Make a delicious miso salad dressing.

Miso is a versatile ingredient that can boost nutrition and add a depth of flavor to a variety of dishes.

Even if you’re not familiar with miso, there’s a good possibility that you’ve eaten it. Have you ever been served a clear soup at the start of a meal in a Japanese restaurant? Chances are good that it was made with miso. Miso means “fermented beans,” and it is essentially a fermented soybean paste – and, when miso is dissolved into hot water (usually with other seasonings added), it becomes the soup that many people are familiar with.

What Exactly Is Miso?

Miso is usually made from soybeans and a grain (typically rice or barley) that has been fermented with a common fungus called Aspergillus oryzae (also used to make rice vinegar and soy sauce).

During fermentation, various compounds are produced that give miso its distinctive aroma and flavor. Depending on how long the mixture is allowed to ferment, the color and flavor of miso varies. Most American supermarkets carry miso that is labeled either “white” or “red” – which isn’t quite accurate – white miso is more beige or pale yellow in color, and red miso is actually brown. The longer the miso ferments, the deeper the color and the richer the flavor. So white miso is relatively mild, and red miso has a deeper flavor (and it’s also saltier).

If you’re fortunate enough to have an Asian supermarket in your neighborhood, you will probably see other types of miso. Some are made with beans other than soy (such as chickpeas or black beans), and some may contain buckwheat, rye or millet as a grain source rather than rice or barley.

Why Should You Eat Miso?

Aside from its ability to impart flavor to many different dishes, miso has some nutrition benefits, too. Because it’s fermented, miso paste contains the “good” probiotic bacteria that help promote digestive health. In addition, the fermentation process partially breaks down the proteins, fats and carbohydrates that are in the beans and grains, making these nutrients more readily available to the body and yielding a bit more protein than what is present in unfermented soybeans.

A tablespoon of miso has about 25 calories, 1 gram of protein and 4 grams of carbohydrate, with small amounts calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin K, zinc, iron and B vitamins. But it is rather high in sodium – a tablespoon has about 600 milligrams of sodium – but, in terms of flavor, a little goes a long way.

How Do I Use Miso?

Miso is more than simply a soup base. Its earthy, rich taste adds a depth of flavor to all kinds of foods. The milder white miso is best for soup, but it also adds terrific flavor to salad dressings and marinades, or as a seasoning for veggies. Dark miso is better for longer cooking dishes like stews, soups and braises.

Miso should be stored in the refrigerator, tightly sealed, where it will retain its quality for a long time – more than a year. After that time, it’s still safe to eat, although there may be some slight changes to the flavor or color. You can put some plastic wrap over the surface of the miso before replacing the lid to prevent it from darkening.

Here are 5 ways you can use miso in your everyday cooking:

  • Salad dressing: Whisk together 1 tablespoon of white miso, 3 tablespoons of rice vinegar, 5 tablespoons of olive oil, ¼ teaspoon of ground white or black pepper.
  • Vegetables: Stir together equal parts white miso and olive oil in a small bowl. Steam firm veggies (like carrots, Brussels sprouts, broccoli or cauliflower florets) until crisp-tender, then add miso mixture to the veggies and toss for a minute or two over the heat until glazed.
  • Marinade for chicken or fish: Mix together ¼ cup of white miso, ¼ cup of mirin (sweet rice wine; if you don’t have it, you can use sake, sherry, white wine or rice vinegar and add 2 teaspoons of honey or sugar to the marinade), and ½ teaspoon of ground ginger. Marinate fish fillets or chicken breasts for at least 30 minutes before grilling or broiling.
  • Sauce: Whisk together ¼ cup of white miso, ¼ cup of dark mustard, 1 tablespoon of honey and 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. Use as a sauce on vegetables, grilled meats or roasted tofu.
  • Flavor boost: Add a spoonful of white or red miso to hearty dishes such as soups, stews, curries or pasta sauce to deepen the flavor.

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