I was never a soup person. I only had it when I was sick or felt a quick bout of motivation to watch my calories. Then miso soup entered my life and my inertia for soups took the exit.
Unsurprisingly, the core ingredient of miso soup is miso paste which is made of fermented soybeans mixed with salt and koji which is a kind of fungus. Some recipes are also peppered with barley, rye, rice, other grains, as well as seaweed.
The fermentation process can take anywhere between 2 to 6 months or even more. The longer the miso is aged, the more complex its flavors get. Longer aged miso paste is darker in color (somewhere between red and reddish-brown) due to the Maillard reaction.
The use of miso paste in Japanese cuisine extends far beyond miso soup and ramen broth.
Types of Miso and Their Uses
In order to come up with the best miso paste substitute for the specific dish you’re cooking, you need to have a basic idea of the different types of miso available. Each type has a distinct quality that complements certain dishes.
White Miso or Shiro Miso
You will find this variety in almost every Asian store in the States, at least I do. This is the mildest, lightly sweet version of miso and is usually made of fermented soybeans, koji, barley, and rice.
Its mellow taste and light color make it a perfect accompaniment for basic soups and stews, ramen broth.
It’s ideal for marinades and salad dressing as well as for making miso butter (spread it on sandwiches, melt it on your steaks, grilled meats, and fishes for instant umami boost and glaze).
Yellow Miso or Shinshu Miso
Slightly darker in color than white miso and typically contains more soybeans and barley than white miso. Moreover, yellow miso is fermented for a longer period which results in more salinity and acidity.
I personally find it the most versatile miso variant as it can be used in any way you intend to use it, be it as a marinade, condiment, or as a flavor enhancer for dishes like kimchi mushroom stew.
Red Miso or Aka Miso
Aged for a considerably longer period than white and yellow miso, red miso has a more pungent flavor and a dark/rusty-red hue. The intensity and depth of flavors it can bring to a dish make it a great choice for marinades, rich stews, and soups.
Red miso combined with Korean red pepper flakes or gochugaru, rice vinegar, sesame oil, and a dash of brown sugar/honey is my go-to substitute for gochujang paste when I’m craving some fiery Korean stir-fried pork and noodles.
A sub-variety of red miso is genmai miso or brown miso which is made of brown rice and is ideal for slow-cooked dishes and hearty soups. Then there’s the gluten-free, super-rich, and flavorful mame miso for those who like their miso extra pungent.
Lastly, we’ve got mugi miso which has a more pronounced malty flavor due to the higher percentage of barley malt. It tastes pretty sweet, hence ideal for certain kinds of sauces.
This is a specialty miso paste that combines the mild sweet sensation of white miso with the robust, complex flavors of red miso. It’s a wonderfully balanced miso variant that adds oodles of flavors to hearty soups and works as a great barbecue marinade as well.
10 Best Miso Paste Substitutes You Can’t Go Wrong With
1. Soy Sauce
The easiest miso substitute there ever was or will be, period. Both soy sauce and miso contain fermented soybeans and salt. However, soy sauce is usually way saltier and lacks the creaminess of miso paste. So start with just ½ tsp of soy sauce for 1 tbsp of miso and work your way from there.
2. Fish Sauce
Need a substitute specifically for dark miso paste? Try ½ tsp fish sauce to sub 1 tbsp of miso. Dark miso bursts with prismatic flavors of umami, salty, tangy, pungent with a hint of sweetness. Made of fermented anchovies and salt, fish sauce exhibits a very similar flavor profile. Zhuzh it up with a dash of rice vinegar if your dish needs more acidity.
3. Fermented Soybean Paste or Doenjang
Texture and taste-wise, it’s decidedly similar to mame miso. Plain fermented soybean paste can be very salty, therefore, start with a salt amount and adjust the quantity as you cook. You can use Doenjang as a miso alternative for all kinds of soup, stews, and condiments.
4. Vegetable Bouillon Powder or Cube
This would be a decent, low-cost option for literally any soup or broth other than miso soup. Albeit it will lack the funky, malty kick of miso, your soups will taste delicious.
Quite similar in consistency, tahini paste would be a nice mild alternative to white miso. Made of ground sesame seeds, tahini paste has a strong nutty flavor as opposed to the salty, pungent flavors of miso.
If you aren’t a big fan of pungent food but are an ardent admirer of umami, consider replacing tbsp miso 1-1.5 tbsp of tahini for salad dressings and dipping sauces. Note that it won’t work well for dishes that call for a large quantity of miso.
6. Red Bean Paste
Liked the idea of using tahini instead of miso but out of tahini? Consider red bean paste made of adzuki beans. It has a deep, earthy, and sweet flavor which makes it a good alternative to Shiro miso. That being said, red bean paste can be too sweet for some people’s liking, so be mindful of the quantity.
7. Yellow Bean Paste
This uniquely flavorful paste is made of fermented yellow soybeans, salt, and order. A staple of Beijing cuisine, yellow bean paste is arguably the closest thing to yellow miso paste you can get.
8. Black Bean Paste
I have successfully replaced dark miso with Chinese black bean paste in slow-cooked dishes and as a marinade for grilled chicken. Chinese black bean is bursting with salty, spicy, savory, pungent, and sweet notes.
9. Anchovy Paste
Contains a sharp, strong flavor of small fishes fermented with salt. Adding ¼ tsp of anchovy paste for 1 tbsp of miso should level up your hearty soups and stews.
This umami-bomb is essentially a darker, richer, less salty Japanese relative of regular soy sauce. It’s gluten-free, just like genmai miso paste. Use it fr stir-fries, marinade, or as a dipping sauce if you enjoy strong, sharp flavors.
So that was the 10 best miso paste substitutes that work like a charm if you use them in appropriate quantities. While you can always use miso powder, it won’t simply have the same depth of flavors as a high-quality miso paste.