Miso, a fermented-soybean paste, is an incredibly versatile ingredient that can be used for way more than just soup. “Miso is produced by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji (the fungus Aspergillus oryzae) and sometimes rice, barley, seaweed, or other ingredients,” says Nick Kim, chef and partner of omakase restaurant Shuko. The result is a paste that is high in both protein and vitamins and packs a ton of flavor. A staple in Japanese cuisine for millennia, miso paste has countless uses in the kitchen, but “different misos are used for different reasons” based on the type and associated flavor profile, explains Maiko Kyogoku, the owner of New York City Japanese restaurant Bessou.
The three basic types of miso are white, yellow, and red; as a general rule of thumb, “white miso is the mildest, yellow miso is more fermented, and red miso is the most assertive fermented flavor,” explains Masayoshi Takayama, chef and owner of sushi restaurant Masa. To find the best kinds of miso paste you can buy, we asked Kyogoku, Takayama, Kim, and ten other chefs about their favorites, and for tips on how to best utilize their picks in your kitchen. Read on for their recommendations.
Best overall miso paste
All of the chefs we spoke to said that white miso paste is a must-have for home cooking. Three of our chefs — Kyogoku, Ryan McCaskey, and James Beard Award–winning chef Christopher Gross — recommend Hikari white miso for its accessibility and quality. According to Kim, “White miso is the best option for home cooks and it’ll be a great gateway to try the other types of miso out there.” Because white miso is generally only fermented for three months and made with a higher rice content, it boasts a mild, sweet flavor that is perfect for soups, sauces, dressings, and marinades. “The best choice for home stock is white miso since it is the most mild kind (it is also the most versatile) and can be used in many various recipes,” agrees D. J. Eusebio, the chef at Terranea Resort’s Bashi, who says his restaurant uses white miso to glaze baby carrots and make bread pudding (he uses this organic white miso).
As with lots of cooking ingredients, finding the right miso comes down to personal taste, notes Takayama. So don’t be afraid to shop around before settling on the right brand. When looking for miso, several chefs we spoke to recommend hitting up a Japanese grocery store like Katagiri or Sunrise Mart, where you can find a “rainbow of different varieties,” according to Koyuga. Those who don’t live in areas with specialty stores can also find suitable white miso paste at larger grocery chains like Kroger, according to Louisville-based chef Henry Wesley, who says that’s where picks up the paste he uses.
Best sweet white miso paste
Kyogoku also keeps saikyo miso paste, a sweeter white variety that originated in Kyoto, stocked in her kitchen. She says it’s “extremely smooth and will lend a creaminess to any dish,” but that it’s an especially lovely ingredient to use in winter-vegetable miso soups, salad dressings, and seafood marinades. “I love making Japanese-yam or daikon-radish-leaf miso soup with it when the temperature gets chillier.” Kazushige Suzuki, the head sushi chef at Sushi Ginza Onodera, also likes using a sweeter, Kyoto-style miso in dips for fresh vegetables or sauces (he says a very simple sauce can be made with just saikyo miso and vinegar). Suzuki likes this sweet miso from Ishinol; it seems to be a bit more available online than the stuff Kyogoku uses, which is currently low in stock.
Best yellow miso paste
Yellow miso is more fermented than white miso but still has a mild flavor. Both Kim and Masaru Kajihara, executive chef at Sakagura East Village, recommend using it in soups and sauces. Kim specifically likes the one from Cold Mountain, which is more readily available online. Kajihara’s favorite, from Shinsyuichi Miso Company, is harder to track down, but you may have luck finding it in person at a store.
Best red miso paste
Most of the chefs we spoke with say that home cooks should keep at least one white miso paste and one red miso paste — which are on the opposite ends of the pungency spectrum — in their pantries for maximum versatility. Because red miso is fermented for longer, it usually has a stronger, saltier flavor compared to those of white and yellow misos. Therefore, they say, it should be reserved for heartier dishes, since it can easily overwhelm simpler food. Gene Kato, the chef at Chicago’s Momotaro, likes to use the “savory, slightly smokey” red miso when cooking meat because “the stronger flavor profile of the miso balances” out richer proteins; Kyogoku suggests using it as a base for mapo tofu. Eusebio called this affordable red miso paste from Shirakiku his favorite (it was also the red miso we found most readily available online). But our chefs named a range of brands, including Cold Mountain (Kim’s pick), Aedan (chef Gavin Kaysen’s pick), and Hikari’s inaka (or country-style) red miso, which both Kyoguku and Suzuki like for its rustic, grainy texture.
Best barley miso paste
If you’re familiar with the three basic types above and are looking for a new miso paste to try, JT Vuong, chef and co-founder of Yaki Tiki and the forthcoming restaurant Rule of Thirds, recommends a barley miso. Instead of rice koji, it’s made using barley koji, which gives it a distinct flavor profile that Vuong says “has a great balance of sweetness, aroma, and savoriness, without being overbearing or overly salty.” His tip is to blend the barley miso with some sweet saikyo miso and then use that mixture as a base “to make a well-balanced miso soup that is both rich and elegant.” Gross’s go-to brand is Eden, which makes a barley miso that is easy to find online.
Best Hatcho miso
And if you prefer very earthy flavors, Vuong suggests trying a hatcho, or 100 percent soybean, miso paste. He describes hatcho miso as super-savory with an almost fudgelike texture and says it makes a great addition to braises and hearty stews. But Vuong notes that “a little bit of this goes a long way, since the flavor is much more concentrated and intense.”
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