How to Cook with Mirin, the Secret Weapon in Homemade Teriyaki

This Japanese cooking wine adds its tangy-sweet flavor to braises, marinades, and more. Here’s everything you need to know before adding it to your pantry.

<p>Michelle Lee Photography / Getty Images</p>

Michelle Lee Photography / Getty Images

Even if you’ve never cooked with mirin, chances are you’ve tried it. The Japanese cooking wine is a common ingredient in teriyaki sauce, sushi rice, and stir-fried noodles. It also bolsters plenty of dipping sauces, braises, soups, and dressings with its singular blend of sweetness and umami.

“Mirin has a unique, sweet flavor that is foundational in creating the balance in Japanese cooking,” says chef Masaharu Morimoto. “Unlike sugar or simple syrups, it adds both a sweetness and a certain depth to the dish. It also has a slight alcoholic flavor, which mellows during cooking, creating a richness that enhances the natural tastes of the other ingredients.”

Read on for everything you need to know about this Japanese pantry staple.

What is mirin?

In its purest form, mirin is made by fermenting glutinous rice and koji (mold-inoculated rice) in shochu (a distilled grain spirit) for anywhere from two months to a few years. The starches in the rice break down during the fermentation process and create sugar and amino acids, giving mirin its distinctive sweet and savory notes.

Mirin is sweeter and has a lower alcohol content than sake and most other cooking wines, usually around 14% ABV. Much of the mirin sold in your average grocery store has an even lower alcohol content of about 8%, and may be made with artificial ingredients like corn syrup or starch syrup — more on that below.

Photo by Greg DuPree / Food Styling by Paige Grandjean and Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Christine Keely Mirin enriches the dipping sauce for this soba noodle dish.
Photo by Greg DuPree / Food Styling by Paige Grandjean and Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Christine Keely Mirin enriches the dipping sauce for this soba noodle dish.

What is mirin used for?

“The main purpose of mirin isn’t to provide its own flavor, but to enhance the other flavors of the overall dish,” says Morimoto. “It’s great for many sauces and marinades, giving them a glossy finish and a flavor that is unmistakably Japanese. One of my favorites is a classic teriyaki sauce, where mirin is combined with soy sauce, sugar, and sometimes sake, to produce a glaze that’s both sweet and savory.”

Mirin is also a key ingredient in syrupy mirin-soy sauce, often known as eel sauce or unagi sauce, and citrus-based ponzu sauce. Try mirin in a teriyaki sauce for salmon, chicken, or tofu; as a marinade for sea bass; in a dipping sauce for soba noodles; in a salad dressing; in a broth for ramen; or in a braise for short ribs.

If using mirin in a glaze, Morimoto recommends cooking it until it’s reduced and syrupy so the alcohol evaporates completely and the flavors concentrate. “This not only enhances the sweetness but also deepens the dish’s overall taste,” he says.

Because mirin is very sweet, it’s well-balanced by more savory condiments like soy sauce or sake. “Its sweetness can overpower if not used carefully,” warns Morimoto.

Related: 12 Japanese Comfort Foods to Make Right Now

How to buy mirin

A condiment called “aji-mirin” (which translates to “tastes like mirin”) is widely available at grocery stores in the international aisle, but keep in mind that it’s not true mirin and is typically produced with added sugar and other seasonings. Morimoto recommends purchasing “hon-mirin,” which is made the traditional way, with rice, koji, and shochu. While it can be hard to find hon-mirin at the grocery store, it’s sold at many Asian markets and specialty grocery stores, or online.

You can still use aji-mirin in dishes that call for mirin, but it will lack the depth of flavor of the real stuff. Aji-mirin usually has a lower alcohol content of around 8%.

Related: How to Source, Store, and Use 10 Essential Global Condiments

How to store mirin

If you have hon-mirin, you can store it in a dark, cool place, even after opening. Aji-mirin or lower-alcohol mirin seasonings should be stored in the refrigerator once opened and used within three months.

What are the best mirin substitutes?

If you can’t find mirin or you’ve run out, you can substitute other cooking wines like sake and sherry, adding a teaspoon of sugar for drier bottlings. You can also substitute with rice vinegar, which will lend a similar fermented flavor, but be sure to counter its tanginess with a pinch of sugar. Other options include sweet vermouth or a medium-dry to dry white wine with a little sugar. 

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