Did you know that sugar was once a very expensive ingredient in Japan, so cooks and chefs alike would use mirin as a substitute? If you’ve never heard of mirin, a rice wine that is an essential in Japanese cuisine, you have most likely tasted it. Known for balancing salty flavors, mirin is one of the ingredients in teriyaki sauce, the broth that agedashi tofu is served in, and a wide variety of Japanese dishes. Let’s learn a little more about the different types of mirin and how they can be used in the kitchen.
Mirin is a type of rice wine, made from glutinous rice, distilled alcohol, and rice that has been cultured with koji, the same mold (Aspergillus oryzae) that is used to ferment soybeans, pickles, sake, soy sauce, and rice vinegar. Mirin is similar sake, but with a lower alcohol content and higher sugar content that occurs during the natural fermentation process. In terms of taste, mirin is sweet with mouthwatering umami flavor, which is deeply flavorful and savory.
True mirin, known as hon mirin, is golden yellow in color, sweet, has an alcohol content of 14 percent, and can take between 40-60 days to make. Shio mirin has an alcohol content of 1.5 percent, to avoid alcohol tax, but it has the same sweet flavor as hon mirin. Then, there is shin mirin ormirin-fu chomiryo (mirin-like seasoning) which contains less than 1 percent alcohol, but the same, sugary flavor. There is also aji-mirin, which typically contains corn syrup and salt. Once you open a bottle of mirin, the color will transform from light yellow to a dark, soy sauce-like color.
Mirin is one of the key ingredients in teriyaki sauce and its sweet flavor helps to balance saltier dishes that are heavy on soy sauce or tamari. Depending on what region of Japan you are in, mirin is used differently. In the Kansai region, mirin is briefly boiled to lower the alcohol content and increase the sweetness. This technique is called nikiri mirin, or “thoroughly boiled mirin.” In the Kanto region, mirin is left untreated.
True teriyaki sauce is made from soy sauce or tamari, sugar, and mirin or sake, with optional ginger. But, cooks are always putting their own creative spin on recipes. Try swapping mirin for the rice vinegar in these Teriyaki-Glazed Tofu Steaks or these Teriyaki Pulled Jackfruit Sandwiches. For a true teriyaki sauce, try the recipe in this Tofu Teriyaki With Rice Noodles and then try it out in veggie stir-frys.
You can also use mirin to make unagi sauce, a sweet, sticky sauce often served with unagi don, or grilled eel served over steamed rice. Try a plant-based version with this Sweet Mock Eel Nigiri, where the “eel” is made from chickpea tofu.
Mirin is one of the sauces in nimono, a style of Japanese cooking that involves simmering ingredients in a sweet, salty, umami broth. The stock in nimono dishes is called shiru and can be made by combining dashi, soy sauce, and mirin or sake. Most dashi is made using bonito fish flakes, but you can make it plant-based by using kombu or Shiitake mushrooms. Learn how to make kombu dashi by following this simple recipe for Kake Udon. Then, make shiru by combining 2 cups kombu dashi, 2 tablespoons mirin, and 2 teaspoons soy sauce.
You can use this shiru to simmer any vegetables, but you will find the best flavor when using vegetables that are common in Japanese cooking, such as kabocha, burdock root, daikon radish, and lotus root. Try using both the Kansai (simmer the shiru until it no longer smells like alcohol) and Kanto (don’t simmer the shiru before simmering the vegetables) methods of cooking with mirin to find which method you like best in terms of flavor.
There are several ways to simmer ingredients in Japanese cooking. Another method of cooking vegetables in mirin can be seen in this recipe for Kinpira Gobo, where burdock root is sautéed, then cooked in a mirin and soy sauce-based broth until most of the liquid has evaporated. Try this same cooking method with other root vegetables, such as carrots or lotus root or plant-based proteins like tofu. If you buy pre-packaged plant-based meat, you can also try cooking it kinpira style.
Another popular dish that uses mirin is Nametake, or Enoki mushrooms that are simmered in a sauce made from mirin and soy sauce until the mushrooms are wilted and brown.
Mirin is one of the ingredients in goma-ae, a salad made by tossing steamed spinach in a sauce made from toasted and ground sesame seeds, soy sauce, mirin, and sake. Follow this recipe for Goma-ae, but leave out the miso paste to make the flavor more authentic.
If you’ve ever ordered agedashi tofu, mirin is the ingredient that made the sauce so sweet. Try this recipe for Agedashi Tofu. You can use the same sauce to make eggplant agebitashi, a dish made by flash-frying eggplant in oil, then serving it in the broth with fresh daikon, ginger, and scallions.
Finally, mirin is often used as a finishing touch for miso soup. Try adding a splash to this Soothing Miso Soup or this Miso Noodle Soup. When using mirin ad hoc, always start with a very small amount — it has a strong flavor.
Mirin isn’t obscure, so you can find it in just about any grocery store, but if you are avoiding certain ingredients, such as corn syrup, you might want to take a trip to the nearest Asian grocery store to find more variety. Ingredients in mirin will almost always vary by the brand, so be sure to check labels. Hon-mirin, or true mirin, will not contain any corn syrup and will have a golden yellow color.
Mirin is also readily available online. A bottle of Eden Mirin is similar to hon-mirin and contains no artificial enzymes or sweeteners. One 10.1-ounce bottle costs about $13. There is also this Kikkoman Mirin, which contains shochu.
If you enjoy articles like this and want more, we highly recommend downloading the Food Monster App. For those that don’t have it, it’s a brilliant food app available for both Android and iPhone. It’s a great resource for anyone looking to cut out or reduce allergens like meat, dairy, soy, gluten, eggs, grains, and more find awesome recipes, cooking tips, articles, product recommendations and how-tos. The app shows you how having diet/health/food preferences can be full of delicious abundance rather than restrictions.
The Food Monster app has over 8000+ recipes and 500 are free. To access the rest, you have to pay a subscription fee but it’s totally worth it because not only do you get instant access to 8000+ recipes, you get 10 NEW recipes every day! You can also make meal plans, add bookmarks, read feature stories, and browse recipes across hundreds of categories like diet, cuisine, meal type, occasion, ingredient, popular, seasonal, and so much more!
Lead image source: Sweet Mock Eel Nigiri