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Miso soup delivers simple, warming satisfaction in a snap

Sipped out of a small bowl, misoshiru, or miso soup, is an essential part of many Japanese meals, including breakfast.  (Rey Lopez/For the Washington Post)
Sipped out of a small bowl, misoshiru, or miso soup, is an essential part of many Japanese meals, including breakfast. (Rey Lopez/For the Washington Post)
By G. Daniela Galarza Washington Post

There are many ways to use miso in everyday cooking. Baker and blogger Aran Goyoaga adds miso to cake batter in her newest cookbook, “Cannelle et Vanille Bakes Simple.” In “Greenfeast: Autumn, Winter,” cookbook author Nigel Slater uses miso as a crunchy coating for sauteed Brussels sprouts. And in their book “Ideas in Food,” chefs Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa augment pasta dough with miso.

The fermented paste, an essential ingredient in Japanese cooking, has been used as a cheese-y cheat and fast marinade, in dressings and sauces, braises and roasts. Indeed, it’s “a seasoning powerhouse with tons of range,” as my colleague Aaron Hutcherson wrote in his recent guide to miso. But to appreciate miso in perhaps its purest expression, consider miso soup.

Sipped out of a small bowl, misoshiru is an essential part of many Japanese meals. At its most basic, it consists of miso stirred into hot broth at a ratio of 1 tablespoon of miso to 1 cup of broth. Because the saltiness of miso can vary significantly, Sokono Sakai, instructor and author of “Japanese Home Cooking,” notes that cooks should adjust the ratio to their tastes.

The broth is traditionally dashi, a simple stock, and the simplest dashi is made by simmering a strip of kombu, a type of kelp, in water. There are, of course, many types of dashi. It can be made from bones, vegetable trimmings, mushrooms, herbs or fermented fish. The recipe below is for a common dashi made from kombu and bonito flakes, shavings from a block of cooked, smoked, dried and pressed bonito, or skipjack tuna.

Together, the kombu and bonito add richness and an oceanic minerality to the clear broth. Once the dashi is ready, other ingredients may be added, either precooked or to cook in the broth: tiny prawns, cubes of silken tofu, clams, mushrooms, greens, cabbage, squash, potatoes or other root vegetables, eggs, noodles, citrus zest and scallions.

Keep seasonality and simplicity in mind when you decide what to add to your miso soup. It’s meant to “whet your appetite, and that first sip will bring you the taste of the season,” Sakai writes. A summery miso soup might feature tomatoes and corn; in the winter, dried mushrooms and root vegetables could be added.

The last step is the most important: With the dashi just warm – but never boiling – miso is added. Instantly, the broth turns cloudy and creamy. But delicious secrets hide below its murky surface. In the simplest miso soup, the miso’s nutty umami shines. In variations with many additions, the miso provides a well-lit stage, a bold backdrop to whatever goodness the season may bring.

Miso Soup

This recipe is for a basic miso soup. Here are ways to adapt it to your tastes using what you have on hand. The only essential ingredient is miso. Many varieties of comforting miso soup are served in Japan, where it is often part of breakfast. We added thinly sliced scallions, but you may augment the soup with toasted sesame seeds, watercress, blanched sugar snap or snow peas, cubed tofu, seaweed or pretty much anything else you would want in soup.

A general rule is that for every cup of liquid, add no more than 1 tablespoon of miso. For a more flavorful effect, use a darker miso. For a milder flavor, add a splash of soy, sake or mirin. To blend miso into a hot liquid, place the miso in a container and ladle in about 1 cup of the liquid, stirring or whisking until combined.

Slowly return the mixture to the pot and stir to combine. Do not subject miso to heat above a bare simmer if you wish to preserve its live enzymatic activity. Want to make the dashi vegan, or just don’t eat fish? Omit the bonito flakes. Can’t find kombu? You can order it online or use any kind of store-bought or homemade stock as the base for your miso soup.

The miso is a must, but if you are sensitive to salt, start with half as much, and then taste the soup, adding more as needed. To make this a meal, add cooked noodles or rice; cooked and pulled chicken, meat or fish; whole shellfish; finely sliced or chopped hardy greens, squash, sweet potatoes, broccoli or cauliflower; cubes of tofu; sliced mushrooms; or a couple of scrambled eggs, which will poach in the warm broth.

For the dashi:

4 cups water

1 (3-by-4-inch) piece kombu

1 cup bonito flakes

For the miso soup:

4 cups dashi (from the recipe above)

3 to 4 tablespoons miso (preferably 2 tablespoons (red) miso and 2 tablespoons shiro (white) miso)

1½ tablespoons mirin, cooking sake or soy sauce (optional)

2 scallions (white and green parts), minced (optional)

Make the dashi: In a medium pot over medium-high heat, bring the water and kombu to almost but not quite a boil. Remove from the heat and, using tongs, remove and discard the kombu. Add the bonito flakes and set aside, uncovered, for about 15 minutes. The bonito should sink to the bottom of the pot. Strain, several times if necessary, until the broth is clear. The dashi is most flavorful when used right away; you can refrigerate it until needed, but its flavor will start to diminish after 1 day.

Make the miso soup: In a medium pot over medium heat, heat the dashi until hot, but do not let it come to a boil. Remove from the heat.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the miso with about ½ cup of the hot dashi until the miso is incorporated into the liquid. Pour this mixture back in the pot and stir to combine. Season to taste with mirin, sake or soy sauce, if desired. Add scallions, if using, and serve. (The miso causes the soup to become cloudy after it sits for a few moments. This is OK.)

Yield: 4 servings (about 4 cups)

Where to buy: Bonito flakes and store-bought dashi can be found at Asian markets or online. Kombu, miso and mirin can be found at Asian markets or well-stocked supermarkets.

Dashi recipe adapted from chef Koji Terano. Miso soup recipe adapted from a recipe by writer Renee Schettler.

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