Even if you don’t recognize the word Mirin, it’s likely that you’ve had it at some point in your life. You may have heard it referred to as Japanese rice wine or tasted something similar referred to by the brand name Kikkoman. Mirin is a type of rice wine used in cooking. It’s a sweet sauce but with a hint of tang, similar to Japanese sake but with less alcohol and more sugar. If you’ve ever had a dish with a “can’t put my finger on that umami flavor”, it was probably due to Mirin.
How is Mirin Traditionally Made?
Traditionally mirin is made from Koji rice along with Mochi and Shochu rice. The waxy rice grains are cooked and then combined with a mold that is commonly found in Japan, called Aspergillus oryzae. The mold ferments the rice as it ages in wooden trays.
Many traditional mirin makers believe it is the quality of the Koji rice that gives Mirin its special flavor. The timing and handling of the aging process are critical to the flavor of the Mirin and can last anywhere from two months to three years depending on who is making it. The fermentation process is what provides the umami flavor that makes Mirin so glorious to the taste buds.
Types of Mirin
There are in fact different types of Mirin which are categorized according to how pure they are and how they are made. Pure mirin, also known as Hon-mirin, is made from fermented rice as described above. Hon-mirin (14% alcohol) can be difficult to buy and therefore what you will find in most Asian stores is actually Aji-mirin, made from alcohol (8%), salt, sweetener, and water. This type of mirin typically includes added sugar or corn syrup which doesn’t provide the same deep flavor.
You may also be able to find Toh-Hi Akasaka mirin which has a slightly higher alcohol content but a more syrupy flavor. The closest to Hon-Mirin you can purchase is likely Takara mirin with 12% alcohol and a deeper flavor that comes closer to sake. The flavor is similar but as usual with “shortcuts” the flavor just isn’t the same as the real thing. Store bought, commercially produced mirin can’t hold a candle to the complex taste of handmade Hon-Mirin.
What is Mirin Used for?
Mirin or Japanese rice wine is used for cooking in everything from ramen noodles to fish, to teriyaki sauce. In fact, mirin and soy sauce are two of the main ingredients in traditional teriyaki sauce. It’s a standard pantry item for just about every kitchen and restaurant in Japan and any kitchen elsewhere that delights in Japanese cuisine.
Mirin can be up to forty-five percent sugar which means it has a syrupy texture that can help marinades and glazes tenderize and cling to food. It’s a great sauce to use when you need to offset a strong gamey or fishy taste in a recipe. It’s not uncommon to see Mirin used as the marinade for fish and other Western dishes.
- Marinades and Glazes
- Dipping sauces for sushi
- Braised dishes
- Sauteed Foods
- Salad Dressings
- Stir Fry dishes
- Japanese soups such as miso
- Grilled Foods
- Boiled and Steamed vegetables
Most Asian specialty stores should carry Mirin or you may be able to find it or a passable substitute, like Kikkoman’s, in the Asian section of your local grocery store. It’s normally stocked with other Asian sauces such as tamari, teriyaki, and soy sauce. Barring that, check for it at international markets. Although you can’t typically find pure mirin in your local grocery store, it is available online.
Best Mirin Substitutes
Due to the lengthy aging process involved in making true mirin or “Hon-Mirin”, it can be difficult to buy in areas outside of Japan. If you do find it, prepare your budget as it will be more expensive than less pure options. To create the best mirin substitutes, you’ll want to shoot for a delicate ratio between sweet and acidic. In most cases, table sugar will provide sufficient sweetness although, in pure mirin, the sweetness is a natural outcome of the fermentation process.
- Dry sherry
- Sweet Marsala wine
- Dry white wine
- Rice vinegar
- Distilled white vinegar
- Balsamic vinegar
How to Make Mirin Substitutes At Home
You can make your own mirin substitutes from any of the above ingredients with a bit of sugar added to the desired sweetness. The best mirin substitute that you make yourself combines three-quarters of a cup of quality drinking sake with a quarter cup of either white corn syrup or white sugar and two tablespoons of water. The advantage of using corn syrup over sugar is that you don’t have to worry about the sugar not dissolving completely.
To make your own mirin substitute at home, here’s the simple three step recipe. First, combine the sugar and water in a pan. Allow this mixture to boil for two to three minutes and then remove from heat. Once the mixture has cooled, begin adding the sake, just a small amount at a time until you get the sweetness you prefer. The taste won’t be exactly like Hon-Mirin but it is one of the best Mirin substitutes.
So, now that you know all about Mirin and the best Mirin substitute, look for a bottle on your next trip to the market. If your budget can handle it, go for the true Hon-Mirin or the Takara Mirin for best flavor. Keep it handy in your pantry for those times when your taste buds crave a bit of Asian flavor.
If you’re budget conscious or for those times when you’re ambitious enough for a DIY cooking project, try your hand at making your own mirin substitute. Whether you use it to glaze your next ham, make your next rice stir fry, or to dress up a Japanese inspired soup, you can’t go wrong. With just a little effort, you can use your in-depth knowledge of this Japanese condiment to amaze your friends at your next dinner party.