You have probably been enjoying the taste of mirin without even knowing it. This Japanese rice wine is ubiquitous and a key component in popular dishes such as ramen and teriyaki. It is unique insofar as it brings a sweetness and bit of umami, or a rich depth of flavor, to dishes it's used with.
Mirin is delicious in combination with saltier sauces, such as soy or tamari, for use in marinades, glazes, and broths.
Place of Origin: Japan
Most Common Use: sauces
Primary Ingredient: rice
What Is Mirin?
Mirin is clear, golden-tinged liquid and a common condiment used in Japanese cooking. It contains about 14 percent alcohol and adds a mild sweetness and nice aroma to many Japanese dishes. The sweetness is derived from the fermentation process, where the rice starch converts into sugar.
To make mirin, steamed glutinous rice (mochigome), cultured rice (kome-koji), and distilled alcoholic beverage (shochu) are mixed and fermented for about two months.
The use of mirin is said to have become popular during the Age of Civil War (1467 to 1603). It was originally enjoyed as a luxury-type liquor, a mixture of sweet rice wine and sweet sticky rice. But the high concentration of sugar and yeast would encourage spoilage. So, it was then made as a distilled wine in order to prolong its shelf life, making it the clear liquid we are familiar with today, although with much higher alcohol content. Since it was easier to obtain than sugar, mirin was mainly used as a sweetener in foods. Eventually, however, the rice wine became a star ingredient in Japanese cooking as a common seasoning in recipes. Now used like a condiment, it's easy to work with and easy to find.
Rice Wine vs. Rice Vinegar
Rice wine and rice vinegar are easy to confuse since they have a similar appearance and are often next to each other on the grocery store shelf. They are different from each other and not completely interchangeable in recipes. Rice vinegar has been fermented longer, adding bacteria to turn the alcohol into acid. Although sweet, rice vinegar, unlike mirin, is very acidic and is better suited toward use in marinades and salad dressings, and not as a replacement for rice wine.
There are two types of mirin you're likely to encounter:
Hon-mirin: This is wine, made from two types of rice and distilled alcohol, shochu. Well-known Japanese brands for mirin are Takara and Mitsukan.
Mirin-fu chomiryo, or mirin-style condiments, are less expensive and made to resemble the flavor of mirin. Their bottles are often labeled as aji-mirin, which translates to "tastes like mirin" and contain less than 1 percent alcohol; Kikkoman is a popular brand of aji-mirin sold in supermarkets.
How to Cook With Mirin
Although we mainly know mirin as a key ingredient in teriyaki sauce, it can be used in many other ways, as it pairs well with meats and fish, along with vegetables and tofu. Mirin is a part of traditional sauces such as ponzu sauce and tentsuyu, a tempura dipping sauce. It is also used as a seasoning in what's sometimes referred to as Japanese izakaya cuisine, small plates and snacks (similar to Spanish tapas) served at informal bars. This rice wine is also present in many main dishes, too, such as buta no kakuni, Japanese braised pork belly.
What Does It Taste Like?
Mirin offers a subtle sweetness and a little bit of tang on the palate, but also a sense of umami because of the fermentation process it goes through. The consistency is slightly thick, almost like a sauce, and the taste is strong. You don't need to use a lot of it. When in doubt, especially if an ingredient is new to you, taste as you go.
Mirin is a key component in teriyaki and ramens but can be used as a finishing touch to miso soup, as part of a marinade in chicken wings, and is one of four ingredients in eel sauce, which actually contains no eel whatsoever and often accompanies sushi rolls in Japanese restaurants.
Where to Buy Mirin
Pure mirin may not be always available in your local grocery store, but you can easily find it online if not at a specialty grocer. On the other hand, mirin-style condiments are widely available—a typical bottle of mirin-fu chomiryo or aji-mirin contains glucose syrup, water, alcohol, rice, corn syrup, and salt. They're typically available in the Asian or international foods sections of supermarkets and certainly from Asian grocers.
Mirin is distinct, and some might argue that it's one of those ingredients that you shouldn't ever try to substitute for in a recipe, but sometimes you can't find an ingredient. In that case, if mirin escapes your efforts, you can use a combination of sake and sugar for mirin; the two ingredients are similar, but mirin has a lower alcohol content and a higher concentration of sugar.
The basic ratio of sake to sugar to use is 3 to 1, and a good guide is 1 tablespoon of sake mixed with 1 teaspoon of sugar equals 1 tablespoon of mirin. You can adjust the amount of sugar, depending on your preference.
True mirin will keep well at room temperature thanks to its alcohol content for up to three months. Aji-mirin, once opened, will keep for three months and should be refrigerated.