Mirin is wine rice, but it's not sake. It's a sweet condiment, but it's often used in savoury Japanese dishes. You can find it in ramen bowls and seafood recipes, teriyaki sauce and even some sushi types.
Mirin is ubiquitous, but most of us don't really know what it is. This is even more surprising because we've probably tried mirin dozens of times without even knowing.
Sweet and salty, umami-rich and a little boozy, what's mirin all about? And most importantly, how to add it to our Japanese cooking? Here's all you need to know about this fantastic Japanese staple condiment.
Mirin, Finally Explained
There are several types of mirin, and they have different uses. Still, they are all based on the same principle — glutinous rice 'fermented' by the eminent koji-mold (also responsibly for soy sauce and sake) and livened by a spatter of shōchū, a rice-based distilled spirit. The last ingredient is time because the finest mirin rests, sometimes for years, to gain complexity and to mellow beautifully.
Although most mirin types have a pleasant residual sweetness, producers don't add sugar to it, at least not to serious-quality mirin. Sweet simple carbs are a by-product of fermentation.
So, is mirin rice vinegar? Although rice vinegar and mirin can look quite similar, mirin doesn't have acetic acid, AKA vinegar, which comes from yet another process in which specialized bacteria turn alcohol into acid.
Is mirin just another name for sake? Sake and mirin share similarities, but sake is meant to be drunk, often has less sweetness and more alcohol. Alcohol in mirin often burns off while cooking.
In a nutshell, mirin is a sweet and savoury rice wine, and although the most refined quality makes a lovely digestif, it is designed to give complexity to food. When we say complexity, we mean it!
How To Cook With Mirin
There are many ways of using mirin to add new layers of deliciousness to your food. Mirin is a critical ingredient in some of Japan's most famous sauces, including the caramelly teriyaki sauce, the citrus-scented ponzu, the umami-rich eel sauce and the hearty Tentsuyu sauce, often served with tempura coated treats.
Mirin is also essential in many marinades for red meat, pork and chicken. If you've ever heard about the glorious yakitori coal-grilled skewers served in Japan's alley izakaya bars, then you'll know exactly what to do with mirin — glaze meat to liven its flavours, elevating it to perfection.
It comes without saying mirin is intensely flavourful, so a little goes a long way. Experimenting with it by adding a splash into your soups, broths, stir-fries, sauces, dips and marinades is the best way of finding your own unique relationship with mirin.
Find the Right Mirin For You
As with all specialty products, not all mirin bottles are of the same level. Your safest bet is looking for a high-quality producer making traditional mirin with only mochi rice, koji and shōchū.
Some mirin is labelled as aji-mirin, which literally means "tastes like mirin." These less expensive products may contain added sugar, flavouring agents, water, and glutamates, so you're better off avoiding them.
As part of Dutch Wasabi's select collection of Japanese products of the finest quality, you'll find Isshi Soden Mirin. Authentic mirin as delicious and intense that you can even sip it as a digestif but cook with it and experience what mirin can really do.
We can tell you all about mirin, from grain to bottle, but you must try it to understand its charm. That's what we all love about cooking, right? We learn by tasting.
If you enjoyed this piece, click your way through our other features and learn more about your favourite Japanese products. Japanese cuisine is a lifestyle, so live it as authentically as you can!