Use Miso Instead of Parmesan for Extra-Savory, 100% Vegan Risotto

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Easy, savory, and vegan. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

When I was a kid, I was a big fan of Time-Life's Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of books on the supernatural that were perhaps the pre-internet versions of UFO and conspiracy theory forums. Really, it was the commercials that sold me. That Robert Stack–esque voice that could make anything, no matter how mundane, seem mysterious.

October 26th, 2015: A man in Queens, New York City, decides to make his squash soup more savory by adding Japanese miso paste to it. Two days later and 3,000 miles away, in San Mateo, California, another young man decides to replace the Parmesan cheese in his risotto with miso paste. Coincidence? Or is it a side effect of the biggest interdimensional cross rip since the Tunguska blast of 1909?

The reality is far more mundane in its backstory, but far more interesting in how it can affect your cooking.

Whether we're working on a recipe for pot roast or chili, ragù Bolognese or beef stew, increasing the level of savoriness in a meaty, hearty dish is nearly always on our list of goals. For especially meat-heavy dishes, we'll often turn to ingredients like fish sauce or anchovies, both high in glutamic and inosinic acid; these are the naturally occurring amino acids responsible for triggering our sense of savoriness (or umami, if you want to be that way).

But for dishes that are a little lighter in flavor, or dishes that I'm specifically looking to replicate in a vegan version, I'll opt for using miso paste instead.

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Miso paste is also high in glutamates and will add a nice savory backbone to a dish without overwhelming it. We use a touch of miso paste in both Daniel's squash risotto and my mushroom risotto. In those recipes, the miso is a flavor enhancer. In this recipe, the miso is the star.

It's largely based on a miso-flavored risotto I used to cook at Ken Oringer's Uni restaurant in Boston, where we'd serve it with freshly shucked live Maine sea urchins. It's one of my favorite flavor combinations of all time, though the risotto is fantastic even on its own.

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I start by making risotto using our standard pressure-cooker method. First, I sweat some aromatics in olive oil or butter in a pressure cooker (in this case, I used shallots and garlic without butter, as I wanted to keep the recipe vegan). As soon as the aromatics are translucent and fragrant, I add a couple of cups of arborio rice, letting it toast in the fat just until the edges are translucent. This adds a little toasty flavor and helps the rice retain its shape as it absorbs liquid.

While a traditional risotto would call for a dry white wine at this point, I use a dry sake instead. Sake will add aroma to the rice as it cooks, but it lacks the acidity of a dry white wine. Don't worry, we'll deal with acidity later on as we finish the dish.*

* Remember, kids: Balancing acidity levels is just as important as balancing saltiness levels when finishing a dish!

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Next goes in some vegetable stock,** a small dash of soy sauce, and a hefty portion of miso paste—about a quarter cup for two cups of dried rice. I experimented with a few different types of miso, ranging from dark red to white. The darker ones certainly work if you want that intensity of flavor—I'd recommend starting out with half the amount of miso if using brown or red—but I prefer the subtlety of light yellow or white miso paste. Risotto is traditionally a delicately aromatic dish, and it makes sense to keep it that way.

** Chicken stock will, of course, work fine if you are making a non-vegan version. Store-bought chicken stock can be quite decent; on the other hand, store-bought vegetable stock is universally terrible, in my experience. Homemade vegetable stock is pretty darn quick and easy as far as stocks go. For a reasonable vegan store-bought option, I'd recommend Better Than Bouillon No Chicken Base.

If I were cooking this using the traditional stovetop method, I'd slowly ladle in broth a cup at a time, stirring in between additions. The process takes 20 to 30 minutes of constant stirring. Far easier is to just use a pressure cooker—not only will it cook your rice in record time (just about five minutes), it also almost completely precludes the need to stir. Just seal the lid on, cook for five minutes over low heat (about 10 psi on most pressure cookers), let off the steam, unseal the lid, and stir just until the rice reaches an even, creamy consistency.

A couple of quick but essential risotto pro tips: Just like scrambled eggs, your risotto should be a little looser in the pan than the consistency at which you're planning on serving it. Perfect risotto in the pot means gluey risotto on the plate. Speaking of which, make sure that you serve risotto on a hot plate. Like polenta, as soon as risotto starts to cool, it goes from rich and creamy to sticky and thick. Make sure your risotto is loose enough—if you can stack it in a ring mold, it's too thick. If you spoon it on the plate and it stays piled up, it's too thick. Risotto should slowly pool across the surface of a plate as you serve it (unless you like it thick and gloppy, that is).

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Served simply with some chives or scallions stirred into it, this risotto makes a fantastic side dish or light meal. Of course, it's also a great foundation for all kinds of other ingredients. Last week, I served it with chanterelles sautéed with olive oil and shallots one night, and hearty greens like kale and mustard stirred into it the second. It's an excellent base for pan-seared scallops or crispy pan-seared fish. And if you love sea urchin the way I do, there's no better vehicle for it.

I'd bet that even the aliens who built the Pyramids at Giza would've been willing to put down their probing tools for just long enough to finish a bowl or two.