
Half cup chopped green chard or other sturdy green
Half cup chopped green onion
Quarter cup silken tofu
Place three tablespoons miso into a small bowl, add a little hot water and whisk until smooth. Add up to one more tablespoon as desired. This will ensure it doesn’t clump when added to the soup later. Set aside.
Simmer vegetable broth in a medium saucepan with chard and green onion for five minutes. Then add nori and stir. Remove from heat, add miso mixture, tofu and stir to combine. Taste and add more miso or a pinch of sea salt if desired. Serve warm. Recipe best when consumed fresh.
Jean Larson is a registered dietitian at Essentia Health. This recipe was adapted from minimalistbaker.com.