A little less than a year ago, on a trip up to Vermont I was introduced to miso. No, not the first time I’d had miso in my life but first time I’d scooped it out of a jar and put it into a bowl of hot water with grains and veggies to transform it into a soup. Since then I’ve kept my home stocked with one or more varieties of miso. And, through one of those cosmic convergences, the second issue of Lucky Peach had a short piece on the different types of misos, some of which were hard to come by in the US. This got me fantasizing about making my own miso.
Although one might argue that it would be sensible to pursue following a recipe for one’s first attempt at miso, I disagree. What recipes exist are going to be for misos that I can get at the store which will be far superior. To take those on as a first project would, in my mind, be equivalent to making a Pinot Noir as a first attempt at wine making, rather than starting off with a wine based on local fruit; even if it’s mediocre, hey, not like you’d get decent apricot wine at your local liquor store anyway, right?
The first step towards making miso is to make koji. What’s koji? Good question. Koji is the term for a grain/legume that has been overgrown with koji-kin, a.k.a. Aspergillus oryzae, a type of mold. Took me too long to figure that out. You can buy ready made koji, which is what got me a little confused to begin with in terms of what it was. Now, if you believe the recipes, you need to start the culture on steamed rice. To which I said pfft. We’re talking about a mushroom forming mycelium, which needs food and enough air pockets to spread around. Which means, no, a solid lump of cooked rice isn’t going to do it (to be fair, some subtle flavors might be lost is cooking vs. steaming). Also, you can grow a. oryzae on anything that it will grow on (thank you tautology), magically transforming it into koji.
What I find interesting is that it seems quite possible that what you want from the koji might not be the mold itself. Apparently you can make miso from koji which is dry. Plus you miso seems to require a lot of salt (for comparison, a teaspoon of salt is about 5g). That level of salt kills just about everything. But that wouldn’t deactivate the enzymes that were already created by the mold. At the same time, you’d prevent other mold or bacteria taking up residence in the miso while it ages, for 6-12 months minimum but in some cases several years.
Back to the kitchen, this miso is made with black beluga lentils and forbidden rice, a miso I’m unlikely to find in any store. Cooked both until reasonably soft (separately, to make sure neither turned to mush while the other was still working on getting soft). Mixed the two in a ratio of one-to-one, approximately four cups each, in a large metal bowl. Sprinkled a little koji-kin on it (from www.grapeandgranary.com, the “sake homebrew kit” from Vision Brewing). Covered the bowl with a high thread count cheese cloth and put it in the oven, where it got a short burst of heat (170 deg) and then left to it’s own devices overnight.
That was Sunday night. For the next two days, twice a day, I’d take the bowl out of the oven and take a knife to the surface of the rice and lentil mix, basically tilling it, much as one would soil. By this morning, the mold was most definitely apparent… as was the smell. Egads, this was not a pleasant part of the project. I was a bit afraid as to what might meet me in when I got home from work. Turns out, the process was like stincky cheese in reverse. Although strong, the aroma had shifted to something much more food-like. Given that the mold had pretty much infiltrated every part of the rice/lentil mix possible, I called the koji done and took my hand blender to it, making it into a smooth paste. Based on what I’ve read, what I have is a little more moist than what I’m aiming for but with the A/C on, that shouldn’t last long. Added salt and transferred everything into a glass container. Coated the surface with an eight inch thick layer of salt to discourage any new microflora from taking up residence on this fine nutrient mass, placed some wax paper on top and then covered the mouth of the the container with cheesecloth for now.
Now I just need to get some small stones to put weight on the surface. After that, it’s waiting for a few months to see what happens.