Secret sauce: NAIT creates unique misos using Alberta pulses

Unexpected experiment results fuel creativity in the kitchen

Sometimes experiments succeed not because they go as expected but because they defy expectations. And, sometimes, the results are delicious.

This was the case in 2022, when a project at NAIT’s Applied Research Centre for Culinary Innovation to flavour plant-based meat left researchers wanting. The team inoculated Alberta-grown pulses – legumes and beans – with a fungus called koji to make miso, a highly versatile ingredient traditionally made from soy.

“Once we tasted it, we knew that there was a place for it.”

The idea was to use that locally derived miso to convey the savouriness of meat. Some versions got close; most didn’t. Instead, the fermentation of one type of pulse led to miso with floral notes; another tasted distinctly of chocolate. With that, it didn’t much matter if the researchers’ hypothesis was disproved.

“Once we tasted it, we knew that there was a place for it,” says centre manager Dr. Linda Ho. Besides, she adds, “it's no fun to give up.”

That’s why the experiment is now also in the hands of local chefs, as they find novel uses for a traditional ingredient reinvented with a distinctly Albertan flavour.

Many applications, broad impact

zach eaton, head chef and co-owner of tryst restaurant, in st. albert“There are sort of endless applications for it,” says Zach Eaton (Culinary Arts '16), head chef at Tryst, the celebrated St. Albert bistro he cofounded in 2020.

Eaton got his hands on NAIT’s novel misos through Maynard Kolskog (Cooking '82), a Tryst regular and the former researcher at the centre who started the work. Kolskog gave the chef pastes from Alberta-grown faba beans, yellow split peas and great northern beans.

“Each one of those pulses brings a different characteristic,” says Eaton.

Those characteristics have pushed him creatively, as he’s recognized their potential to contribute to Tryst’s ability to stand out in a competitive market.

“Here's this really cool product that nobody else has,” says Eaton. “What can we do with it?”

So far, he’s incorporated it into vinaigrettes, soups and even used the chocolaty miso (from the great northern bean) in banana bread. In general, Eaton treats the ingredient as a more complex replacement for conventional salt – a nuanced savouriness he feels pairs particularly well with sweet things.

Since receiving Kolskog’s gift, he adds, “It's on pretty much every menu we've done.”

It’s not just the flavour of the misos that has Eaton hooked. It’s that they come from products grown in Alberta, which Tryst endeavours to use and promote.

“The biggest benefit to me is the potential to use local ingredients from local farmers,” says Eaton. “That's the most exciting part.”

Innovative and tasty

korean garlic buns made with cream cheese infused with miso and covered in green onion

Canada is the second-largest producer of pulses, with Alberta supplying 1.6 million metric tons annually. On the whole, 85% of national production is exported. Ultimately, the centre hopes to improve the return on investment. (In this case, that work was part of a two-year project granted $350,000 by Results Driven Agriculture Research and Alberta Pulse Growers.)

Rather than see exported pulses returned to the province as finished products, Albertans might do the processing themselves. “If you can add more value, you can increase demand for that product,” says Ho. “And once you increase that demand, you increase commodity pricing.”

“If you can add more value, you can increase demand.”

As a research assistant at the centre, Haley Donadeo (Culinary Arts ’22) facilitates those improvements in a unique way. “Having someone like me who understands the science as well as the creative aspect allows for a different angle on product development,” she says.

Her role is more practical than creative, but more creative than pragmatic. Bringing a chef’s perspective to the laboratory is to consider the needs of producers and consumers in equal measure.

peanut butter cookies made with miso by food researchers at NAITAnd it leads to wonders that include not just further efforts in fermentation in NAIT labs but even more proof of the culinary possibilities for Alberta pulses, such as miso-infused peanut butter cookies, eggnog and even Korean garlic buns.

“We brushed it with a custard,” says Donadeo of the latter. “It was beautiful and amazing.” Innovative, she adds, but, perhaps even more importantly, tasty.

The next step – besides investigating partnership opportunities for taking the misos to market – is to see if those previously unexpected results might be amplified.

Ho wonders if chocolate notes could be made more intense, for example, and if aging might have a positive impact on flavour.

In the meantime, experimentation will continue at Tryst, where Eaton is still working through the original batch of what he’s come to consider a kind of “secret sauce.”

“I like to bring in that savoriness [to] as many places as possible,” he says. “I think it should be a pantry staple.”

Subscribe to receive more great stories every month

Find out more news about NAIT, stories about our alumni and their impact on their communities, and useful how-to content featuring our experts.

Sign up today »