Rice wine and rice vinegar are staples of Asian cooking, especially as it pertains to 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 technique used to create it.
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.
What Is Rice Vinegar?
Rice wine vinegar and rice vinegar refer to the same thing. Rice wine vinegar is not wine; nor is it rice wine.
The process for making rice wine vinegar (which we'll refer to as rice vinegar, just to keep it simpler) starts with alcohol and the addition of different organisms, called acetobacters. They convert the alcohol into acetic acid, made by fermenting the sugars in rice into alcohol, and then into acetic acid to make the vinegar. It has a mild, less acidic taste than white distilled vinegar, and is definitely a little sweeter. It can be used in this udon noodle soup recipe or a Korean cold noodle soup, but it does especially well in salad dressings, and as an ingredient in sauces where it lends a bright flavor. Rice vinegar is great in this classic daikon and cucumber sunomono salad, and in the dressing for this Chinese chicken salad.
Rice vinegar can also come seasoned, which means it's typically fortified with salt and sugar. This product is used extensively in Japanese cooking, most notably in the making of rice for sushi. Rice vinegars can be used in myriad ways, often depending on their color; Chinese cuisine features black, red, and white vinegars, whose flavors vary.
What is Rice Wine?
Rice wine is produced from fermented glutinous rice, in which sugars are transformed into alcohol thanks to the presence of yeast. Rice wine is used in a variety of Asian cuisines, especially Chinese, where Shaoxing wine is very popular. Rice wine is prized for its ability to add sweetness to marinades and a depth of flavor to sauces that is hard to mimic using other ingredients.
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. Use rice wine in Chinese chicken stock, to add sweetness to shumai dumplings, or in a starring role in stir-fry chicken in rice wine.
Rice Wine vs. Rice Vinegar
Perhaps the easiest way to remember the difference is that rice wine is something you could potentially drink, because it's sweet; rice vinegar would make the sides of your mouth curl in if you drank it straight, as it is too acidic. Use rice wine in dishes where you want to lend sweetness and depth of flavor. Use rice vinegar when you want to add some acidity and a touch of mild sweetness, as in salad dressings and marinades.
Rice Wine Vinegar vs. Mirin
Rice vinegar is also sometimes confused with a popular ingredient from Japan, mirin, which is the most common cooking wine (also made from rice) and is not to be confused with 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, produces the most ubiquitous version of mirin available in North America, which is used in making all kinds of soups (including ramen), marinades, and glazes; it is helpful in tenderizing meat. It pairs especially well with fish, and works in buta no kanuni, Japanese braised pork belly.
Substitutions for Rice Vinegar and Rice Wine
If you need a rice wine substitute, you can safely use dry sherry or even a dry white wine. There are lots of easy vinegar substitutes if you find you're out of rice vinegar, try apple cider vinegar or white wine vinegar; for every tablespoon of rice vinegar, sub the same amount, plus 1/4 teaspoon sugar of either white wine or apple cider vinegar.