Halfway through Isaiah Billington's explanation of what miso is, you might find yourself wishing you'd paid better attention in chemistry class. Even Billington, who started making miso with partner and Keepwell Vinegar co-founder Sarah Conezio around five years ago, admits that it's really something better learned over time and through hands-on experience.
"You can follow a recipe [for miso] just like following any [other] recipe, without having a rudimentary understanding of what's going on," he points out. The understanding can come later.
Since miso is nowhere near as ubiquitous in American cooking as it is in Japan, here's a semi-quick primer from Billington: "Soak and then cook grains or your carbohydrate source—theoretically it could be diced potatoes if you wanted to get really weird. Once they are cooked, inoculate them with aspergillus oryzae and incubate in a warm humid environment for about three days. They will grow into a thick mat, covered completely and bound by a thick and fuzzy white mold. This is called koji. Next, soak and cook your soybeans or any [other] protein source—it could even be peanuts—and mash them along with the koji and a hefty amount of salt until you have a chunky paste. Set it somewhere cool and dark with a weight on it for three weeks to three years, depending on the recipe."
In other words, miso isn't something your average DIY chef can easily tackle. Yet, making miso seemed like a natural progression when Billington and Conezio worked together as pastry chefs at Baltimore's famed Woodberry Kitchen, where the couple met in 2011.
"We had our kitchen careers at a time when kitchen workers' intellectual appreciation for what was going on was really widening and increasing," says Billington. "We, and like-minded cooks across the world, started doing all of our charcuterie and making all of our bread—stuff that was more common to buy. That reached its next logical step when everyone started fermenting in house."
Eventually, it became clear that fermentation—which requires a lot of space, temperature control and time investment while chefs wait for the funk—might not be best for a restaurant's bottom line. "If somebody else was making great processed pantry items with incredible ingredients and the result was fantastic, there's no way I'm going to spend my time doing that," Billington says.
After moving to a farm near York, Pennsylvania (known as the White Rose City), the duo started making vinegars and eventually branched out into miso. In doing so, they've opened a slew of flavor-boosting options for kitchens that stick hardcore to the local and sustainable ethos. Woodberry Kitchen, which famously refuses to use limes because they're not local, currently incorporates White Rose Miso into a dish of long beans with miso dressing.
"We love [that] they are using local grains," Woodberry Kitchen chef de cuisine Lou Sumpter says of White Rose Miso. "We add it to salad dressings, and even soups and marinades, because of its sweetness and umami. We use Keepwell's gochujang, too."
Chef Justin Bittner of District Distilling in Washington, D.C. says he likes this miso because it's "delicious and wholesome and adds great depth of flavor and umami." It now appears in a preparation of sautéed ramps with a ramp-peanut-miso pesto with watercress, fried peanuts, green garlic, morels and a morel cream. Other chefs using White Rose include the Michelin-starred Tail Up Goat in D.C., PekoPeko Ramen in Baltimore and Cadence in Philadelphia. It also appears in specialty shops from New York to Denver.
Billington acknowledges that their method doesn't fit into the very traditional Japanese process of making, say, white miso, but he challenges the idea that there's only one way.
"It's a traditional food that's been sort of codified and had enough literature around it to define what it is in Japan for about 100 years," he says. "[But] the process started, almost certainly, somewhere in mainland China and flowered into other places, like Japan. So it's not like we're deviating from one particular practice; we're just adding to a rich variety of coexisting—and maybe slightly competing—traditions."
Regardless, trying to make a traditional Japanese-style product runs counter to White Rose Miso's efforts to honor local agriculture.
"Then I'm trying to steer the agriculture," Billington says. "We want to be able to tailor our process and our eventual output to the [grain that] the farmer thinks is the best thing for him to grow for his farmland so he can keep using that farmland in perpetuity."
The couple's dedication to sustainability leads them to use less typical miso-making grains—which of course influences the flavor. "One of the main differences, if we are going to use the idea of the very traditional Japanese misos as the norm, is that we seek to keep a lot of the character of the grain in the finished ferment," Billington says.
Conezio says they add this versatile ingredient to just about everything they make at home, taking advantage of its sweet-salty-sour-savory elements as well as its emulsifying properties.
"I personally like to drop a spoonful of miso with a little butter into a pan with my cooked pasta and a little of the cooking water before flipping it in the pan a couple dozen times to emulsify all together," adds Billington. "It's also a very delicious and unexpected salty-savory-sweet addition to buttercream."
Hero image by Marina Rutenberg.