All About Japanese Mirin

This sweet rice wine is used in many Japanese dishes

ingredients to make crispy duck pancakes
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You have probably been enjoying the taste of mirin without even knowing it. This Japanese rice wine is a key ingredient in many popular dishes, such as ramen and teriyaki. It has a sweet flavor but also contributes what is called "umami," a relatively new food-taste category that explains a somewhat indescribable characteristic, as when there is a certain richness to the food.

Although similar to sake, also a rice wine, mirin has a lower alcohol content and a higher concentration of sugar. It is delicious in combination with soy sauce and is a key ingredient in marinades and sauces as well as glazes and broths. 

The Makeup of Mirin

Mirin is a Japanese condiment that contains about 14 percent alcohol. To make mirin, steamed glutinous rice (mochi-gome), cultured rice (kome-koji), and distilled alcoholic beverage (shochu) are mixed and fermented for about two months. Mirin produced this way is called hon-mirin, distinguishing itself from mirin-style condiments (mirin-fu chomiryo) that are made to resemble the flavor of mirin. You may see these labeled as aji-mirin, which translates to "tastes like mirin." These mirin-style condiments contain less than 1 percent alcohol, and they are usually cheaper than hon-mirin. Well-known Japanese brands for mirin are Takara and Mitsukan; a popular aji-mirin sold in supermarkets is Kikkoman.

Characteristics of Mirin

Mirin is a clear, golden-tinged liquid. It 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. The alcohol in mirin helps mask the smell of fish and seafood, making it an ideal ingredient to include in these dishes. It also adds a nice sheen to whatever it is mixed with.

Pure mirin isn't always readily available in your local grocery store, but you should be able to find a bottle of a mirin-style condiment, which means it has some sweeteners added to the recipe. A typical bottle of mirin-fu chomiryo or aji-mirin contains glucose syrup, water, alcohol, rice, corn syrup, and salt.

History of Mirin

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 due to the high concentration of sugar and yeast, it would easily spoil. So, it was then made as a distilled wine to prolong its shelf life, making it the clear liquid we are familiar with today, although with a 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.

Rice Wine Vs. Rice Vinegar

Easy to confuse since they have a similar appearance and are often next to each other on the grocery store shelf, rice wine and rice vinegar are different from each other and not interchangeable in recipes. Rice vinegar has been fermented longer, adding bacteria to turn the alcohol into acid. Although sweet, rice vinegar is very acidic, unlike mirin, and is best used in marinades and salad dressings, and not as a replacement for rice wine.

Substitutes for Mirin

Mirin is one of those ingredients that really can't be replaced in a recipe; there isn't anything that replicates its unique flavor and qualities. But, if you cannot find mirin or need a last-minute substitution, you can use a combination of sake and sugar for mirin. The basic ratio of sake and 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.

Cooking With Mirin

Although we mainly know mirin as a key ingredient in teriyaki sauce, it can be used in many other ways. Mirin is a part of traditional sauces such as ponzu sauce and tentsuyu, tempura dipping sauce. It is also used as a seasoning in Japanese side dishes like kale kobachi (seasoned sauteed kale) and kinpira renkon (braised lotus root), both traditional izakaya, or small plates. This ubiquitous rice wine is also present in many main dishes; try buta no kakuni, Japanese braised pork belly, or hibachi yakitori (chicken kebabs), a version of Japanese street food.