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Miso Basics

Miso, a Japanese staple, is a wonderful way to add dimension to recipes

While in Japan, miso is a daily diet staple, it has not gained widespread notice in other parts of the world. The most recognized dish might be a miso soup, but this paste also makes a wonderful glaze for meat, poultry, and especially fish. There are many uses, and it is important to choose the right type of miso for the recipe.

Miso is fermented soybean paste, usually with added grains. Most products are salty rather than sweet, much like Worcestershire or soy sauce. But it has been proven to be full of healthful properties as well. Soy contains isoflavones, which are believed to reduce cancer risks. Plus, miso is loaded with iron, calcium, protein, and potassium. In fact, miso gained some popularity in the United States through the introduction of macrobiotics. It was - and still is - marketed as a detoxifying agent that would clear the body of fats, sugars, and other contaminants.

But which type to choose? It can be quite confusing.

First, there are rice (kome), soybean (mame), and barley (mugi) misos. Rice and barley misos also contain soybeans. These are further divided as shiro (white and mild), aka (red and salty) and naka (a blend of the two). Color and saltiness will vary, but the rice misos remain the most popular. Hatcho miso is pure soybean curds. In the U.S., miso may also be made from corn and garbanzo beans. Mold spores (koji) are added to miso - while they dissipate, the digestive enzymes remain. So, to add to labeling confusion, products may also be listed mame-koji, kome-koji, and mugi-koji.

Most miso soups are made with shiro. Yellow miso is the most common and will be the least expensive, but is somewhat saltier. Hatcho miso is concentrated, higher in protein, and the least salty. Many blends are marketed from the main types of miso.

Because most misos are inexpensive, it's easy to experiment. Use them as pastes and dips, include in soups or stews, flavor tofu, and include in stir-fries with plenty of veggies.


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