Rice wine (also known as mijiu) is a must-have ingredient in Chinese cooking, possibly coming second only to soy sauce in importance.
Whereas most wine is made from fermented fruit, rice wine is made from fermented glutinous rice, where the sugars are transformed into alcohol by yeast. Rice wine is somewhat clear and sweet and is used in marinades to tenderize meat and seafood, as well as to impart flavor to food. Some varieties are drinking-quality and meant to be consumed—these have a much lower alcohol content compared to Western wines.
Unfortunately, while rice wine is readily available at Chinese and Asian groceries, it is not always easy to find at every supermarket. If you cannot find rice wine, or are out of rice wine, here are some suggested rice wine substitutes.
Pale Dry Sherry
Available at liquor stores, pale dry sherry is the most commonly recommended substitute for rice wine. It comes closest in flavor to Shaoxing rice wine (also spelled Shao-hsing or Shaohsing), an amber-colored wine made with glutinous rice, wheat yeast, and spring water. Since rice wine can be hard to find, many recipes will only have dry sherry in the ingredient list, not even listing rice wine as an option.
While Shaoxing rice wine is commonly recommended because of its consistently high quality, there are many other types of rice wines in China. If the recipe calls for a white-rice wine, substituting it with gin is a good idea, as it comes closer in flavor to the white-rice wines than does dry sherry.
Dry White Wine
While the flavor is not the same, a dry white wine makes an acceptable substitute for Chinese rice wine in marinades and is a decent alternative when that's all you have in the house.
Sake or Mirin
Commonly referred to as the Japanese version of rice wine (although it actually has more in common with brewing beer), sake actually has a very different flavor than a Chinese rice wine. However, some cooks prefer it, and it really comes down to personal preference. You also can try mirin, another Japanese rice wine, in place of Chinese rice wine. Just start with a lesser amount than the recipe calls for as it has a very strong flavor.
If you are looking for something without alcohol, apple juice or white grape juice are good substitutions. The acid in the juice acts as a tenderizer, making it an acceptable replacement for rice wine in stir-fry marinades. However, keep in mind that the flavor won’t be quite the same and, in fact, a bit sweeter.
What to Avoid
It is important that you avoid certain ingredients while trying to find a substitute for rice wine. Cooking wines, sold in local supermarkets, are overly salted and have a different flavor than a Chinese rice wine. And don't confuse Chinese rice-wine vinegar with Chinese rice wine—it is a vinegar, not a wine, and will add an acidic flavor.