Monday, January 18, 2010

Miso Happy

Here's another food project that was inspired by Sandor Elix Katz's Wild Fermentations: Homemade miso! As a cooking adventure, it has exactly what I crave:
  • slightly obscure topic (many people around me didn't know what miso was until I explained it; click here if you fall into that camp, too.);
  • an opportunity to spend lots of time and money to create a readily-available basic ingredient;
  • requires the cooperation of a fungus;
  • involves a quest into the unknown for an unusual ingredient that I may not even recognize if I find it;
  • seems pointless, dangerous and/or impossible to some, yet is, in fact, a venerable folk tradition.

    With no offense to Mr. Katz, I decided that a hippie living in a commune in Kentucky may not be the most reliable source for guidance in this case. Instead, I checked my local library and found The Book of Miso, by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi. It covers everything about miso -- history, manufacture, health benefits, recipes, economic statistics, etc. -- from the charming perspective of the 1970's.

    I made a very common variety called sendai (or red) miso. It's made from soybeans, sea salt, water and polished rice that has been inoculated with a special fungus (Aspergillus oryzae), called koji. Myriad other beneficial bacteria play a role in the year-long transformation of these ingredients into mature miso, and a few spoonfuls of high-quality, unpasteurized commercial miso are added to provide these essential micro-flora.

    The Quest for Koji
    There are two ways to acquire koji: make it yourself or buy it. To make koji, one mixes steamed rice with koji spores (available online and at homebrew supply stores), then holds the rice within a narrow range of temperatures for about 48 hours. (Oh, there's more to it, but that's the basic idea.) I've tried making it as part of homebrewing sake, and wasn't keen to repeat my failure.

    Thus began my quest to find koji for sale within the greater Denver metropolitan region.

    First, I tried the few small mom-and-pop Asian markets in Boulder. They've never heard of it. But I didn't give up.

    Driving south to Broomfield, I visited Pacific Ocean Marketplace. It blew my mind. It's as big as any American-style grocery store, and was therefore at least 20 times larger than any Asian store I'd experienced. After two hours of gawking at durian and jackfruit, pork uterus and frozen ant eggs, noodles and noodles and noodles and noodles, I finally arrived at the relatively miniscule Japanese section at the back of the store.

    Even though I found nothing labeled 'koji' in big, English letters, I didn't give up. After two confusing, cross-lingual conversations with store employees yeilded no results, I still didn't give up. Upon returning to the front of the store, I noticed a small group of Japenese people standing at a table promoting Japanese food.  I explained my Quest to them, figuring that, surely, they could point the way. Blank stares. One of them said, "Nobody makes miso. Even in Japan. We just go buy it." They offered me a cup of lukewarm yakisoba and a survey about my awareness of Japanese cuisine. I paid for my Korean basil seed soda and other treasures and went home.

    Also, I gave up looking for koji.

    ...but not for long. I soon determined that there's a Japanese market in downtown Denver that would be worth a try. Off I went to Pacific Mercantile Company. The food gods were smiling on me that day, for, as I passed a refrigerator case stocked with things-that-are-probably-really-good-if-you-know-what-they're-for, I spied a shelf of quart-size tubs labeled KOJI in large, easy-to-read letters. Disco! Eureka! Huzza!

    Further Preparations
    Miso ferments for at least one full year, so you need a ceramic crock to keep it in. The smallest crocks at my local hardware store cost about $40 and hold two gallons. I wanted to make about a gallon of miso and to spend a lot less than $40 for the whole adventure, let alone just the crock. My wife found me an abandoned ceramic liner from a slow cooker at a thrift store for $5. Bingo.

    The last oddball item I needed before making miso was a solid disc to fit within the crock and help seal the surface of the paste from oxygen while fermenting. I sacrificed one of our old plastic cutting boards and, being nearly incompetent with tools, spent quite some time shaping the plastic to fit the crock. Along the way, I discovered that my crock (and probably most slow cooker crocks) was slightly oblong, so my lid only fits when aligned just so.

    Miso Time
    It was finally time to make miso. First, I sorted and soaked the soybeans, then pressure cooked them until done.

    While the beans cooked, I had time to measure out the koji and salt. Koji looks like chopped-up pre-cooked rice covered in an off-white powder. It smells nutty and mushroomy. (I made amazake with some leftover koji. I'll write a post about it some time later.)

    Some of the cooking liquid from the soy beans is retained for use in the recipe.

    Mash the drained soy beans until about 2/3 smushed.

    Mix the salt with a few tablespoons of mature miso, then mix in the reserved bean cooking liquid.

    Add the koji.

    Add the beans once they've cooled a bit. Mix with other ingredients using clean hands.


    Prepare crock by moistening sides and bottom, then sprinkling with salt. This helps to ward-off spoilage.

    Carefully add the miso paste and smooth the top surface. Sprinkle more salt on top.

    Add a piece of parchment, cut to fit as closely as possible.

    Add the pressing lid.

    Select a 4 or 5 pound rock to weight the lid -- but not just any rock. You need one that possesses a certain ineffible suchness; you'll know it when you find it.  By the way, if you venture forth late at night in the dead of winter to find your special rock, and it happened to have snowed recently, do expect some degree of hassle when locating, assessing and prying your chosen stone from the soil's icy grip. Just sayin'.

    Scrub the stone in the sink when your wife isn't looking, then boil it for 10 minutes to sterilize. Place the stone artfully on the pressing lid.

    Wrap the assemblage securely with newspaper, plastic or, hey, leftover holiday wrapping paper. Label it and put it in an unheated space, such as a shed or garage. As the seasons come and go, the different temperatures help the fermentation process by allowing the koji fungus and the various healthy bacteria to ebb and flow.