Many a first experience of Japanese cooking starts with the savory, tangy, unique taste of miso soup. And while miso seems like a straightforward ingredient, there are actually a wide variety of miso to choose from.
Miso is produced widely across Japan, in every prefecture. And while there is a lot of variety, miso can be commonly categorized by color (aging), fermentation ingredient (koji), and region (prefecture).
For many people, the first question when purchasing miso is “Which color miso do I buy?” In general there are three types:
White Miso (shiromiso) is the least aged, has a higher amount of fermentation ingredient, and has less salt. This leads to a sweeter, lighter miso.
Yellow Miso (shinshumiso) has a lower amount of fermentation ingredient, but higher salt. Along with a longer aging time than white miso, this results in a miso that is less sweet and more savory, and has a darker tan color than white miso.
Red Miso (akamiso) ranges from a red to dark brown color, has been aged for the longest time, and has a high salt content. This leads to a savory to salty tasting miso.
Given that miso has relatively few ingredients, small changes can yield big results. All miso is a combination of a base ingredient such as soybeans, salt, and a fermenting mold known as koji (aspergillus oryzae). The most common types are made from rice (komekoji), barley (mugikoji), or soybeans (mamekoji).
Rice Koji Miso
Miso made with rice koji is produced widely across Japan and accounts for roughly 80% of all miso brought to market.
Barley Koji Miso
Miso made with barley koji is produced mainly in the west and south west of Japan. It has a stronger malted flavor, and accounts for only 5% of produced miso.
Soybean Koji Miso
Soybean koji has a strong flavor and smell, and is only produced in a few prefectures in Japan, making for about 5% of the market.
The final 10% of miso products are blended miso (awasemiso), containing a mixture of misos made with different koji to make a more balanced, neutral product.
Finally, you have specialty regional miso products made in specific prefectures that are unique from other misos (for example Sendai miso’s dark color and rough texture), or made from different koji and local ingredients (such as ouryuzu miso which has a sweet and tart taste of Japan's most popular citrus fruit). Another is miso with dashi (dashi-iri miso) which combines a soup base (dashi) with miso and is used as a quick way to miso soup.
Regardless of which miso you choose, be sure to take your time and try out different recipes to see how the taste of the dishes change based on the miso you use.
About the author:
Michael is originally from Chicago, IL in the United States, but has lived in Japan for seven years in Niigata and Hokkaido. He is an avid home chef, baker, and coffee enthusiast, but his one true love is ramen. Ever in pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles, you can always find him by listening for the tell-tale slurp of ramen being enjoyed!