Ode to My Pantry: Miso

Learning to feed yourself can be one of the most terrifying things. Am I about to give myself food poisoning? If I eat this too often will I end up with scurvy? How can I get the most nutritional bang for my buck? Why does this still taste like ass?

With Ode to My Pantry, learn to navigate a grocery store without having a meltdown in aisle three. Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a queer to cook and stave off malnutrition for another semester.


Every lunch hour a coworker will say, “Ooh! What is that?” and I just kind of blankly stare at them and say, “Leftovers?” I think they all imagine I’m fancy and/or schmancy because I have a different cardboard-box-less dish each day. Truthfully, I’m sure they spend more time looking through the freezer section for the “best” 100 calorie “meal” than I spend cooking. I just want to shove my face full of something tasty so I can hibernate until the morning without waking up to a grumbling tummy or scurvy symptoms.

One way to take the guesswork out of meal planning is ensuring your pantry and fridge are stocked with a variety of nutritious proto-sauce and soup bases. If you know that everything you have stocked is vaguely balanced in the macro/micro nutrient department, you have one less thing to worry about. Miso paste is on the top of my list when it comes to Versatile Kitchen Things because it’s a complete protein, tasty as fuck and I don’t go blind reading its ingredient label.

In its simplest form, miso contains nothing more than water, soybeans, rice and salt. Ferment and age said mash with a variety of yeasts and bacteria and you’re left with a paste the texture (and sometimes colour) of peanut butter. I have no idea who saw its primitive form and said, “Gee, that pile of possibly molding beans and rice looks tasty” but I’m glad they did.

When you’re looking to buy your paste (which you’ll find in a refrigerated section typically stocked with Asian goods or soy products) you may find yourself staring at a daunting wall of brown tubs. Stay away from brands that contain preservatives, colouring agents or synthetic flavours. Other than that, try your luck until you find something that suits you. You Chew You. If your palate is sensitive to overly robust flavours, start with a sweeter white miso (shiromiso) that contains a high proportion of rice to beans. If you prefer whoop-you-in-the-ass flavour go for red miso (akamiso) that contains less rice or even soybean miso (mame miso) which forgoes grain all together. If you’re salt-sensitive choose a low sodium variety so you don’t misout on the goodness.

White vs. red miso. All legitimate scales of measurement.

Compared to the other stocks and bouillons you may love, miso brings more to the table than salt. (Although keep in mind that it is quite high in salt.) It’s also a great source of vitamin K, manganese and all of the essential amino acids.  You’re going to benefit from all of the lovely byproducts that Lactobacilli, Pediococci, Torulopsis, Zygosaccharomyces made while they were snacking. On the crude side of things, they break beans’ tummy-trouble inducing carbs into digestible pieces. They’ll also break apart proteins and fatty acids to liberate  flavour compounds that are simultaneously rich, salty and savory.

You could do a lot worse than miso soup when you’re making your next meal. Throw in extra veggies, eggs and noodles to make a heartier soup or use it as the base for your next stew. Better yet, make soup an event instead of an appetizer by having a hotpot for your next dinner party. Everyone gets to partake in the cooking experience and no one can blame you when they give themselves food poisoning! Win-win! The hardest part of hotpot (if there is one) is finding a heating device that your friends can crowd around. After that you can prepare the broth and leave your friends to procure the other ingredient such as:

  • Thin cuts of beef, pork or other animals
  • Choi, mushrooms, daikon, carrots, broccoli and other veggies
  • Tofu
  • Eggs
  • Noodles or rice cakes
  • Surimi, fish paste or other seafood type objects
  • Dumplings
  • Whatever else you think you see in this illustration.

Make a broth out of dashi, kelp and miso to cook whatever you have in your fridge.

If béchamel, hollandaise, velouté, tomato and espagnole are the five mothers because they give rise to other sauces, miso is the aunt since it also makes a family of sauces but is way less demanding. It’s really difficult to wreck and/or disappoint a miso-based sauce. The paste is already an emulsion so if you can work a fork, you can make a sauce.
  • Are your greens too naked? Just thin miso with a bit of boiling water to make a dressing when you’re crunched for time. You can also team it up with mirin, soy and rice wine vinegar if you want a more well rounded flavour.
  • Wanna top a bowl of fries/noodles/rice/carby type objects? Try your hand at the Naam’s miso gravy.
  • Need to impress your friends? Take a cue from David Chang and simply add butter to the equation. Blend room temperature butter and miso into a homogenous paste, apply it to your finger and lick it off your hand. Or if you prefer to be more civilized, add it to steamed vegetables, noodles or the Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich ever.
Everyone has their own take on miso, so experiment to make your own signature sauce. Then give me suggestions because I always need more ways to impress/confuse my coworkers.
Avatar of Kristen

Hailing from Vancouver, Kristen's still trying to figure out how to survive Montreal's Real Legitimate Canadian Winter. So far she's discovered that warm socks, giant toques and Tabby kittens all play a role in her survival. Her ultimate goal is to rank higher than KStew in the "Kristen + Autostraddle" Google Search competition.

Kristen has written 140 articles for us.

23 Comments

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    Blend together miso with silken tofu, finely grated ginger and a bit of garlic (use a microplane if you have one for both so the sauce is smooth), some rice vinegar and just enough sugar to be slightly sweet. Add a little water to thin if needed. The resulting sauce is good on absolutely everything.

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    My only contact with miso has been through miso soup in a college dining hall, which smelled absolutely terrible. I don’t know if I don’t like miso or if that was just really bad miso. I need to figure out a good, not too costly recipe for a tentative miso eater so I can try it out in a non-dining hall context and see what I think of it now.

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      Try getting a small tub of white miso if you think you might dislike the flavour. Miso is pretty damn stable in the fridge, so you can always go back and try it a few times instead of having to throw it out right away.

      Some people really hate the seaweed/kelp component in miso soup. You could always just make the broth without the other components and see how you like it. Or try using replacing veggie stock with miso in your arsenal of dishes and see how you like it. Or just mix a teensy bit of miso in with butter and try it over your veggies.

      Or you might just not like miso. You Chew You.

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    Yay! Thanks for this, Kristen. I actually have three different types of miso paste in my fridge (you never really know what you’ll feel like?) but haven’t tried making stock with kelp and dashi before…

    Also, yes – The Naam’s miso gravy is so excellent! :) I didn’t know there was a public recipe for it. As of tomorrow: miso gravy on everything!

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