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Miso Primer

By Cook's Illustrated Published May 2010

The different types of miso available in the grocery store can be confusing. Here is a rundown on what to buy.

An essential ingredient in the Japanese kitchen, miso paste is made by fermenting soybeans and sometimes grains (such as rice, barley, or rye) with a mold called koji. Packed with savory flavor, miso is used to season everything from soups and braises to dressings and sauces. Although countless variations of the salty, deep-flavored ingredient are available, three common types are white shiro (despite its name, this miso is light golden in color), red aka, and brownish-black Hatcho. Flavor profiles are altered by changing the type of grain in the mix, adjusting the ratio of grain to soybeans, tweaking the amounts of salt and mold, and extending or decreasing the fermentation time, which can range from a few weeks to a few years.

We tasted the South River brand of white and red miso (available in some grocery stores, Asian markets, and online) along with an Asian brand of harder-to-find dark brown miso plain, in miso soup, and in miso-glazed salmon. The shiro miso was mild and sweet, and the Hatcho miso was strong, complex, and prunelike. Though flavor nuances will vary from brand to brand, if you’re looking to keep just one type of miso on hand, moderately salty-sweet red miso is a good all-purpose choice. Miso will easily keep for up to a year in the refrigerator (some sources say it keeps indefinitely).

MILD-MANNERED A short fermentation time gives white (shiro) miso a sweet, mild taste.

MIDDLE OF THE ROAD

Red (aka) miso nicely balances salty and sweet elements.

PURELY PUNGENT

The potent flavor of dark brown (Hatcho) miso isn't for everyone.