Thursday, May 1, 2008

Miso Demystified

Miso is a nutritious versatile and flavorful food which has had an honored place for centuries in Japanese cuisine. It is a fermented food, usually made with soybeans, water, and sea salt. Other legumes can be used, and some misos contain fermented rice or other grains. Miso is aged and allowed to ferment in barrels for at least 12 months. Longer aging adds to the complexity of its flavor, in a process not unlike the careful fermentation of good wines. Fermentation produces beneficial enzymes and nutrients in addition to the inherent value of the beans. The handcrafted misos of Japan are produced with great care and pride by families which have used ancient recipes for generations.

Don't be intimidated by miso! It is easy to use, will keep almost indefinitely in the refrigerator, and is available in many markets in the U.S. Miso can be the foundation for vegetable soups, stews, sauces and spreads. With a few vegetables and a little miso, you can quickly make a delicious, flavorful soup without canned broths, bouillon, or complicated soup stock.

Miso comes in many varieties. If miso is new to your kitchen, you might prefer first to try the lighter colored, sweet and mild variety called "white miso". Miso is sold in the form of a paste in small containers or in bulk in natural food stores. (Don't even consider buying dehydrated or instant miso). Read labels to avoid products which contain MSG and preservatives. Generally, the darker the color of the miso paste, the stronger and more intense the flavor. The one important point to remember about using miso is that heating it will harm its enzymes and beneficial microorganisms, so it is usually added to a recipe at the end of cooking. However, if miso is heated during cooking, it will still provide excellent flavor and lots of nutrients to the finished product.