Miso: The tastiest form of soybean?

It is often said that miso is to soybeans what cheese is to milk – Amanda Hesser

Miso is delicious. And, as mentioned in my previous blog post about probiotic foods, miso can be a great source of beneficial probiotic bacteria. After buying my first container of miso (pronounced mee-soh) about six months ago, it quickly became one of our go-to kitchen items along with salt, garlic, and olive oil. I’d only really had miso before in the soup that you get at sushi restaurants, but I found that it enhances pretty much dish and it’s particularly good for adding some savory flavor to vegetarian dishes.


Probably the best known use of miso- miso soup.

Probably the best known use of miso: miso soup.

What is miso?

Miso is a tasty seasoning often used in Japanese cooking that is made from soybeans, salt, and the same variety of  mold spore (Aspergillus oryzae) that is also used to make saki. When miso is made in the traditional Japanese fashion, grains (rice, barley, or soybeans) are cultured with the mold spore to create a substance  called koji. The koji is then mixed with cooked soybeans and packed into wooden barrels with sea salt, and the fermentation process begins! The miso is aged anywhere from a few months to several years.

Like cheese, there is a huge range of flavors, colors, and textures that miso comes in. Miso that is aged for shorter time periods tends to be lighter (white miso) and sweeter, while miso that has been aged up to three years will be darker and heartier (black or red miso).


Aspergillus oryzae is so popular that its genome was sequenced in 2005 and the spore has been turned into a collectible character

Aspergillus oryzae is so popular that its genome was sequenced in 2005 and the spore has been turned into a collectible character

How do I pick a miso?

In DC there is a really amazing Japanese market where there is a selection of dozens of different varieties of miso, which can be a little overwhelming. If you have absolutely no idea what to pick, I recommend choosing a white miso to start just because the flavor is very delicate and versatile. If you’re eating it for the probiotics, in addition to tasty flavor, you will need to pick out a miso that is unpasteurized because pasteurization kills off any beneficial bacteria.

White Miso: White or beige color, made from soybeans fermented with white or brown rice. Delicate flavor, often a little sweet. Also called shiro miso.

Yellow Miso: Yellow or dark beige color, made from barley and soybeans. A little more savory than white miso, but still delicate. Also called shiro koji miso and shinshu miso.

Red Miso: Red or dark brown color, contains all soybeans and the longest fermentation. The saltiest, richest kind of miso. This is good for hearty flavoring like stews and and marinades. Also called aka miso.


Care and keeping of miso

Miso can last for several months in the refrigerator, but because it contains living bacteria you should be careful to spoon it out with a clean utensil to prevent any contamination. Lighter varieties will keep for about 9 months and darker ones up to a year. When making a soup or other hot dish, you should avoid boiling the miso. Instead, stir the miso in at the end of cooking to avoid overheating it.


What are some good miso recipes?

Image via Gaia Cafe

Image via Gaia Cafe

  • I LOVE this super easy super healthy veggie miso soup from Honest Fare. Takes about 15 minutes to make and you can substitute in any veggies you have laying around.
  • One of my favorite recipe blogs Love and Lemons has another great miso soup recipe that uses chickpeas, kale, and elbow macaroni.
  • Mark Bittman has a bunch of great suggestions for using miso as a sauce, glaze, dressing and even as a flavoring for butter.
  • This recipe from The Kitchn is a great example for using miso to beef up a really simple three-main-ingredient noodle dish.
  • There are many, many variations on miso dressings. This one is awesome. I like to keep a jar of the dressing around to top off roasted veggies, noodles, or rice.


For more information on miso:

Mark Bittman, New York Times- The Miso Primer

Erin Riddell, Consumer Reprots- Is miso good for you?

The Miso Promotion Board of Japan has a handy pamphlet



Probiotics 101

“To say a product contains Lactobacillus is like saying you’re bringing George Clooney to a party. It may be the actor, or it may be an 85-year-old guy from Atlanta who just happens to be named George Clooney. With probiotics, there are strain-to-strain differences.”

Gregor Reid, director of the Canadian Research and Development Center for Probiotics

George Clooney wants to make sure you get live and active probiotic cultures

George Clooney wants to make sure you get live and active probiotic cultures

I’ve definitely noticed that there is a lot of new research is looking at probiotics and how they may be involved in helping with everything from stomach issues like IBS to improvements in stress management and strengthening the immune system. But is there any research to back these claims? Is there a difference between regular old yogurt and yogurt that is advertised as having special probiotic benefits?

Probiotics are living microorganisms (often bacteria but they can also be other types of microorganisms like yeasts) that are shown to have some sort of health benefits. I most often think of probiotics as being in yogurt, but they are also in all kinds of fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut, miso, pickles, and kimchi (future posts on specific probiotic foods to come!). Probiotics can also be taken in a pill or powdered form as a supplement.

Look for "live and active cultures" on the label

Look for “live and active cultures” on the label

The American Gastroenterology Association provides a great comparison of different probiotic products specifically tested for gastrointestinal disorders. This is important because different strains of probiotics have been shown to be helpful for different conditions. It is also important to note that the FDA has not yet approved any health claims for probiotics.



  • In yogurt, look for the phrase “contains active cultures” on the label to confirm that the product includes the living organisms that make probiotics work. Lots of products, like pickles and sauerkraut, are pasteurized before being sold which kills the live bacteria. If the bacteria aren’t active, they can’t do their thing.  (USA Today)
  • Some of the common strains to look for include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species such as: bifidobacterium lactis HN109; lactobacillus reuteri ATCC55730; lactobacillus rhamnosus GG9LGG; and lactobacillus casei DN-114 001. (USA Today )
  • In general, not all probiotics are the same, and they don’t all work the same way. Each group of bacteria has different species and each species has different strains. This is important to remember because different strains have different benefits for different parts of your body. For example, Lactobacillus casei  has been shown to support the immune system and to help food move through the gut, but Lactobacillus bulgaricus may help relieve symptoms of lactose intolerance. (American Gastroenterological Association)
  • Beware of products that promise a specific health improvement. The Food and Drug Administration has not approved any specific health claims for probiotics. Many probiotic products are sold as dietary supplements, which do not require FDA approval prior to marketing (which also means the product hasn’t been tested by the FDA for safety or effectiveness). (NIH)
  • Remember to store your probiotic according to the package instructions and make sure the product has a sell-by or expiration date. Probiotics are living organisms. Even if they are dried and dormant, like in a powder or capsule, they must be stored properly or they can die. Some require refrigeration whereas others do not. They also have a shelf-life, so make sure you use them before the expiration date on the package. (American Gastroenterological Association)


For more information on probiotics here are some great articles:

American Gastroenterological Association – Probiotics: What They Are and What They Can Do for You http://www.gastro.org/patient-center/diet-medications/probiotics#Choosing a Probiotic

American Gastroenterological Association – A Gastroenterologist’s Guide to Probioticshttp://www.cghjournal.org/article/S1542-3565(12)00369-2/fulltext#tbl2

NIH National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine – Oral Probiotics: An Introductionhttp://nccam.nih.gov/health/probiotics/introduction.htm