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If you consider yourself an adventurous and clever home cook, you are probably pretty comfortable with trying all sorts of cuisines and testing substitutions—like baking powder alternatives, different options for heavy cream, and even things you can sub in for oil and butter when baking. But if you’re taking on Japanese cuisine, you're going to need to get to know mirin—a rice wine that’s used in teriyaki sauce, soy sauce, and more. Read on for a primer on what it is, how to use it, and what to do if you can't get your hands on it in time for your Japanese-themed dinner party.
What is mirin?
Mirin is a rice wine that adds amazing flavor to Japanese cooking. Because of its high sugar content, it’s the perfect balance to the salty flavor of soy sauce, another classic Japanese condiment. And its syrupy consistency makes it a key ingredient in Japanese glazes, such as teriyaki sauce.
Similar to saké, mirin contains around 14 percent alcohol (compared to 18 to 20 percent for saké) and has a high sugar content. True mirin, called "hon-mirin," is made by combining steamed glutinous rice, cultured rice (called koji), and a distilled rice liquor. This mixture is allowed to ferment anywhere from two months to several years. (The longer it ages, the darker the color more intense its flavor will be.) Mirin produced this way has a complex and rich flavor with loads of umami.
Where can you buy mirin?
Bottles of this style of "hon mirin" can be tricky to find in stores in the United States, but you can find them fairly easily online.
When you’re wandering the aisles of your supermarket, you may find a product called mirin-fu or aji-mirin. These are mirin-style condiments. While they aren't exactly true mirin, these products are made by mixing water, corn syrup, and rice. They contain less than 1 percent of alcohol and the taste resembles that of mirin. While they are cheaper than classically made versions, they often lack the rich and complex flavor of a traditional mirin, and many of them have added salt.
What can you substitute for mirin?
While nothing will really replace the flavor of mirin, let’s say you're having a dinner party emergency, and you need answers fast. We’ve got you covered. Probably the best solution is to mix saké with honey, maple syrup, or sugar in a 5 to 1 ratio. Cook the mixture until it's reduced by half.
If you’ve got a well-stocked liquor cabinet, head that way. After treating yourself to a drink, use an equal amount of vermouth, dry sherry, or marsala wine in place of mirin.
Or if you're a person who happens to have rice wine vinegar on hand, add some sugar (about 1/2 teaspoon of vinegar to 1 tablespoon sugar), and then replace one for one in a recipe.