Miso soup is a traditional Japanese soup often served as an appetizer at Japanese restaurants. In Japanese homes, it’s commonly served for breakfast with a bowl of rice and a simple protein like broiled fish.
My version is light and brothy but also comforting, savory, lightly smoky, a bit briny like the sea, with just a hint of sweetness. Cubes of silken tofu bulk up the soup to make it more filling while scallions add some freshness.
Miso soup is a dish easily made on a weeknight. Most of the cooking is inactive time and can be made while I’m putting on a pot of rice and making a quick stir-fry or broiling some fish. Or sometimes we’ll eat it alone with rice for a light but filling meal.
This recipe is a pretty classic version aside from my addition of sesame oil and the spicy Japanese dried spice mixture called shichimi togarashi, a mix of red chili powder, Japanese pepper, orange peel, black and white sesame seeds, ginger, and seaweed powder.
What is in Miso Soup?
Miso soup’s base is a broth called dashi that is made from strips of dried kelp (kombu) and dried smoked bonito flakes (katsuobushi). Miso, a salty fermented soybean paste, provides that savoriness called umami as it’s whisked into the broth, giving it a cloudy appearance that settles as it sits.
The simple version of miso soup served at restaurants is sprinkled with scallions and includes cubes of silken tofu as well as a different much thinner variety of seaweed called wakame.
What’s the Best Miso to Use?
I like to use white miso for my soup as I prefer my soup light, in both density and flavor.
However, there is no hard rule for which kind to use. It’s not uncommon to use red miso for a heartier soup or a mix of white and red, smooth or chunky. Due to its shorter fermentation time, white miso has a mild and sweet flavor and is best used for light soups, salad dressings, and marinades for seafood.
Red miso is saltier, more robust and earthier with its longer fermentation and is used for heavier soups and stews and marinades for meat.
There is even a miso paste that has dashi already incorporated into it so that all you need to do is add hot water. I once asked a Japanese friend to recommend a brand of miso and she told me to buy the most expensive one I could afford. When I look through the varieties of miso at the Japanese market, I usually check the ingredients and buy one with only non-GMO soybeans, rice, and salt.
How to Make Dashi
Dashi is a basic stock in the Japanese kitchen arsenal.
It is made by soaking kombu, thick strips of dried kelp, in hot water. The kombu is removed and then katsuobushi, smoked bonito flakes (fish flakes), are added to the water to infuse then strained out. This resulting pale yellow stock with its smoky and slightly briny taste is the backbone of much of Japanese cooking.
Dashi is used not only for clear soups like miso soup, but also in dipping sauces, savory egg custards, and for poaching or braising. Once dashi is made, it can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week.
I first learned to make miso soup when I assisted Japanese cookbook author, Elizabeth Andoh, during a cooking demonstration of Japanese dishes that focused on the cuisine's basic ingredients.
She made dashi the traditional way and showed us beautiful large pink shavings of smoked bonito. She also showed us instant dashi granules and pre-measured packets of much smaller and darker bonito flakes. There’s no shame in making your life easier by using them as they are regularly used in Japanese households.
What is Dashi Powder?
Dashi powder is to dashi the way chicken bouillon is to chicken broth. Instant dashi is made from dried bonito powder and extract, salt, sugar, and other seasonings and additives. Often it includes MSG. (Note that dried kelp is a natural source of MSG.)
Dashi powder is used by either dissolving it in water or sprinkling it directly into a dish while cooking, the way you would with any other dried seasoning. It’s a very convenient option when you need only a small amount of dashi. The instant dashi brand I see most often is Hondashi.
While kombu, bonito flakes, wakame, and miso are becoming more readily available at well-stocked supermarkets, I prefer to shop for these items at a Japanese market. They are also sold at Chinese and Korean markets but not usually with as large of a variety as at Japanese markets.
Tips and Tricks for Making Miso Soup
Miso soup is easy to make but here are some important tidbits of info you should know before you start cooking:
- Many cooks will rinse the kelp or gently wipe away the white powdery residue with a damp towel. I skip this step because that white residue, called mannitol, provides a lot of umami and flavors the soup.
- Take the kelp out of the water before it comes to a boil or it can impart a bitter flavor and make the broth slimy.
- Once the kelp and bonito flakes are removed from the dashi, it’s safe to bring to a boil. Don’t boil the soup after the miso is added or you’ll lose a lot of the nutrients. Miso is a source of probiotics and contains choline, niacin, folate, and vitamin K.
- In order to dissolve the miso without leaving any large lumps, submerge a large fine mesh sieve into the dashi and whisk the miso in the broth sitting inside of the sieve. If your miso is on the chunky side and there are residual bits (of soybeans) left in the sieve, feel free to scrape it into the soup.
- You can also dissolve the miso with a fork in a bowl or cup with a little bit of dashi, then pour the mixture back into the pot.
Ingredient Swaps and Substitutions
While my recipe is for the classic preparation of miso soup using white miso, here are some other options you might want to try:
- Use red miso or a combination of red and white miso for a heartier, more robust soup.
- Use dashi granules in a pinch for a much quicker almost instant version.
Miso Soup Variations
There are endless varieties of miso soups, depending on regions and personal preferences. Go beyond the classic miso soup and try these versions:
- Make a vegan version substituting dried mushrooms and their soaking liquid for the bonito flakes.
- For a heartier version, cook vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and kabocha squash in the dashi before whisking in the miso.
- Wilt greens like watercress or spinach in the soup right before adding the miso.
Miso Soup Serving Suggestions
Typically after a stretch of greasy, rich, and heavy foods, I like to serve my family large bowls of miso soup accompanied with a small bowl of rice to balance our diet. Otherwise, I’ll do as the Japanese do and serve smaller bowls of soup with rice and some broiled mackerel or salmon and a simple sautéed veg. I've also been known to pair it with kimchi.
How to Store Miso Soup
Miso soup is best eaten right away or it loses its freshness. If you do have leftovers, it will still taste fine, just not as good. When reheating, be sure to remove the pot from the heat just as it comes to a simmer, as a lot of the nutrients in miso are lost if the miso is boiled. Eat it up within 3 days.
As an alternative, the dashi can be made ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. When you’re ready to serve it, bring the dashi to a boil and then whisk the miso into the soup.
More Ways to Enjoy Miso!
- Winter Chicken Salad with Tangy Miso Dressing
- Grilled Oysters with Spicy Miso Butter
- Steak Noodle Bowls with Miso Lime Dressing
- Stir Fried Japanese Eggplant with Ginger and Miso
- Miso Glazed Chicken Wings
- 2 tablespoons dried precut wakame seaweed
- 1 (14x2 1/2-inch) piece of dried kelp (kombu)
- 8 cups water
- 2 cups (20g) large dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi), lightly packed
- 1/3 cup white miso paste
- 1 (16 ounce) package silken tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1 scallion, thinly sliced
- 1/8 teaspoon shichimi togarashi (optional)
- Steamed rice, to serve
Rehydrate the wakame:
Put the wakame into a medium bowl and cover with hot water. Let it rehydrate until it unfurls and softens, about 5 minutes. Drain the wakame, rinse with cold water, and squeeze it dry using your hands. The wakame will expand quite a bit so chop it into bite-size pieces and set it aside until ready to use.
Make the dashi:
While the wakame is soaking, put the dried kelp and water into a 5 1/2-quart pot. Heat over medium heat until it’s just about to come to a simmer, 15 to 20 minutes. The kombu will have expanded quite a bit and the water should be pale yellow. Remove the kombu from the pot and discard it.
Add bonito flakes:
Add the bonito flakes to the pot and bring it to a boil. Remove the pot from the heat. The flakes will float in a soggy layer on top of the water. Let the flakes sink to the bottom of the pot and let them steep for 15 minutes.
Strain the dashi:
Set a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl or an 8-cup glass measuring cup. Pour the dashi through the strainer. You should have what looks like a golden broth. Discard the bonito flakes and rinse out the strainer, you’ll use it again. Wipe any residue from the pot and return the dashi to the pot.
Whisk in the miso:
Bring the dashi to a simmer over medium heat. Submerge the strainer into the dashi. Add the miso to the strainer submerged in the dashi and whisk to dissolve.
Do not let the soup come to a boil. You can scrape the little bits of soybeans from the miso into the soup if you want.
Alternatively, you can dissolve the miso with a fork in a small bowl or cup of the dashi and then pour it all back into the pot.
Finish the soup:
Add the tofu and wakame to the soup and let them warm through, about 3 minutes. Drizzle the soup with sesame oil and garnish with scallions and togarashi.
Ladle the miso into bowls. Serve with the rice.