Miso soup, or miso shiru (みそ汁) in Japanese, is one of the simplest soups you can make at home. It requires only a handful ingredients and a few minutes to make. It’s salty, umami-rich, and delivers the perfect amount of seaweed and tofu. If you’re not familiar with miso soup, it’s naturally vegan (if you use plant-based dashi), grain-free (gluten-free), and nut-free.
I had heard and read many stories about Japanese cuisine before I first visited Japan. The food is indeed amazing, and the Japanese are magicians when it comes to food. The food is diverse, vibrant, and often times looks more like a work of art.
While I had a chance to sample quite a bit from Japanese cuisine, miso soup has always been my favorite. Soothing dashi, chewy wakame, little cubes of melt-in-your-mouth tofu… all in one bowl. No food I know is more comforting. What makes miso soup so unique is miso paste, which provides the mouth-filling savoriness known as umami.
Miso is a key ingredient in Japanese cooking and forms the base of the staple dish, miso soup. It’s made from soybeans, grains (usually rice or barley), kōji culture (a fermentation starter), and salt. There are over 1,000 types of miso, ranging in flavor, texture, and color. Miso is usually categorized by 2 factors: ingredients and color.
Types of Miso (by ingredients)
- Rice miso (kome miso): soybeans, rice kōji, and salt.
- Barley miso (mugi miso): soybeans, barley kōji, and salt.
- Soybean miso (mame miso): soybeans kōji and salt.
Types of Miso (by color)
- White miso (shiro miso): while the color is more of a light yellow, white miso is the lightest in color thanks to its very short fermentation time (as little as 2-3 days). It’s made with more rice kōji than other types of miso (40% soybean and 60% rice or barley), and contains 4-5% salt. This makes white miso very mild, with a natural sweetness thanks to kōji’s ability to convert starches into sugar.Because of the short fermentation period, white miso has a higher moisture content, rendering it very soft and much smoother than other types of miso. White miso is particularly popular in the western regions of Japan, such as Kyoto and Osaka.
- Yellow miso shinsu miso): the vast majority of miso falls into this category, and it can range in color from tan to medium brown with a fermentation time of anywhere from 6-10 months. Yellow miso can be made with either rice kōji or barley kōji, and has a salt content of 10-12%.
- Red miso (aka miso): this type of miso encompasses all the darker types of miso ranging in color from dark red to brown to almost black. It is either fermented naturally for 1-3 years or using controlled temperatures for 3-4 months. Red miso typically contains very little grains ( 70% soybean and 30% rice or barley) and has a salt content of 13%. Some types of red miso, such as Hatcho miso contain no grains, just soybeans. The longer fermentation time of red miso results not only in darker color and strong salty, umami flavor, but also a firmer texture. Although there are regions all over Japan that use red miso, the area around Nagoya is most typically associated with it.
I should also mention that with the rise of gluten-free and soy-free diets diets, you can now also find miso pastes made from buckwheat, millet, chickpeas, or adzuki beans.
Tips for Making Miso Soup
Miso soup has countless variations, as ingredients reflect the food culture of each area of Japan. However, the following ingredients are probably the most common:
- Dashi: traditional miso soup relies on dashi, which is a Japanese soup stock. My favorite is kombu-shiitake dashi because it has a wonderful umami flavor and a beautiful amber color, but you can use any dashi you like. Nowadays you can even buy instant dashi granules or powder. If you go that route, look for instant dashi with no additives.
- Miso paste: my favorite is yellow miso because it has a well-rounded flavor and goes with most ingredients. However, you can use any miso paste you like. Just make sure the only ingredients are soybeans, koji (rice or barley), and salt. These days, there is also a product called dashi miso, which includes ingredients such as bonito extract, kelp, and soy sauce. The idea here is that the miso itself contains dashi concentrate so you can make miso soup by just adding water. However, dashi miso also typically contains added MSG.
- Wakame: this smooth and slightly chewy seaweed has a subtly sweet flavor that nicely counterbalances the umami taste of the miso and dashi. The chewiness adds bulk to the soup, as well as providing a contrasting texture.
- Tofu: look for silken tofu, which is traditionally used in miso soup for its soft texture. A medium-firm tofu is the next best alternative.
- Green onions: scallions have a lovely fragrance and enhance the taste of the soup. They also add an element of crunchiness. Leeks are great too if you don’t have scallions.
How to Make Miso Soup
- Prepare the dashi. I have a detailed post on making kombu-shiitake dashi. It’s worth reading if you are serious about making Japanese food at home.
- Bring the dashi to a boil. Pour the dashi into a medium saucepan and bring it to a gentle boil over medium heat.
- Add the wakame and green onions. When the dashi starts boiling, add the wakame and green onions. All these ingredients are soft (quick-cooking) and so they can be added at the same time. Reduce the heat to low and keep the soup at a simmer.
- Add the miso. Add the miso paste into a small bowl together with a little bit of dashi. Dissolve the miso completely before adding it to the soup. Make sure that the miso is entirely lump-free as it gets incorporated into the dashi. Don’t let the soup boil at this point. Miso is a fermented food, meaning it contains live active cultures of bacteria. Adding it to boiling water will kill the beneficial bacteria and alter the flavor.
- Add the tofu. After the miso is dissolved, add the tofu. If you add the tofu before the miso is dissolved, you might break it. If you’re using medium-firm tofu rather than silken tofu, you can add it to the soup together with the wakame and green onions.
Miso Soup Variations
For many years, I thought of miso soup as a fixed recipe, always made with the same ingredients. But miso soup can reflect the seasons, too. When switching up the ingredients, the only thing you have to pay attention to is how long the vegetables cook.
- Ingredients to add before the dashi is boiling: sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, turnips, daikon, cabbage, onion.
- Ingredients to add after the dashi is boiling: bean sprouts, okra, green peas, shelled edamame, leeks, green onions, spinach, kale, bok choy, seaweed, ginger.
Any garnishes should be added right before serving.
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- Bring dashi to a boil. Pour the dashi into a medium saucepan and bring it to a gentle boil over medium heat.
- Add wakame and green onions. When the dashi starts boiling, add the wakame and green onions. (Reserve a little bit of the green onions for garnish). Reduce the heat to low and keep the soup at a simmer.
- Add miso. Add the miso paste into a small bowl together with a little bit of dashi. Dissolve the miso completely before adding it to the soup. Do not let the soup boil.
- Add tofu. Finally, add the tofu. If you add the tofu before the miso is dissolved, you might break it.
- Serve. Divide the soup between individual bowls. Garnish with the reserved green onions and serve immediately. The miso will settle a bit as it sits in the dashi; whisk briefly with chopsticks or a spoon to mix the soup again.
- Store. Leftover miso soup keeps well in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.