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Judging miso quality


edwardsboi
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As a newcomer to Japanese cooking, I really don't have a reference point about how to judge all the different misos I can find at an asian supermarket in America. What am I looking for that separates a good miso from a mediocre miso? When I'm about to buy one, without first tasting it, is there anything I should look for in trying to determine the quality of the miso?

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Excellent question, and one I'd like to hear the answer to myself. When I buy miso in Japan, the only thing I really have to go on is the quality of the packaging, and the price. These are only semi-reliable indicators, however.

What is a "good" all-purpose miso brand - one that's useful for a variety of tasks?

What is a good brand of high-quality miso - one I might use for a simple miso soup or dressing, where miso is the star flavour?

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Another question regarding miso quality--does it ever go bad?

Last year my grandfather gave some of the "farm people" some miso with which to make soup, but they claimed they felt drunk after having some. It made my grandfather think the miso had "gone bad" and fermented (but it's fermented, anyway, isn't it?). I didn't know what to say, so if someone else can put the correct words in my mouth, I'd be grateful. :smile:

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Another question regarding miso quality--does it ever go bad?

Miso can definitely go bad. I've had white mold develop on old miso. Usually you can just scrape the top layer off when this happens--much like cheese.

Baker of "impaired" cakes...
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I think that personal and regional preferences still play a big part...my favorite miso might easily be your pet hate. There are so many regional manufacturers not easily available elsewhere, and the biggest manufacturers offer everything from high quality to cheap and ersatz...so it's hard to identify "this" brand as the one to go for.

However, if you are looking at miso in the shop, dump the ones that say "dashi-iri" - they include flavorings which mean that you can mix them with water instead of dashi stock, but the flavorings tend to be artificial, overdone, and very samey. The dashi-iri types are usually softer, so they are easier to mix smoothly with water, but it's all about convenience, not taste.

With pale miso, check that the miso at the top of the pack hasn't started to discolor and darken (means it's old). The color should always be bright, not grayish.

An open pack should never have dry crumbs, and it should not smell alcoholic - just savory.

If you can still find the kind of shop that will mix miso to order and allow you to taste, make use of it! They have become very rare, but you may find one in a department store basement.

Generally, very smoothly milled miso is a convenience item - traditionally, people dissolved the miso in a bamboo dipper in the soup, and discarded the lees. Nowadays, people are more likely to return the lees to the soup, to increase the nutritional value of the soup. Finely milled miso can be dissolved without straining.

What's wrong with "convenient"? It tends to be associated with miso that has not been fermented long enough (tastes raw, floury, pasty), and has been made with cultures instead of koji rice, and with ground instead of whole beans or grains.

There are only two well-known smooth traditional miso: white and red. The rest have some texture remaining from the grains or mashed beans they are made from.

White miso if from Kyoto (and to some extent Echigo, Kaga and nearby Japan-sea coast, I think, though I've heard there is white miso in Hiroshima). It is hard to buy good quality white miso in Tokyo - it tends to have sake lees and mizu-ame in it. It is fermented only briefly, and so is soft with high moisture content and relatively little salt. It doesn't keep well - use it fast, keep it cold.

Red miso - matured for a very long time, which means that it is dry and a little hard to handle. Salty but mellow, and the long fermentation means that the ingredients have largely broken down to form a paste. If it's soft, it's probably aka-dashi (red miso mixed with dashi and other flavorings), which is easy to use but of course doesn't keep as well.

Other miso tends to be made from rice and/or rice koji starter, with a proportion of barley or soybeans that varies according to the region. Very roughly:

RICE MISO:

Mild, light color, lower salt: Kansai, Kagawa (Shikoku) and Inland Sea coast of Honshu down to Hiroshima.

Mild, red color, lower salt: Tokyo

Medium-mild, light tan color, lowish salt: Shizuoka, Kyushu

Medium-mild, red color, lowish salt: Tokushima and other areas

Flavorful, light tan color, saltier: Kanto and central, central Japan Sea coast, widespread throughout Japan

Flavorful, red, saltier: Kanto, central, northern Japan, Hokkaido

BARLEY MISO:

Mild/lower salt: Kyushu, Shikoku, lower Honshu

Flavorful/saltier: Kyushu, Shikoku, Kanto

SOYBEAN MISO:

Aichi, Mie, and Gifu region

The chart came from an old article by a guy at the Chuo Miso Kenkyu-jo in Tokyo, and I see there's a similar one here with luverly photos as well.

Miso site (Japanese and English)

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If you are thinking of making miso, now is a good time! Check places such as Tokyu Hands or your Co-op catalog for kits, or ask the local tofu maker if you can buy a few kilos of beans.

Short-ferment miso is often made in early Spring, but I find that it spoils too easily in the hot Tokyo weather we get nowadays.

"Little cold" starts right after New Year, peaking at "Great Cold" around Jan. 20, and ending at "Start of Spring" (around Setsubun, Feb. 4). So basically, any time in January is good miso-making time!

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As a newcomer to Japanese cooking, I really don't have a reference point about how to judge all the different misos I can find at an asian supermarket in America. What am I looking for that separates a good miso from a mediocre miso? When I'm about to buy one, without first tasting it, is there anything I should look for in trying to determine the quality of the miso?

I have no idea of the availability of miso in the United States, so I will be brief.

What should you look for first? The expiration date! Get the fresh one!

As a Kanto (Eastern Japan) man, I suggest purchasing a Shinshu miso first.

Images of Shinshu miso

For many Japanese, including me, Shushu miso is the default. (I know, I know. There will be millions of Japanese who object to my opinion.)

Personally, I refrain buying the type of miso with dashi in it 'cause I believe it's not a good miso (without any confirmation).

Then, you may want to try shiro (white) miso, which is sweeter than Shinshu miso.

Images of shiro miso

Personally, I hate white miso in miso soup because it's too sweet for me. But it has some nice uses, such as marinating fish (such as "gin dara").

Edited by Hiroyuki (log)
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  • 2 weeks later...

It can be hard finding good miso in NA, but here is what i've gathered from my experiences.

As others have mentioned, stay away from miso that isn't strictly miso. Recently especially, I've started seeing miso that is mixed with a lot of other things. Now some of these are ok, and if you like them great, but I prefer to be in control of what I'm adding to the miso. Also, a lot of these seem to be newcomers attempting to cash in on the hype around miso's health benefits, and aren't necessarily traditional producers of quality miso in my experience.

I also like to look at the ingredients. If theres anything like high fructose corn syrup, preservatives or whatnot I tend to stay away from those brands. Good miso should be made from salt, water, koji, and rice or whatever other grains that kind of miso is made from. Unpasteurized is also a good indicator of quality; it can be hard to find, but often has a fuller flavor than pasteurized miso. As are misos that give some indication of how they have been aged. Many misos marked as being aged for several years have given me very good results. I also have had better success with miso that still has some texture rather than ultra smooth kinds.

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