Rice wine and rice vinegar are staples of Asian cooking, with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese cuisines. Countries such as India, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand, to name just a few, also feature some sort of rice wine as part of their culinary traditions. Each features its own versions which vary based on the type of rice and the brewing technique.
But this can all get confusing in a hurry. What is the difference between rice wine vs. rice vinegar? And what about rice vinegar vs. the enigmatic rice wine vinegar? Is that one wine or vinegar? We'll get to all of that. But before we do, it's worth remembering that vinegar is made from wine, and both wine and vinegar are produced by a process called fermentation.
How Rice Wine is Made
Fermentation is the process by which ethanol (aka alcohol) is produced by some sort of biological organism like yeast. When yeast consumes sugar, whether in a fruit such as grapes or in grain such as corn, wheat or rice, they produce alcohol and also carbon dioxide gas. This gas is what causes yeast breads to rise and give beer its fizz. It also produces alcohol in beer, wine, and spirits.
When the grain in question is rice, you get rice wine and, depending on the variety of rice (and possibly other ingredients) you start with, how long it's aged, and whether additional distillation takes place, the resulting rice wine can be mild or strong, with a color that ranges from pale yellow to reddish-brown.
Types of Rice Wine
Rice wines generally take two forms—the kind you cook with and the kind you drink. The most common example of each type both happen to originate in Japan: mirin, the most common cooking wine and sake, the most common drinking wine.
Mirin is a relatively sweet, comparatively low alcohol-content (14 percent) wine that happens to be one of the ingredients in teriyaki sauce. Kikkoman, maker of soy sauce (also a teriyaki sauce ingredient) produces the most ubiquitous version of mirin available in North America.
Mirin is also used in making all kinds of soups (including ramen), dipping sauces, marinades and glazes. It pairs especially well with fish.
Huangjiu is the most common type of Chinese rice wine, and it comes in numerous varieties in a range of colors and flavors.
How Rice Vinegar is Made
The procedure for making vinegar starts with alcohol and the addition of different organisms, called acetobacters, which produce a secondary type of fermentation which converts the alcohol into an acetic acid, aka vinegar.
Chinese rice vinegar, which is the strongest among all the Asian cuisines (although still less acidic than western vinegars), is made from huangiju, which in turn can be produced from a variety of rice as well as other grains. Chinese cuisine features black, red, and white rice vinegars.
Japanese rice vinegars are often produced from the yeast deposits at the bottom of the vats used for making sake. These tend to be very mild in acidity and flat in flavor, although these are frequently fortified with salt and sugar to produce a something called seasoned rice vinegar. This product is used extensively in Japanese cooking, most notably in the making of rice for sushi.
Marukan is a leading maker of both unseasoned and seasoned rice vinegar. If you're wondering which kind to get, the seasoned kind will give you the flavor profile you're probably most expecting from Japanese rice vinegar.
Other uses include marinades, salad dressings, dipping sauces, and as an ingredient in sauces and glazes.
And by the way: Rice vinegar and rice wine vinegar are exactly the same thing.
Choosing a Rice Vinegar
Since the flavors of different brands of rice vinegars can vary widely, not to mention the acid content, it's worth thinking about what brand the recipe writer used when creating the recipe. If they used a common supermarket brand, but you make a special trip to the Asian grocery store to get a more "authentic" brand, you might not end up replicating the recipe exactly.
Unless the recipe specifies a brand, you're left to figure it out for yourself, and chances are any brand you use will be fine. However, because recipes are also not just a set of steps to follow, but also a guide to replicate a dish that looks and tastes like the one the recipe writer created, it might make a difference.
If you have no idea, it might be best to go with the probabilities and use a common supermarket brand like Marukan. This gives you the highest likelihood of your dish tasting the way the recipe writer intended.
It can also be helpful to work backward. Most major brands have recipes on their websites, so consider using a brand of rice vinegar with recipes readily available on its website.