Homemade Sendai miso
Sendai miso has a rich and savory salty flavor with subtly sweet undertones. This type of miso, taking advantage of seasonal temperature fluctuations and thus taking the longest to prepare, would have been made by farming families in the northeast provinces of Japan. I remember seeing huge pots of this type of miso when I was growing up in Nagano. Other major types of miso are Shinshuu, which is mellow yellow in color, and white, made in the Kyoto area.
Since bacteria and molds are most abundant in a warmer weather and can foster unwanted molds, miso is best prepared in winter months when bacteria activities are the lowest, sometime between November and March.
Ingredients for approximately 20 lbs. of finished miso
- 5 lbs. raw soybeans
- 5 lbs. kōji
- 2.7 lbs. sea salt or kosher salt. For the best price, check Korean groceries. Rock salt for pickling can also be used if the grains are very small.
- Optional—some (up to 1 cup) of your favorite seed miso (commercial or homemade)
Utensils you will need:
- A pressure cooker or a large cooking pot (crab pot or pasta pot)
- A food processor, a blender, or a potato masher
- Large bowls
- A large picnic cooler with a lid, cleaned with hot soapy water and bleach
- Sturdy (wooden) spatulas for mixing
- Household bleach
To pack the miso for fermentation, you will need:
- A ceramic pickling jar, a plastic bucket, or a plastic trash bin, large enough to hold 20 lbs. of miso (about 2.5 gallons) and still leaves approximately 2 to 3 inches of space up on top. If plastic, select one that is dark in color. A lid that will fit tightly inside the jar, made of non-reactive materials such as wood, glass, ceramic, etc. I used a stiff plastic tray for catching excess water that goes under plants (snip to size if needed). A 20 gal. black plastic bag, a large grocery store brown paper bag, or a paper bag large enough to cover the miso container.
- Plastic wrap
- One 1-gallon plastic water jug, with a twist-on cap
- A spatula or a rice paddle
- The day before, soak the soybeans overnight (10 to 12 hours) in 3 times the amount of cold water. Make sure that the container is large enough to accommodate the swelling of the beans.
- On the miso-making day, wash all the cooking utensils, miso containers, and other tools thoroughly with very hot, soapy, and bleachy water. Rinse and wipe dry. Also keep clean hands.
- Cook the soybeans in the pressure cooker (20-25 minutes at 15 lbs.) in small batches. (Follow the manufacturer's directions! Do not overload the cooker as the beans will foam during cooking.) If using an ordinary pot, cook until the beans break up easily when pressed between the thumb and the index finger, 1.5 to 2 hours. Drain and keep the cooked beans warm in the picnic cooler. (If working in batches, mash the beans at this time, while the next batch is cooking. Keep the mashed beans warm.)
Reserve about 2 cups of the hot water in which the beans were cooked.
- While the beans are cooking, prepare the kōji. In the food processor or blender, process the kōji with a metal blade until it is well pulverized. (This process takes a while, at least on my equipment, so you might want to do this ahead of time.) Breaking kōji into small pieces in this way makes it easier to distribute it in the mixture and helps prevent kōji from floating up when miso soup is made.
- Process the cooked beans in the food processor in small batches for a few seconds until the desired consistency is achieved. If doing this by hand, use a potato masher. (Thoroughly process the mixture for smooth miso. Alternatively, leave some beans intact, if you prefer. I think the more thoroughly the miso is mashed at this stage, more quickly it will mature.) I find that mashing by hand is easy, efficient, and satisfying. Keep the beans hot as much as possible.
- Using a sturdy spatula, mix the kōji, 2.5 lbs of the salt (reserving the rest), the crushed soybeans, and the seed miso (if using) thoroughly in the picnic cooler. Add the reserved cooking water if the mixture is too dry. The mixture should not be too dry or too wet; it should have the consistency of finished miso.
Packing miso for fermentation
- Think bacteria, do Steps 2 through 4 as quickly as you can.
- Moisten the inside of the container in which the miso will be fermented with water. Rub the bottom and the sides with 1/3 of the remaining salt.
- Wash your hands. Form a tennis ball-sized miso ball with your hands. Starting in a corner on the bottom of the container, throw (or pound) the ball into the container, making sure that there would not be any air pockets. (Residual air can foster unwanted molds.) Working quickly, repeat this procedure until all the mixture is packed.
- Pat and even the surface of the miso with a clean spatula.
- Cover all the exposed surface of the miso with the remaining salt and cover tightly with plastic wrap to prevent the miso from being exposed to the air. Make sure the plastic makes airtight contact with the miso. Do not leave any miso surface exposed.
- Place the lid on top of the miso. Fill the gallon jug with 2 to 2.5 quarts of water (2 to 2.5 kg of weight) and place it on top of the lid.
- Cover the miso container (including the water jug) with a plastic bag or paper, and tie up the opening of the bag with the twine so that insects and the air would not contaminate the miso.
- Store the miso in the coldest spot in the house, such as a dry corner of the basement, through the first winter (do not let it freeze), and a warmer spot in the shade through the first summer. It should not be exposed to direct sunlight.
- Check the miso for mold every few months. Though the mold is not harmful, it does nothing for the flavor and should be removed with a clean spatula. Do not peek more than absolutely necessary since doing so will expose the miso to the air and risk contaminating it. If you are careful to observe hygienic conditions when making and checking the miso, you should not have a lot of contamination problems.
A month or so after packing the miso, you will see amber liquid (tamari) on the surface. To test the miso, tip the container to a side, peel a corner of the plastic to expose the miso. With a spoon, remove and taste a small amount of miso 3 or 4 inches from the surface. If the flavor is off (acidic or alcoholic), you may want to discard the batch. It should have a sweet, salty aroma. Fill the hole you made with a spoon, making sure that the air pocket is filled. Replace the plastic, lid, weight, and the cover. Remove any mold.
You can drain tamari off from time to time and use it for cooking (delicious!), or leave it in for improved flavor. If too much tamari is being produced (more than 1/2 inch at the top), reduce the weight by pouring out water from the jug. If hardly any tamari is visible, increase the weight.
The homemade miso will taste more and more like real miso at the end of one summer. (For instance, if you packed the miso in February, the miso would be ready in August of the same year. Note that it does not matter if you packed miso in November or in February, it will not be ready until late August.) The taste and flavor continue to improve for another one or two years. It also becomes darker as it ages.
The miso should be exposed to several weeks of warm weather (e.g., a summer). This is because a warmer weather helps the fermentation activity to move along. If you are impatient, you can make the fermentation process go faster by keeping the miso at higher temperatures (see The Book of Miso for guidelines).
Remove about a one-month supply of miso into a plastic container and store it in the refrigerator. Leave the remaining miso in the fermentation container.
For more information about making miso, consult The Book of Miso by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi (New York: Ballantine Books, 1976), $5.99. This is a comprehensive guide to the history and chemistry of miso making, recipes for different types of miso, and using miso.
Kōji can be purchased at the East End Food Co-op at 7516 Meade St, Pittsburgh, PA, 412-242-3598, (special order; entirely organic; imported from Japan and expensive at about $12 per 500g) or through other organic/health food suppliers. I bought a 20 oz tub of Cold Mountain brand kōji for $12 from Tokyo Grocery Store (5155 Ellsworth Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15232, phone 412-661-3777).
I have ordered from Grainaissance and experienced no problems. If my memory is correct, a pound of kōji from Grainaissance cost about $3.50 including shipping and handling. You will have to call them to place an order, get a quote, send them a personal check for it, wait a little more until the check clears, and wait for another week for your shipment to arrive at the door. So plan ahead.
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