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Miso

Miso is a traditional condiment used as a seasoning and in soup stocks. While it is commonly known as "soybean paste," most also include grains, such as rice, wheat or barley. There is a tremendous array of miso varieties available.

Miso is made by steaming the soybeans and grains until tender, then culturing them with koji, a type of mold which ferments the ingredients. (Koji is also used to ferment rice to make sake.) Salt is then added and the materials mixed into a thick paste, which is left to ferment and age. Vessels made of cedar are traditionally used, though most of today's miso is fermented in stainless steel.

Miso ranges in color from an almost pale ivory color, to various shades of warm brown and reddish brown to a dark brown that is almost black. Generally, the darkness of the miso is a function of how long it is aged. Most are aged only a few months, and are lighter in color. These usually contain a higher percentage of rice or other grains, and are considered "sweet" because of their mild flavor. These are used in miso soup, or in light miso sauces used as toppings for various foods.

On the other end of the spectrum is hatcho-miso. It is nearly black, and is very dense. It is made only from soybeans and aged about three years. The flavor is rich, complex, sharp and slightly tart, owing to the lactobacillus bacteria (the same found in cheese and yogurt), a by-product of its long fermentation. Known also as "the Emperor's miso," it is a favorite of connoisseurs.

In between are a bewildering variety of miso types, much like the many different kinds of cheese made in Europe, each reflecting the production techniques and flavors of their respective regions. Variations on soybean/grain mixtures, water, salt, fermentation times and even the variety of koji used to ferment the mixture all have an effect on the final flavor.

Until the mid-20th century, many Japanese households made their own miso. These days, however, almost all miso is made commercially. Fortunately, a few small producers are still producing it using traditional methods to the delight of those who find today's mass-produced miso bland and one-dimensional in flavor.

Since miso is a fermented food product which is still living, it cannot be packaged in tightly sealed containers. Many manufacturers get around this by pasteurizing the miso to stop fermentation. Unfortunately, this not only alters the flavor, it also destroys naturally occurring enzymes which are said to be beneficial for digestion and health. For this reason, it is best not to avoid cooking miso. When making miso soup, for example, add the miso to the broth after you have turned off the heat.

Miso should be stored in the refrigerator, where it will keep for many months. Like with cheese, any mold that develops is harmless, and can either be scraped off, or mixed back in with the miso.


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