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White Miso Paste
Which fermented soybean paste strikes the right balance between salty, sweet, and supersavory?
Published Sept. 1, 2018. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 19: Roast Chicken and Sprouts
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What You Need To Know
Miso paste is prized for its ability to add complex, savory flavor to soups, dressings, sauces, and pickles. We also love it on broiled salmon and glazed chicken and have found that it can contribute incredible depth to nontraditional applications like braised potatoes and turkey burgers. An earlier iteration of miso (called jiang) originated in China some 2,500 years ago. In the seventh century, it was brought to Japan, where it became known as miso. Today, miso is an essential ingredient in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cuisines. According to the Japan Miso Promotion Board, there are now 1,300 types of miso, several of which have become available to American shoppers since miso was first introduced to the United States in the 1960s.
In the test kitchen, we generally use two styles of miso: white (shiro) and red (aka). White is fairly sweet and mellow, while red tends to be more robust and salty. We call for white miso more often than red, so we decided to focus there first. Curious which products would deliver the best flavor, we purchased five widely available white miso pastes priced from $4.80 to $7.49 per package ($0.34 to $0.92 per ounce). Panelists sampled them in three blind tastings: plain, in miso soup, and in a marinade on broiled salmon. Throughout, we evaluated the flavor and overall appeal of each product.
How Is Miso Made?
As authors William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi explain in The Book of Miso (1977), the first step in making miso is cultivating a mold called koji (Aspergillus oryzae), which is also a crucial component of soy sauce, sake, and fermented black bean paste. (It's not unlike the unique molds used to make blue cheese and Camembert.) Tiny spores of koji are typically sprinkled over cooked rice and spread across special trays in a carefully controlled environment. There, they incubate for two or three days as the rice ferments and the koji germinates.
Next, the koji is mixed with cooked soybeans, salt, and sometimes water. Here, different varieties of miso paste diverge; producers can adjust the ratio of koji to soybeans to alter the flavor profile. The mixture is left to ferment as the koji produces enzymes that break down the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats in the soybeans. One type of enzyme, called protease, converts the main protein in soybeans to amino acids, including glutamic acid, the source of miso's trademark umami flavor. At the same time, other enzymes break down the starches into simple sugars, which adds sweetness. Though some kinds of miso ferment and age for as long as two years, white miso is ready for packaging in just a few weeks or months.
Tasting Miso Paste
The miso ...
Everything We Tested
This toffee-colored miso combines intense “umami” with “tropical,” “sweet,” and “subtly tart” flavors. We especially liked it in glazed salmon; all the flavors were in “perfect balance.” Its sodium level falls in the middle of our lineup, so tasters found it full-flavored but not overwhelmingly salty.
Our runner-up had a very “nutty” flavor and “caramelized sweetness” that reminded us of “browned butter.” We liked its distinctly “tangy,” “tropical” fruitiness, which drew comparisons to “banana” and “mango.” With moderate salt content and a 30-day fermentation, it was “pleasantly” salty and fairly light in color.
Produced at the California outpost of a Japanese company, this miso had a “deeply” savory flavor similar to reduced soy sauce. Its intensity matched its dark brown color. Even with 710 milligrams of sodium per serving, the second-highest amount in our lineup, this miso produced “buttery,” “balanced” salmon and miso soup that was “salty but pleasant.”
A high sodium level gave this miso a distinctly “briny” quality. In all three tastings, a “fruity” and even “citrusy” flavor helped balance out that sodium. We also detected an “oaky,” “caramel-y” sweetness in the marinated and broiled salmon. It's the only product in our lineup that contains riboflavin, an ingredient that's sometimes used to darken light-colored miso pastes; its light golden-brown color was similar to those of other misos.
Packaged in a squeeze pouch, this product was noticeably smoother and looser than others. (It wasn't any easier to use or measure, though.) That soft texture didn't affect the consistency of the miso soup or the texture of broiled salmon. With less salt than other products and the inclusion of a sweetener (malted sweet potato extract), it was “mild,” “sweet,” and “less salty” than its competitors. Some tasters liked that it was “potent but not overwhelming.”
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.