Mad About Miso

This salty, savory seasoning from Asia has moved beyond the broth, finding new purpose in Wine Country kitchens

Most people know miso as the base of the soul-warming Japanese soup ubiquitous in sushi bars across the country, but it’s so much more than that. Said to have originated in China before making its way to Japan in the 6th century, miso has been described by Japanese mythology as nothing less than a gift to humankind from the gods to ensure good health, happiness and a long life.

While its ability to promote happiness has yet to be proven by medical science, miso is rich in B vitamins, folic acid and vitamins E and K, and provides beneficial bacteria associated with good gut health.

Miso is usually made from fermented soybeans, but many other types of grains and beans may be used to create different flavors and textures. Jordan Winery Executive Chef Todd Knoll has long used miso as an ingredient in cooking, to add a subtle umami favor sensation to vinaigrettes and sauces, particularly for red meats and game.

He also uses miso as a steak marinade. “I’ll smear about a teaspoon and a half over a filet mignon and let it sit for an hour while it comes to room temperature,” Knoll says. “Then I’ll cook it sous vide at a very low temperature with a little bit of olive oil.” After removing the steak from the sous vide he’ll pat it dry, then brush on a bit more miso and grill or blow-torch it to give the meat a nice outer crust.

Miso on an elevated plate

While the misos found in most grocery stores are limited to basic white, yellow and red varieties, Knoll discovered an organic miso purveyor several years ago called South River Miso, which offers such intriguing varieties as garlic red pepper, chickpea and golden millet.

“I use their Dandelion Leek miso to finish fruit-forward game sauces,” he says, “which benefit not only from the added umami, but also from the miso’s depth of flavor and meaty notes.”

In the summer, Knoll finishes soups with a light, minimally aged miso such as the sweet millet. To pair with the richer, deeper wines of winter, he opts for more mature miso varieties, such as Three-Year Barley, which are darker in color and more concentrated.

South River Miso is distinguished not only by the excellent quality and variety of its offerings, but also by its origins. It is one of only a few artisan companies that produce miso in the United States. Founders Christian Elwell and his wife, Gaella, have been making their hand-crafted, wood-fired miso for nearly four decades in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts.

They learned their craft in the Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen, under the tutelage of macrobiotic healer Naboru Muramoto, who taught them how to craft miso according to a centuries-old, Japanese farmhouse tradition. After making miso with Muramoto for two seasons, the couple returned to their Massachusetts home and began producing their own miso in 1980.

“At the time there was practically no one making miso in the United States except for an Asian company in Los Angeles and another in Hawaii, and they were kind of mass-market versions,” Elwell says. “The natural foods tradition was just waking up in the U.S. back then.”

The miso-making process involves two fermentations. First, the grain is steamed, and then inoculated with the spores of the Aspergillus oryzae mold to create what the Japanese call koji. The koji is then salted, and the starches in the grains are converted into complex sugars. After that, the beans are cooked and then combined with the koji and some mature miso—similar to a sourdough starter inoculation for bread dough—to kick off a second fermentation. The raw miso spends anywhere from three weeks to three years in fermentation vats, depending on the recipe.

Miso on a spoon

While there are variations in the products produced in Japan, they are typically made with rice or barley. “Using other types of beans and grains, like azuki beans and chickpeas, is something that we developed at South River,” Elwell says. “Once miso was liberated from its womb in Japan, it became more universal in terms of what could be done with it.”

This opens up a world of possibilities in the kitchen, as Knoll has discovered, but some of Elwell’s most beloved uses for miso are the simplest. “I don’t do a lot of fancy stuff with it,” he admits. “One of my favorite things to do is to make a miso broth with hot water and maybe a little parsley.” In the winter, he mixes miso into unsalted oatmeal to give it a subtle, savory favor and bring out the sweetness in the oats.

Miso will last indefinitely in the refrigerator, whether opened or unopened, so a small jar goes a long way. Like fine wine, the best miso evolves and improves with age, darkening as it matures and losing some of its sweetness. After many years, it develops deep, complex aromas—perfect for pairing with rich, earthy dishes, such as Three-Year Miso and Jordan Olive Oil-Marinated Filet Mignon, paired with a glass of elegant cabernet sauvignon.

For those without the patience to wait, South River’s offerings include misos that have aged three years in wooden vats before release. The full lineup, along with recipes, is available through the company’s website:

Miso-Marinated Filet Mignon

Miso-marinted filet mignon with pickled mushrooms

The deep, complex aromas of a three-year aged miso are a perfect for pairing with rich, earthy dishes, such as this Miso-Marinated Filet Mignon, with a glass of elegant cabernet sauvignon.