The second time I met Nancy Singleton Hachisu, author of Japanese Farm Food, she tried to convince me to make my own miso. More accurately, she tried to convince me (and a fellow food editor at Food & Wine) to produce a story about making miso. “It’s so easy!” she said. She described the process, saying how you mash soy beans with cultured grain, salt and a starter in February or March so it has at least a month to rest at cold temperatures before fermenting throughout the summer. The process sounded cool, but I knew that a recipe with a six-month-long lead time would never fly. A story about Nancy on her farm, however, would, so that’s what we did.
Last year, Nancy’s second book, the newly James Beard Award nominated (!) Preserving the Japanese Way, was published. I expected a slim follow-up to the farm food book. Nope, this one is just as big. The more time I spend with the book, the more I love it and see how important it is.
You see, for the past few years, chefs and food cognoscenti have been obsessing about fermentation and waxing on about umami this and that. This book showcases how to make many of these fermented, umami-rich ingredients, including soy sauce and miso as well as lesser known koji (which I wrote about here) and Japanese-style fish sauce. The book also covers other types of traditional preserving, including salt-pickling, vinegar making and air-drying.
If you glance at the book, I would excuse you for thinking that it’s a little out there. (Not many cookbook authors would dare to include a recipe for half-dried barracuda, for example.) But even if you never plan to brew your own soy sauce or ferment your own miso, Preserving the Japanese Way is still useful because Nancy shows you intriguing ways to use these Japanese ingredients, which are widely available at supermarkets. Much like Japanese Farm Food, many of the recipes call for only four to six ingredients. For example, a carrot salad with miso vinaigrette is nothing more than julienned carrots, sliced scallions, miso, brown rice vinegar and oil. For another salad, cucumber are marinated with dried chiles, ginger and soy sauce.
After my recent move from Brooklyn to Bucks County, I decided that a fun way to start my new life outside the city would be to make miso. The hardest part of the recipe, really, is tracking down the ingredients and the fermentation vessel. I cheated, a bit, and purchased a kit of sorts from The Brooklyn Kitchen (which recently hosted a miso-making class. Get on the list for next year!) The kit included already-cooked soybeans, so all I had to do was mix everything together and mash. Whether you cook them yourself or not, mashing them is a great way to earn that post-work cocktail.
- 2 pounds (1 kg) best-quality non-GMO soybeans
- 2 teaspoons best-quality organic miso to use as seed miso for the new batch
- 2 pounds (1 kg) brown rice koji
- 14 ounces (400 g) fine white sea salt
- Soak the soybeans for 18 hours in a large pot of cold filtered water. Drain the beans, return them to the pot, and refill the pot to about 5 inches above the beans. Bring to a boil over high heat, lower to a simmer and cook for about 1½ to 2 hours, uncovered, until the beans are soft. The idea here is to simmer the beans in just enough liquid so they cook well but eventually, most of the liquid is boiled away by the time the beans are cooked. The beans can also be cooked in batches in a pressure cooker for about 20 minutes over high heat.
- While the beans are cooking, slowly whisk ½ cup (125 cc) hot water into the 2 teaspoons seed miso and cool to room temperature. (The solution is like a very thin miso soup in consistency.)
- Drain the cooked beans and start mashing them to a coarse consistency. I like the grind them roughly in batches in a Japanese grinding bowl (suribachi). Alternatively, you could run the cooked soybeans through a sterilized meat grinder. Or you can opt for the low-tech squeeze between your thumb and index finger method. When the beans are smashed to your satisfaction, (chunky or smooth), they will also be cooled enough to measure in the rice koji—they should be just off warm at the most (too hot and it kills the spores). Sprinkle in about 80% of the salt along with the seed miso (miso thinned with water). Knead well to distribute the rice koji and salt with the mashed beans.
- * Note—for an unseasonably warm winter, you can mix in all of the salt here.
- Form tennis ball-sized spheres of bean mash and throw them into a larger crockery pot, small wooden barrel or food-graded plastic vat with all of your might. Whack! Splat! The container should be set on the floor and it probably makes sense to have a piece of plastic sheeting underneath the container to catch any misthrows. You are looking for a satisfying splat that sounds like a thunk rather than a kind of slurp. (Or if you are lazy, like me, with stunningly bad aim), you might mash the balls with your fist and heel of your hand to ensure that all air pockets have been filled. The bean mash should only fill the container about half full. Pat down the surface of the mash with the flat of your palm and sprinkle with the remaining 20% portion of salt.
- Smooth a clean muslin cloth [Kristin's note: I used a double layer of cheesecloth] across the surface of the mash and let is drape down over the sides of the container to keep out flying leaves and the debris.
- Place a wooden or plastic drop lid on top of the cover mash surface and weight it evenly with 4 ½ pounds (2 kg) of rocks or other heavy objects.
- Cover with one more large muslin cloth and wind some twin a couple of times around the barrel to tie the cloth in place. The cloth will act as mold barrier and will become scarily dusted with green mode spores, so don't skip or replace with plastic. Carefully remove to wash when you stir the miso.
- Let young miso sit undisturbed in a shaded area outside until the weather warms. From May, start stirring the miso about once a month to avoid mold as the fermentation arc starts to ramp up. During the hottest period, you should probably stir the miso (from the bottom up) every 2 weeks to avid mold forming. Ideally, the weather should become muggy, and the temperatures should rise to about 100°F (38°F) at the height of the summer. Avoid direct sunlight. If you see any mold on the surface, carefully scrape it off. Clean the inside of the container with a vodka-soaked cloth to deter mold.
- Taste the miso after the summer to see if it has mellowed to your liking. At this point, you can refrigerate it or just leave the miso in its fermenting container until you start the next batch in the coming winter. No need for weights once the miso is done. You can leave it outside if the weather is cool; otherwise, store it in the fridge.