How To Make Miso Soup: The Best Method for Most Home Cooks

How To Make Miso Soup: The Best Method for Most Home Cooks

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Meghan Splawn
Oct 10, 2016
(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

If you're new to working with the flavors often found in Japanese food, but need a place to start, consider miso soup the gateway. The ingredient list is short yet full of some of the most common ingredients used in Japanese cooking.

Making miso soup will also teach you a timeless and universal lesson about soup: A flavorful broth is the backbone of all great soups. Even more, you can use miso soup's essential ingredients — all of which are vegetarian in this recipe — in your everyday cooking or future exploration of Japanese cuisine.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Why This Method Is the Best for Most Home Cooks

Miso soup is an incredibly savory, brothy soup usually served with small cubes of soft tofu and snipped scallions. Steaming, fragrant — it's the classic beginning to a sushi meal, but it's also one of the easiest and most comforting styles of Asian soup to make at home.

No matter where you go searching for a recipe for miso soup, you'll find a short ingredient list. That's because each element in miso soup carries a potent and distinct flavor that, when combined together, results in a final dish that is both minimalistic and complex.

Most classic miso soup recipes — while short — are not vegetarian; they are based on a simple broth made from dried fish and seaweed. That is, if you bother to make your own broth at all; you can find miso soup starter packets en masse at Asian groceries and in the international food aisles at your local supermarket.

So what makes this method the one that we recommend for most home cooks? Why not just make a more classic broth or go the super easy route and start your soup from a packet?

  1. Homemade broth is more satisfying and nutritious: Soup-starter packets for miso soup are often high in sodium and MSG and lack the body of kombu-based dashi broths. Kombu broth, the base for our vegetarian miso soup, has many reported health benefits as a digestive aid as well as a good source of iron and calcium.
  2. Homemade broth is easier to make into a full meal: This is really restating the point above, but worth calling out: if you order miso soup at a restaurant it's often a small starter. But at home if you're going to make a soup from scratch you want it to be a meal. Homemade broth is more satisfying and more nutritious — better to build on for a full meal.
  3. A vegetarian broth is more universal: Many home cooks are vegetarian or are cooking for a vegetarian, and in the case of miso soup, we felt after our research that a quick-cooking yet intense vegetarian broth is the most useful and smart way for a home cook to start their miso soup.

This method is based off of these two assumptions. So let's start with the broth — the most delicious vegetarian one we know.

Start with a Vegetarian Broth

This juxtaposition of intensity and restraint is a characteristic often present in Japanese cooking and a quality we worked to capture in the recipe we're sharing here. To do so, we began where all good soups begin: with a flavorful broth.

Broth-making is a core skill for home cooks. However, the lessons are often skewed in the service of making broth from meat. Our recipe for miso soup offers an alternative lesson — the art of the plant-based broth. This broth has no intention of imitating the taste of meat, while still offering savory satisfaction.

This miso soup begins with kombu (a dried seaweed), dried shiitake mushrooms, and a lesson on making a vegetarian dashi. From there, we bring in the namesake of this soup — miso paste — and all the remaining ingredients to help make the broth you've crafted into the soup you crave.

What Makes Miso Soup Authentic?

Miso soup is so ubiquitous to American eaters that we often forget that miso and miso soup have a history over 1,000 years rich. While historians agree that miso is a Chinese invention, miso soup is credited entirely to the Japanese.

Miso manufacturing began in America as early as 1907, but it didn't become popular in the U.S. until the 1960s and '70s when miso gained recognition as a health food for its macrobiotic properties. Sushi was also gaining in popularity during this time, and miso soup became commonplace at American sushi joints. With the rise in miso-centric cooking, miso soup recipes became plentiful in magazines and cookbooks from both Japanese and American authors.


Our goal is to share a vegetarian miso soup that teaches the basics of dashi while respecting miso soup's heritage.


Like most recipes that holds historical and cultural significance, the authenticity of miso soup is nuanced and complex. Kitchn's first foray into miso soup-making-is essentially what you'd find at any sushi or hibachi restaurant in the U.S. Japanese miso soup has hundreds (if not thousands) of iterations, none less authentic than the last. The dashi broth may contain sardines or mushrooms, or it may come from a packet; the miso might be red or white.

Our goal is to share a vegetarian miso soup that teaches the basics of dashi while respecting miso soup's heritage.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Shop Your Soup — Buy the Ingredients for Success

Often when we think of making Asian soups at home, we assume we must head to an Asian market to find the ingredients. While this is true of more complex soups like ramen, where you'll really want to put the effort into hunting down great noodles, miso soup ingredients can typically be found at regular chain grocery stores. This is due in large part to the popularity of miso as an ingredient to home cooks.

The international foods aisle will have dried kombu (dried kelp) and dried shiitake mushrooms for making the dashi broth. Miso paste and silken tofu can be found in the produce section — grab some green onions while you're there.



(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Miso Broth Basics

Dashi Broth

Think of dashi as a delicate vegetable broth. The primary ingredient is kombu, sea kelp that has been dried and cut into sheets and is responsible for miso soup's deep umami flavors.

Most miso soup dashi also includes bonito flakes. Bonito flakes are also called katsuobushi, and are made from dried bonito fish.

For this recipe, we suggest making the vegetarian kombu broth, which has a deeper flavor than traditional Japanese dashi, because the bonito is replaced with dried shiitake mushrooms. Both options are listed below.

Dashi is made very gingerly by soaking the kombu in water overnight or gently bringing the kelp and water to a simmer. Both methods remove the kombu's glutamic acid, which appears on the kombu as fine white crystals. Soaking overnight also softens the kombu significantly more than simmering, making the kombu easier to chop and add to the miso soup for eating.

Miso

Miso is fermented soybean paste. It is made by mixing soybeans with water and a koji grain (typically rice or barley) that has been inoculated with mold spores. The soybeans ferment for weeks or years before becoming the thick paste infamous for its deep, savory flavors and probiotic properties.

Miso comes in three main varieties, each with their own distinct qualities.

  • White miso is typically sweeter and lighter, with the shortest fermentation period of the three.
  • Yellow miso is fermented at least a year, with a balanced mix of sweetness, acidity, and pungency.
  • Red miso is the darkest of the three with a complex depth of flavor produced by a longer fermentation.

There is no wrong miso for making miso soup. Starting with a 50/50 mix of yellow and white makes a light and sweet miso soup, which is perfect for pairing with other dishes. A miso soup made entirely of red miso is completely satisfying on its own; it's the sort of hearty bowl you want to devour in the depths of winter.


There is no wrong miso for making miso soup.


For this recipe, we choose to use only red miso. The red miso's intensity pairs well with the mushrooms and gives the vegetarian soup a meaty flavor sans meat. Red miso can be a bit salty, but the broth will temper its savory profile.

Read more: What's the Best Type of Miso for Miso Soup?

An Important Note on Adding Miso to Miso Soup

Never add the miso directly to the soup. Instead, mix the miso with a small amount of the dashi broth before adding it to the soup pot. This keeps the miso from becoming lumpy in the broth.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

How to Eat Miso Soup

Miso soup can be eaten for breakfast or lunch on its own or, as the Japanese enjoy it, as part of a larger meal. Serve the soup right away to avoid separation of the miso from the dashi.

Miso soup doesn't need a spoon to be enjoyed, but rather the bowl can be lifted directly to your mouth to sip the soup, and chopsticks can guide the tofu and mushrooms to your mouth.

How to Put Your Miso Soup Learnings to Work

Dashi: Once you've mastered the fine art of dashi broth-making, you'll want to make larger batches and freeze the broth for future use, much like you would chicken stock. Beyond miso soup, dashi is ideal for poaching fish or shrimp, making other soups, or for marinating fish, tofu, or poultry. Dashi can also be enjoyed warm as a soother for sore throats or upset bellies during cold and flu season.

Kombu: Kombu has a long shelf life, so it is tempting to keep on hand strictly for soup-making, but it does have other cooking applications. Put a few snips of dried kombu into a pot of basic beans for its savory flavor, but also for its ability to tenderize the beans and make them easier to digest. Rehydrated and cooked kombu can be added to stir-fries and rice dishes or added to long-braising pork or chicken.

Miso paste: Miso paste is an ingredient you'll use regularly beyond miso soup, so keep a variety on hand. Add miso paste to salad dressings, use it as a flavoring in other soups, rub it on fish or chicken before cooking, or add it to your morning oatmeal.

Even more ideas here: 5 More Ways to Use Miso Paste

The Asian Soup Pot

This month we're exploring the diverse world of Asian soups. Ramen, pho, and tom kha gai are some of our favorite dishes to eat out, but we tasked ourselves with mastering these soups at home. By pulling in expert advice, shopping smartly, and putting our broth and stock know-how to work, we're bringing steaming bowls of soup into your home kitchens.

How To Make the Best Miso Soup at Home

Makes 4 servings

What You Need

Ingredients
12 ounces firm silken tofu, drained
6 scallions, thinly sliced
4 cups (1 quart) dashi or kombu broth
1/2 cup soaked shiitake mushrooms, chopped (from making dashi or soaked, see notes below)
6 tablespoons red miso paste

Equipment
Chef's knife
Measuring cups and spoons
1-quart (or larger) saucepan
Whisk or dinner fork

Instructions

  1. Prepare the tofu and scallions: Cut the tofu into very small cubes, 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch on each side; set aside. Slice the scallions very thinly; set aside.
  2. Simmer the broth: Bring the dashi or broth to a rapid simmer in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.
  3. Dissolve the miso: Place the miso in a small ramekin or measuring cup. Add about 1/2 cup of the dashi or broth. Whisk with a dinner fork or whisk until the miso is entirely dissolved in the liquid and no lumps remain.
  4. Pour the miso into the broth: Pour the dissolved miso into the simmering broth. Reduce the heat to medium-low.
  5. Add the tofu: Add the tofu and mushrooms and simmer just enough to warm the tofu, 1 to 2 minutes. Do not boil the soup once the tofu has been added.
  6. Add the scallions: Just before serving, scatter the scallions over the soup.
  7. Serve in individual bowls: Pour the miso soup into individual bowls and serve. Miso is best when served fresh. It will settle a bit as it sits in the broth; whisk briefly with chopsticks or a spoon to mix the soup again.

Recipe Notes

  • Making the dashi: See step-by-step instructions: How To Make Vegan Kombu/Dashi
  • Soaking the dried shiitake mushrooms: Making the vegan dashi broth will leave you with leftover soaked mushrooms, but if you skip the dashi (or make a different one) Soak the mushrooms in room temperature water until they are soft before making the soup. How To Prepare Dried Mushrooms for Cooking
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