Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Food Fight: Doenjang vs Miso

Too fresh to eat, mashed chickpeas will transform into sweet and savory miso in about six to eight months.

Soybeans are simmered and cooled.
I started making my own miso after taking an intensive work shop with Brooklyn-based chef Natsuko Yamawaki. She specializes in macrobiotic Japanese cuisine. I learned so much about the process. I made three type of miso this past Sunday: traditional soybean, chickpea and red lentil. By winter 18 pounds will be ready to eat—a long slow fermentation that’s worth the wait. Hand crafted miso adds a deep savory flavor to my vegan kimchee. Korean doenjang and Japanese miso are both rich in nutrients, amino acids and glutamic acid, each going through distinctly different microbial transformations.

Doenjang (which means thick paste) is made by slowly simmering dried soybeans, grinding them into a rough thick paste and then forming blocks (meju). These blocks are covered with dried rice stalks, a source of bacillus subtilis, and are dry-cured for two to three months. The bacterial activity produces a strong, pungent aroma as the nitrogen in soy protein breaks down into ammonia. These fermented blocks are further fermented in an earthen vessel of brine until it separates into liquid and solids which are further refined into Korean soy sauce (ganjang) and a heavily salted paste called donejang. In general I think doenjang has a more intense, rustic quality in flavor and texture than its Japanese counterparts; it’s slightly sour and salty, with a light nutty flavor, with a base flavor that harkens to kimchee.

Miso, on the other hand, is fermented with a cultured mold called koji, instead of bacteria. Koji is made by inoculating cooked rice with aspergillus oryzae. It is the essential ingredient used to make rice wine (saki), a rice sweetener (amazake), soy sauce (shoyu) and of course miso. It can be sold as dried or fresh. As with doenjang, dried soy beans are slowly cooked until they soften. The cooked dried soybeans are pounded into a fine paste then mixed with koji, fine sea salt and the reserved cooking liquid to form a firm paste. Unlike miso, doenjang is fermented purely with soybeans and salt; rice grains or other starches are not used in production.

Dried soy beans are cooked and pounded into warm paste. Koji and salt are mixed in as the beans cool.

Fresh miso paste is rolled into balls then packed tightly into a clay jars and covered in a thick layer of salt. It will cure for six months to a year to develop a complex savory flavor known as umami. Miso will darken as it ages. Color and flavor vary with ingredients; red miso is made with barley koji and red azuki bean instead of soybean. Some types of miso are aged for over three years.

“Why make miso when there are many store bought brands?” I’m often asked. I’m guaranteed a better quality when I make my own and I’m assured of purity. When you read the label you’ll find that some brands use wheat or corn starch as filler. Some brands also add corn syrup, MSG, preservatives, food dye and emulsifiers. Higher quality miso is made with rice, beans and sea salt only. Miso that is mechanically blended is very smooth, which shortens fermentation, but lacks subtlety and depth of flavor. I’ve used a food processor to make miso, but have concluded that I prefer the texture made by mashing the cooked beans; it has depth, verisimilitude and texture that sits well on the tongue. If I want a more refined texture I mash it further with the broad side of my knife. Making miso and doenjang is a time-invested production but worth the toil. Depending on the flavor you are trying to achieve, both can take from several months to years to make.

But one simply can not make everything. I have never made my own doenjang; I buy a good quality pre-made brand to make ssamjang, a seasoned Korean condiment. It’s rather pricey and it does have fillers and corn syrup, but it is very convenient. Making doenjang is not an ideal task for the home environment; the strong aroma it creates as it ferments might evoke Federal activity. Miso on other hand barely emits an odor as it cures, which makes it suitable for production in an urban setting. My miso is heavily salted. It’s not meant for eating but for making my vegan Korean chili paste for kimchee fermentation.

Balls of fresh miso are packed tightly into large jars and sealed with a layer of salt.


  1. Thanks for this post. It is very informative, and it answers some questions I have always wondered about regarding the difference in different colors of miso and how soy bean pastes vary between Japanese and Korean cuisine.

  2. Thanks SP, the aging process is definitely a factor to color for miso. There are also many other factors, such as the type of legume. Miso is a key ingredient to my vegan kimchee. I make my own to guarantee purity and flavor.

  3. I really enjoyed & learned new things from this post. Thanks for sharing.
    Do you use a traditional stoneware vessel to ferment your miso?