What Is Mirin and How Do You Use It?

Mirin is a pantry staple in many kitchens, especially those where a lot of Japanese cooking is done. But many cooks, even those who have used it before, may not know exactly what mirin is. Read on to find out what you need to know about mirin and how to use it.

a photo of a bowl of mirin alongside rice
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Mirin is a Japanese cooking essential. Much like miso or Japanese mayo, it can be used in a variety of ways. So, what exactly is this slightly sweet, golden-hued liquid? Here's what you need to know, including how it's made, where to find it and how to use it.

What is mirin?

Mirin is a lightly sweet, translucent but gold-tinged Japanese cooking wine made from glutinous rice. It is a mainstay in Japanese cooking, and it pairs well with the savoriness of soy sauce, especially in teriyaki dishes, but is used in a variety of preparations. Mirin is made by fermenting a mix of cultured rice (shio koji) and glutinous rice in a distilled rice alcohol, shochu. It is aged for a period of a few months to a few years, resulting in a complex flavor. It tends to be about 14% alcohol by volume. Mirin tastes similar to sake but sweeter.

What's the difference between mirin and sake?

Though mirin and sake are similar, there are two main differences: "Mirin has a lower alcohol content and the addition of sugar, where sake doesn't have added sugar and is generally higher in alcohol," says Charles Namba, a Los Angeles-based chef and owner of Ototo and Tsubaki. During mirin's fermentation process, complex carbohydrates form, making the mirin sweet.

What's the difference between mirin and rice vinegar?

Mirin is a rice wine, not to be confused with a rice vinegar, so don't accidentally switch the two in your next recipe. "While both mirin and Japanese rice wine vinegar share the same origin—rice— that's where the similarities end," Namba says. "Mirin adds sweetness and a really nice shine to foods, where vinegar adds acidity."

You might even find rice wine and rice vinegar near each other in the grocery store, but they bring different flavors to your cooking. Rice vinegar does have some sweetness to it, but has been fermented longer and is acidic.

What are the different types of mirin?

There are a couple of varieties of mirin to look out for when shopping:

  • Hon-mirin: This is true mirin, made from two types of rice and distilled alcohol (shochu), clocking in at 14% alcohol by volume.
  • Aji-mirin: This is a mirin-style condiment, which translates to "tastes like mirin." It is less expensive than true-to-form mirin and has an alcohol content of 8%.

How to use mirin

Mirin is often used when preparing ramen, but can also be used to bring a touch of sweetness to roasted bok choy, spicy salmon and side dishes like gomae. And, as we've discussed, it's key to teriyaki-style dishes. But don't limit yourself! Mirin is also key to homemade eel sauce, which doesn't actually contain eel (it's mirin, sugar, soy sauce and sake), and is a great drizzle over your favorite sushi.

Where to buy mirin

Mirin can be found in the condiment section of Japanese markets. It's typically packaged in a clear glass or plastic bottle. Mirin can also be easily found online and at many grocery chains. Pick up a bottle or two and try it in Soy-Glazed Sweet Potatoes or Soy Sauce Eggs. Or, choose your favorite protein and make your own Teriyaki Marinade.

What can I use instead of mirin?

If you can't find mirin, don't stress too much! Namba uses cooking sake and sugar if he's out of mirin, he says, "which is essentially what mirin is." Try adding about half a teaspoon of sugar into an equal amount of sake. But if you're without cooking sake or sake at home, he says, "You can substitute a dry white wine or even dry vermouth, although it will change the flavor slightly."

Bottom line

Mirin is a mildly sweet Japanese rice wine with a variety of uses. It is somewhat similar to sake but generally less expensive, sweeter and with a lower alcohol content. Because of the sugar in mirin, it works well in a glaze, as in this delicious Glazed Salmon with Garlic Spinach dish. There are two main types of mirin, hon and aji. Stock your pantry with both and start cooking.

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