What is Miso?: A Handy Guide

Miso is something that you have probably heard of, but likely something that you don’t know much about. A lot of people know the name Miso, but a lot of people who have heard of this don’t actually know what it is, or what it is used for. It is simply just something that they recognize. 

Miso is a Japanese creation, and it is a type of fermented paste that is widely used in this cuisine. It has a rich history, and because of this it is used in the majority of Japanese dishes. So, if you have eaten at a Japanese restaurant, the chances are that you have eaten Miso. 

Traditional seasoning of Japanese MISO

This fermented paste is widely used in a lot of dishes as a secret ingredient to give them a salty flavor. But what is it actually made of? And how can you use it in cooking? We’ll find out this, and lots more, in this handy guide. 

What is Miso?

First things first, let’s take a look at what Miso is. As we have said, Miso is a type of fermented paste that has a naturally salty taste to it. It is a key ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and it is often used as a secret ingredient in many Japanese dishes. 

This fermented paste is created by inoculating soybeans with a type of mold. The mold that is used is usually called koji. This mold is found in rice, soybeans, and barley, and is then injected into the soybeans to encourage it to ferment. 

Miso paste

Once the soybeans have been inoculated, they are then left for a number of weeks or months to allow the enzymes of the mold to get to work. While this is happening, the enzymes will break down the structure of the soybeans gradually until they are transformed from solid beans into a liquid paste. 

After the soybeans have completely fermented and transformed into a paste, they have then become Miso. But where did this creation come from? Let’s take a look. 

Where Does Miso Come From?

As you already know, Miso is a Japanese ingredient, and so its rich history has been developed in Japan. In Japan, this is a delicacy which dates back hundreds and hundreds of years. In fact, it is thought that Miso has existed in Japan for more than 1,300 years, so it is clear to see why it is so ingrained in Japanese culture and cuisine. 

Miso paste soy beans

Despite the fact that this paste is always associated with Japan and Japanese culture, it is thought that this ingredient first came from China. It is believed that Miso originated as a fermented food in Ancient China, and then was brought over to Japan during the 7th century. 

Since then, Miso has become firmly cemented in Japanese cuisine. It is used in lots of different dishes in Japanese culture, and is becoming increasingly popular in other cuisines too. As we have said, Miso is often used as a secret ingredient in dishes, but this isn’t exclusive to Japanese, in fact it is often used as a secret ingredient in Western dishes too. 

But there isn’t just one type of Miso that exists. So, let’s take a look at the different types of Miso that now exist. 

The Different Types of Miso

When you hear the word Miso, it is easy to assume that there is just one type. But this isn’t the case, there are lots of different types of Miso that exist. In fact, there are more than 1,000 different variations of this paste. 

These different types of Miso exist because they all differ in things such as consistency, flavor, and color because of the fermentation length and the ingredients used in the Miso. In Japan, you will be able to get your hands on quite a lot of these different types of Miso. But in the United States, your options are a lot more limited. 

Different types of miso put in a jar

In the USA, Miso is generally divided into 2 categories: light and dark. Light Miso is generally white or yellow, while dark Miso tends to be a dark red or brown/black. But it isn’t just the color that differs in these types of Miso. Light Miso tends to be a lot sweeter because it has a shorter fermentation time, while dark Miso tends to be stronger and saltier as it is left to ferment for a very long time. 

In a lot of cases, you can use these different types of Miso interchangeably, but remember that they do differ in taste. So, if you want your dish to be less salty, use light Miso, and if you want a saltier dish, try using dark Miso. Miso is used very differently in Japan to how it is used in the USA, so let’s take a look at some of the ways to use Miso. 

What do you use Miso for?

As Miso is a paste, you might be wondering what dishes you can actually use it for. If you are not familiar with using this ingredient, it can be very intimidating. But, there are actually lots of different ways that you can use Miso in cooking. 

Most famously, Miso is used as the base ingredient for Miso soup. Miso soup is a delicacy in Japan, and by far one of their most popular dishes. If you have visited a Japanese restaurant, or have traveled to Japan even, then you likely will have tasted Miso soup. However, Miso soup isn’t the only dish that you can use Miso in. 

Japanese miso soup in a white bowl on the table
Japanese miso soup

As well as being used to make Miso soup, you can also mix Miso into sauces, batters, soups, and dressings. It can easily be added to give your dish a new dimension, and it can also be used as an alternative to salt. 

What a lot of people don’t know is that Miso doesn’t necessarily need to be cooked. In fact, it can be served raw, and often is served in this form in Japan. Sometimes, Miso can taste a lot better when it is raw because cooking carries the risk of over-boiling it. If you do this, you will damage the flavor of the Miso. So, if you are using Miso in cooking, it is always best to add it near the end of your dish. 

What does Miso taste like?

If you haven’t tasted Miso before, then you might be wondering what it tastes like. We have established that it has a salty flavor, but this isn’t the only thing that you will taste when you try Miso. 

As well as being salty, Miso is also very tangy. However, the taste will differ depending on whether you are eating light or dark Miso. Light Miso tends to be a lot sweeter in taste than dark Miso, and this is partly because it has a smooth consistency. 

But no matter what style of Miso you are eating, there is one thing that is certain. This is, of course, that it is salty. It is this salty flavor which is the main reason why Miso is so commonly used in savory Japanese dishes. 

Other Things You Should Know

Finally, let’s take a look at some of the other things that you should know about Miso. Firstly, let’s take a look at where you can buy it. In the USA, the best place to buy Miso is in Asian grocery stores or the refrigerated section of your local health food store. It will either be labeled ‘soybean paste’ or ‘Miso paste’. To find the best Miso, look for the option that has the shortest ingredient list, as this will be the most authentic. 

Once you have bought your Miso, you might then be wondering how to store it. Thankfully, Miso is a fermented product like kimchi and this means that it has a long shelf life, in most cases lasting for over a year once opened. To extend this shelf life, you should keep it tightly sealed and store it in your refrigerator. But remember, light Miso will not last as long as dark Miso, so you should check the storage instructions for this on the packaging of the specific Miso that you have bought. 


In short, this has been a complete guide to the fermented paste known as Miso. We’ve looked at what it is, where it comes from, and how it is used in cooking, along with lots more. So, if you want to find out more about Miso, you are in the right place. 

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Written by Brian Nagele

Brian has been an influencer in the food and beverage industry for over 20 years. He not only loves to eat and drink at restaurants on a regular basis, he also knows the business inside and out.