Thursday, April 17, 2014

Making Miso 101

My home-made chickpea miso is the key ingredient to making flavorful vegan kimchee.

Koji is key to miso fermentation.
By now I’m sure most everyone has had miso soup; it’s made with a thick savory paste that is as ubiquitous to the Japanese table as ketchup and mustard are to ours; miso adds umami to soup stocks, vegetables, fish, chicken and pork. The most common type of miso is kome, which ranges from off-white (shiro) to dark red (aka) depending on how long it has been aged; it’s made by fermenting a paste of soybeans, salt and koji—rice treated with a cultured fungus called Aspergillus Oryza. Other varieties use cultured grains such as barley, buckwheat, hemp and rye. One variety, mame miso, is made with steamed soybeans and no grain. It’s similar to Korean doenjang.

I took an intensive workshop with chef Natsuko Yamawaki where I first learned the traditional method of fermenting kome miso. Natsuko is an accomplished chef who focuses on innovative macrobiotic Japanese cuisine. Since her workshop I’ve experimented with other beans—the flavor and texture of my chickpea miso outperform any of the commercial brands, some which use wheat fillers, MSG, alginate, corn syrup and preservatives. All these additives flatten and deliver a compromised flavor. Others are pureed and fermented at higher temperatures to hasten fermentation.

Authentic, traditional miso is rich in probiotics, micro nutrients and antioxidants; it has all the essential amino acids which form a complete protein. Miso is said to lower LDL cholesterol and protect against radiation and heavy metal poisoning. That being said, I just love the way it tastes; it’s high in glutamic acid which gives it a complex salty, nutty and sweet umami flavor. So get your beans ready and let’s make a small batch of white miso. You can purchase koji online or at most Japanese grocery stores—the brand that I use is Cold Mountain but there are a few other North American brands you can purchase online.

You’ll need:
  • 12 oz dried soybeans
  • 10 oz dried koji
  • 4 oz fine sea salt (not iodized salt)
  • 1.5 oz coarse or fine sea salt (for salt cap)
  • water for soaking and cooking
  • stock pot with lid or pressure cooker
  • glass jar and small tub for mashing beans
  • silicon spatula
  • colander
  • wire mesh skimmer or small strainer
  • vodka or grain alcohol and a paper towel for cleaning
  • plastic wrap
  • large clean mason jar (1/2 gallon)
Sort and discard any impurities and discolored soybeans. Soak them overnight in the refrigerator (12 to 18 hours) using twice the volume of water than beans; for a small batch you can use a pitcher. The soybeans will have expanded into plump ovals. After soaking drain and rinse beans well in cold water by rubbing them with your hands.

In a stock pot: Place the beans in a stock pot and fill to twice the volume of beans with water. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for an hour stirring every 15 minutes; remove the foamy film and any loose skins that float to the top with a small strainer or wire mesh skimmer. Cover and simmer for another 1 1/2 to 2 hours until the beans are very soft. You should be able to crush them with your fingers. Drain the beans in a colander and reserve the cooking liquid.

In a pressure cooker: I have an old-fashioned stove top pressure cooker... the one with the nozzle on top. Although I’ve never had a mishap with mine I’m terrified of it so I follow the instructions and cooking chart for soaked beans carefully. Cooking time will vary with different models. Repeat the instructions for simmering and skimming as for the stock pot, then attach the lid securely.

My Presto Pressure Cooker instructions call for cooking at high heat for 12 minutes; the nozzle starts dancing and hissing, the pressure lock pops up and then I leave the room with my my cellphone set to 911 on speed dial as I try to block out the childhood memory of an exploding pressure cooker in our kitchen... after that I turn off the range and allow the pressure cooker to rest for 40 more minutes. Heat and pressure are directly proportional, this fact shortens cooking time. A pressure cooker can reach a steam temperature of 250 °F, depending on altitude. When the pressure lock returns to the safety position, I remove the lid and then drain the beans in a colander reserving the cooking liquid for later.

When compared with slow-simmering in a stock pot, my Presto pressure cooker cuts cooking time in half.

Koji and fine sea salt
Allow beans to cool to around 88-92°F; higher temperatures will kill the active aspergillus oryza fungus in koji. You can use a thermometer or just check the temperature with your finger.

Work with clean hand before handling koji! Wash well with warm water and soap and dry with a clean towel. This will ensure that there is no contamination. NEVER use anti-microbial solution to clean your hands or work surfaces and tools, this will destroy koji and any beneficial microbes. Return any unused portion of koji and refrigerate. You can use the original product container or a clean plastic bag.

Place koji into a clean bowl and with mix with 4 oz of fine sea salt until all contents are evenly distributed. Set this dry mix aside. Place the warm soybeans into a small tub and crush them with the bottom of a glass jar or a bean masher. The goal here is to create a texture with verisimilitude, not to make peanut butter. This paste should have some broken beans, but no whole beans. As you mash with a dragging motion, scrape down the edges of the tub with a spatula and add a some of the cooking liquid a half-cup at a time until you achieve the thickness and texture of lumpy mashed potatoes. You’ll notice the tiny threads of protein that form by crushing and mashing.

The reserved cooking liquid is used to add moisture to the cooked soy beans as you mash.

I’ve used a food processor for milling soybeans and found that the texture was consistent but had a light sandy texture. After that batch of miso was fully fermented I found that it lacked depth and was not as flavorful as when I had mashed it by hand, but it did cut down on fermentation time.

Add half the amount of koji to the soybean paste and mix well with a spatula, then add the remaining portion of koji and mix until all contents are evenly incorporated. Add more of the cooking liquid if your paste is too thick. In the end your paste should be as firm as dough. Roll balls that are about 2" in diameter and throw them into a clean mason jar. When the jar is one-third full pack with a spatula to remove an air pockets. Repeat until there is at least an inch of space from the mouth of the jar.

Koji and salt are incorporated into the mashed soy beans to make a thick paste.
Clean and sterilize the mouth and mason jar with a little vodka and a clean paper towel. Remove any residue on the threads; it will make removing the lid almost impossible over time. Cut a square of plastic wrap that is about an inch wider than the jar and place in the jar on top of the miso. Make a “salt cap” by pouring 1.5 oz of fine sea salt over the plastic and place lid on tightly. Be sure to label it by date. Ferment at room temperature out of direct light; a kitchen cabinet of food pantry work perfectly. Check your miso for any contamination every two weeks and clean the outside of the jar as needed. After four months, use a small spoon to taste your progress; taste it once a month to ensure quality and wipe the lip and threads of the jar before putting on the lid. Kome miso will ferment from six months to a year, depending on the flavor and texture you prefer, after which you will store it in the refrigerator to halt fermentation. You can transfer it to smaller containers.

Now wait a minute, I have six months to a year until I have miso? Yep, and azuki bean miso made with cultured barley is preferably aged for three years. White miso takes the least amount of time, but it does build more character and complex flavor with age. When it takes on an amber tone, it’s considered ready. After a year when it turns walnut brown it takes on wonderful salty, tart quality. Using more koji than soybeans (5:4 ratio) hastens the process; some say it’s ready in four weeks. Using more koji makes a light colored miso that’s sweeter with less nuance. Hastening the process may also shorten the shelf life of this living food.

You may want to use other beans, or combinations of different beans. My red lentil miso was ready in five weeks, but it’s not as good as miso made with soybeans. I added a little pureed garlic and carrots to give it more character. Over time the orange color disappeared and gave way to the usual amber tones. I use it for soups, marinades and making other fermented foods, but I’d never serve it at the table. Chickpeas are slightly grainy in texture but will also ferment in a shorter amount of time, around four to five months. I have yet to try black beans, green lentils or raw peanuts. For your first white miso it’s worth the wait for at least six months to get the full umami experience, and if you’re going to wait that long make a larger batch to make it worth your while.

ETA six months to a year until this shiro miso umami bomb will be detonated, but some types of miso only take six week.

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