Miso is a paste made from just four ingredients—cooked soybeans, fermented grains, salt, and water. Both the color and flavor of miso depend on which grain is used—barley and rice are common—how long the miso has fermented, and the proportion of grain to soybean. Usually, you’ll find that the lighter the color, the milder the taste.
Though Japan is miso’s homeland, a spoonful of the healthful, tasty stuff can enhance the flavors of dishes from all over the world. To incorporate miso into all of your favorite dishes, use it as a slightly secret ingredient that lends saltiness and umami flavor to whatever you make.
Miso soup may be the first way you ever tasted the stuff, and what’s miraculous is that there’s barely anything but miso and water in a bowlful of the standard Japanese appetizer. But miso can bring that flavorful wallop to many foods beyond soup. Yes, one of miso’s four ingredients is salt, so it’s no surprise that a spoonful of the stuff delivers a savory wallop. But this is salt with attitude and a little bit of funk.
1. Salad dressing and dip. A little bit of miso is the salty finish your vinaigrette needs—and not just standard ginger-miso dressing. Because miso has a thick, crumbly texture, it can be difficult to incorporate into liquids. When you flavor dressings with miso, you’ll want to grab the blender or food processor for power emulsification, or thin out the miso with a little water first. Same idea goes for hummus or hummus-like dips, such as this seed pâté.
2. Stir-fries. Stir-fries get their flavor in a few places: from the aromatics cooked in oil, from seared vegetables and meat, and from a sauce that finishes everything off. This sauce’s ingredient list often includes pan-Asian staples like soy sauce, sesame oil, and chili paste. Spike your usual combination with a few teaspoons of salty miso for a stir-fry that’s tastier than ever.
3. Vegetarian ragouts. A ragout is typically meat that’s cooked, with vegetables, in a small amount of sauce: meaty bolognese is the sauce you probably think of first. When you skip the meat and stick to vegetables—mushrooms, for example—you’ll want to ramp up the flavor with something salty and rich. Miso fits the bill, which is why we use it in the ragout we make with mushrooms and serve with crispy redfish.
4. Barbecue sauce. The fact that barbecue sauce varies so much by region is practically an invitation to invent your own. BBQ sauce is meant to give extra personality to slow-cooked meats, and to do that, they need serious savoriness. Salt, sugar, tomatoes and vinegar are standard ingredients; tweak your basic batch with salty miso paste. Here’s one miso BBQ sauce recipe to try.
Ingredients that take a dish from good to great are often those that deliver a dose of umami, the fifth taste. That’s the flavor in Parmesan and bacon that keeps you going back for more. Amazingly, miso has it too, making the paste a go-to flavor booster for those in the know. Miso’s umami side makes it a secret ingredient weapon in dishes like these.
1. Miso butter. A prime finish for meats and especially for fish, miso butter is just what it sounds like: a combination of miso paste and softened butter. Make a batch in advance, then plan to plop a pat on almost any plain-ish meat, fish or egg dish that emerges from your kitchen.
2. Pasta. You’ll never believe how craftily miso can amplify another umami ingredient, like bacon or prosciutto, slow-cooked cooked beef, or Parmesan cheese. In bolognese, a touch of miso stirred in at the end livens up the sauce, and in miso carbonara, the paste turns the umami-rich duo of pancetta and Parmesan into a delicious trio.
3. Burgers. There are schools of thought that would have you mix nothing but salt into your burgers. Even if that’s what you believe, you might ask your salt shaker to go halfsies with your jar of miso to boost the umami content of your meal. If you’re already used to kneading high-umami condiments like Worcestershire or fish sauce into your meat before you shape it, then you’ll welcome miso as another genius tool for your kit.
4. Creamy Soups. Milk- and cream-based soups can be famously rich, or famously bland. To prevent either misfortune, look to miso for balance and extra savoriness. In this batch of New England Clam Chowder, miso rounds out the more typical ingredients, like cream and chicken broth, adding body and flavor to each bite.
5. Sweets. You can even throw miso into desserts to give them a mysteriously rich, unexpectedly savory note. Apple desserts have long welcomed cheese as a salty complement, which bodes well for the taste of a little miso in an apple cobbler or pie. Shiro miso contributes “salty, buttery undertones that amp up the richness of chocolate” in this miso brownie recipe from The Wall Street Journal.