Sake has many uses in Japan, but do you know the difference between sake as a recreational alcoholic beverage and cooking sake?
Sake in Japanese just means alcohol, but the drinkable rice wine is known as nihonshu (日本酒). It’s made by fermenting rice with clean water, koji mold, and yeast. Cooking sake, or ryorishu, contains 2-3% salt to make it unfit to drink so it can be sold in convenience stores.
In this article, I’m going to explain the difference between the sake served in restaurants and cooking sake.
Sake is used to bring out the umami flavors in food and tenderize meat.
My favorite sakes are Takara Masamune Sake and Tozai Sake Well Of Wisdom.
You’ll notice both of these are drinkable sake, but that’s because I always advise using drinkable sake in your recipes, even if you’re just going to cook with it.
You don’t have to buy an expensive sake for cooking though, just as you wouldn’t buy expensive wine just to cook with.
Look, I’m first going into the basics of sake for everyone who’s really new to the topic, but feel free to skip ahead to any section that interests you.
In this post we'll cover:
- 1 What is Sake?
- 2 Best sake warmers
- 3 Why do you warm sake?
- 4 How do you warm sake?
- 5 Different Sake Temperatures
- 6 Best Available Sake Warmers reviewed
- 6.1 Best Sake Warmer Machine: TWINBIRD Japanese Electric Sake Warmer
- 6.2 Best Budget Sake Warmer: MyGift 6-Piece Japanese Ceramic Sake Set
- 6.3 Best Advanced Ceramic Sake Set with Warmer: Japanese Ceramic Sake Serving Gift Set with Warmer
- 6.4 Best Sake Warmer for Restaurants: Taiji Sake Warmer
- 6.5 Best Glass Sake Warmer Set: ZENS Sake Set Glasses
- 6.6 Best Candle Stove Sake Warmer: Japanese Ceramic Black Glaze Sake Set with Warmer Pot and Candle Stove
- 7 Upgrade your Sake Experience with the Best Sake Warmer
- 8 What’s the difference between cooking and drinkable Sake?
- 9 Types of Cooking Sake
- 10 Best sake for cooking
- 11 Drinkable Sake buyer’s guide
- 12 Top Drinkable Sakes
- 13 How to drink Sake
- 14 Using sake in your meals
- 15 Where Can I Buy Sake?
- 16 How should you store sake?
- 17 Best Substitution for Sake in Recipes
- 18 Differences Between Sake & Mirin
- 19 Recipes You Can Make Using Sake
- 20 Conclusion
What is Sake?
First, we need to discuss, what is sake precisely?
Sake, pronounced SAH-keh, is made by fermenting rice, clean water, koji mold, and yeast.
While sake is referred to as a form of rice wine in English, which is produced by fermenting the sugars naturally present in the fruit, sake is actually produced through a method of brewing such as beer.
Traditionally, sake was served during special ceremonies. But now it’s a regular alcoholic beverage and it’s poured from a tall flask called tokkuri and you drink it from small cups (sakazuri or 0-choko).
During the brewing process, rice starch is converted to sugar for sake, then yeast converts sugar into alcohol. A good sake quality lies in the quality of the rice and the water used for brewing.
The starch from the rice will turn into sugar, which will eventually ferment into alcohol. The alcohol by volume (ABV) content of sake is around 15-20%.
Japanese have their own rules and ethics in drinking sake, especially on formal occasions.
Even so, they also drink casually from time to time. Sometimes, sake is also served alongside food in a restaurant or at dinner.
But people also use sake for cooking a lot.
Are sake and rice wine the same thing?
No, sake and rice wine are not the same things and this is what confuses many people. Sure, both sake and rice wine are made from rice but they are made differently.
Rice wine can be both distilled or fermented.
Sake, on the other hand, is only brewed and fermented like beer. To make sake, the rice grains are fermented with Koji mold. When making rice wine, the rice starch is converted into sugar.
What does sake taste like?
Sake has a smooth flavor, much like white wine. When you drink cold sake, it has a similar taste to dry white wine but with a hint of rice and nutty flavor. If you drink hot sake, it has a similar flavor to light vodka. However, what makes sake unique is that it also has a slightly sweet and fruity flavor.
How strong is sake?
Not all sake has the same “strength” or alcohol by volume content. It really depends on the type of sake.
Sake has medium alcohol by volume content (ABV): between 15-22% for drinking sake and 13-14% for cooking sake. It’s not as strong as vodka, yet stronger than beer.
- beer has a 3 -9% ABV
- wine has 9-16% ABV
- cooking sake 13-14%
- strong sake: 18-22%
- whiskey has 40%
- vodka has 40%
Is sake considered a hard liquor?
No, sake is not considered to be a hard liquor because it only has a 15-22% alcohol by volume content. Hard liquor has a stronger ABV of 40% (like vodka).
Therefore, you can’t call sake hard liquor, even though it’s capable of making you very tipsy!
Is sake a beer or liquor?
Sake is a fermented rice alcoholic beverage. Many people mistakenly think that sake is a wine, but it’s not a distilled alcohol or a spirit. Instead, it is brewed just like beer.
It is a unique rice drink, so you shouldn’t call it beer.
There are several types of sake:
- ordinary sake which encompasses most drinking sake
- special designation sake of which there are about 8 varieties. The designations reference the amount of polishing the rice undergoes. The more polished the rice is the greater purity and the higher grade the sake is. Junmai is an example of high-quality sake.
- Nama sake is unpasteurized sake that retains more of the flavor subtleties.
- Nigori which is unfiltered sake with a milky appearance.
Sake is an excellent drink to pair with common dishes like ramen, soba noodles, tempura, sushi, and sashimi.
Sake has been enjoyed for at least 1500 years, and it originates in China. While there’s no exact date about the discovery of sake, around 500 BC, Chinese villagers discovered that if they spit chewed rice and left it to ferment using the natural enzymes from saliva, the rice fermented at a rapid rate.
This method was unsanitary and quite crude, so instead, other methods were discovered. Koji is a type of mold that is added to rice to begin the fermentation process. The koji method spread throughout China and Japan and in the Nara period (710-794) it officially became the best way to make sake.
The Japanese state was responsible for brewing sake up until the 10th century when monks began making this beverage at temples. After a couple of centuries, sake became the most popular ceremonial drink. During the Meiji period in the 19th century, the general population began to make sake and many breweries popped up. Since then, sake has been a popular drink and to this day, it’s Japan’s national beverage.
For about 150 years, there is a new type of sake called Ryorishi, a sake intended for cooking.
Traditionally, there was no such thing as cooking sake in the world of authentic Japanese cuisine.
Japanese people use their Futsushu (I’ll get into the types of sake next) sake to cook, although they sometimes use the premium one for cooking a fancier meal.
How is sake made?
Sake is made using sakamai polished rice. Polished rice has a bright, shiny appearance and the rice they use for premium drinking sake is of high-quality. Manufacturers use a brewing process similar to beer making. They mix the rice with clean water, yeast, and a special Koji mold which is also used to ferment soy sauce.
The finest sake, called Genshu has an alcohol by volume value of 20% whereas other sakes usually have an ABV of 15%.
Hot vs. cold sake
You might’ve heard that sake can be served hot or cold. The basic principle is that some cheap sake doesn’t taste as good as fine sake, so to mask the flavor, it’s served hot. You’ll find warmed-up sake (atsukan) at sushi restaurants, bars, and cheaper restaurants. It’s one of those cheap types of alcohol that tastes good warm. Truth is, when sake is heated, the off-notes are harder to taste so you think the drink tastes a bit better than it actually does. It’s a neat trick, right?
But, don’t mistake cheap sake for the premium stuff. The best quality sake is served cold /chilled so that you can taste the subtleties and flavors.
Cool temperatures of 45 degrees F or below make the sake’s flavor profiles come through so you can taste every small nuance.
At the end of the day though, it’s a matter of personal preference, but keep the sake at a temperature between 40 – 105 degrees F.
The reason why the Japanese love sake so much is because this drink complements the traditional flavors of many national dishes. It’s the perfect pairing for an umami dish because it brings out the delicate flavors of the food, and the drink has a relatively mild taste and low alcohol content so it’s very enjoyable.
If you’re at a restaurant or sake bar, here’s what you’ll notice about sake service:
- Fruity sake is most often served cold at around 50 degrees F
- Aged and traditional sake is most often served hot between 107-115 F
- Mild and delicate sake is usually served warm between 95 – 105 F.
Best sake warmers
It’s pretty common in Japan to drink very hot (atsukan) or warm (nurukan) sake.
The process of heating sake is called Okan suru, and the resulting warm drink is Kanzake.
The fermented rice drink (it’s basically a rice wine) is delicious when heated to the right temperature.
When heated, you can taste the complex flavors of good sake. But, to avoid heating up the alcohol too much, you need the best sake cups.
Sake warmers, sake decanters, and sake sets are popular because anyone can make warm sake that way and enjoy a tasty alcoholic beverage.
The method of heating the sake in special sake warmers is unique to Japan and originated sometime 2000 years ago.
Here we’ll have a look at the best sake warmers for at home, and answer any questions you might have about preparing and drinking sake.
The best sake warmer for our hectic lifestyle is the TWINBIRD electrical sake warmer that works like a kettle.
It lets you heat up sake in seconds, so you can quickly have a drink or serve your guests.
If you’re like me, you want to enjoy sake after a long day, and you are just looking for convenience and comfort.
You can heat up the sake in this kettle and serve it in any glass you want quickly.
I will share multiple sake warmers besides this innovative electric kettle.
I will review traditional ceramic and glass sake warmers for all budgets to help you make an informed decision.
Making warm sake is a fun experience, and using traditional Japanese drinkware will only enhance the experience while making you even more eager to try all the different sake varieties and flavors.
After all, each sake tastes different when heated!
|Beste Sake Warmer||Images|
|Best Sake Warmer Machine: TWINBIRD Japanese Electric Sake Warmer|
|Best Budget Sake Warmer: MyGift 6-Piece Japanese Ceramic Sake Set|
|Best Advanced Ceramic Sake Set with Warmer: Japanese Ceramic Sake Serving Gift Set with Warmer|
|Best Sake Warmer for Restaurants: Taiji Sake Warmer|
|Best Glass Sake Warmer Set: ZENS Sake Set Glasses|
|Best Candle Stove Sake Warmer: Japanese Ceramic Black Glaze Sake Set with Warmer Pot and Candle Stove||
(view more images)
Why do you warm sake?
Here’s a fun fact: traditionally, sake was actually served warm.
The reason is that more than 30 years ago, sake wasn’t as smooth as it is now. It was rougher and woodier, meaning it had a distinct sweetish yet woody flavor.
The warming process helped the sake release the subtle flavor notes and made it taste much better.
But these days, with modern sake manufacturing method, cold and room temperature sake tastes delicious, so warming is now optional.
Yet still, many Japanese are used to drinking hot sake and many prefer it that way.
How do you warm sake?
While it may be tempting to pour sake into a pan and put it on the stove, this is the WORST thing you can do.
It causes the alcohol to burn off and ruins this fine drink.
The traditional way to warm sake in Japan is to put the drink in an aluminum or a ceramic carafe.
The carafe is then placed in a hot water bath for a couple of minutes to warm it up. If you want the sake hotter, leave it in hot water for a few extra minutes.
If you visit a restaurant, they will warm the sake up right in front of you in a ceramic carafe that already holds the hot water.
Different Sake Temperatures
Sake can be served at many different temperatures.
Some people like it at room temperature, while others prefer it very hot.
Here is a brief guide to the most common sake temperatures so that you know how to heat the drinks once you have your sake warmer.
Note: the following temperatures are in Fahrenheit.
- Tobikiri-kan is when the sake is very hot (131-Over)
- Atsu-kan is just Hot (between 122-131)
- Jyoh-kan is pretty warm (between 113-122)
- Nuru-kan is lukewarm (between 104-113)
- Hitohada-kan is around body temperature (between 95-104)
- Hinata-kan is sunlight warm (between 86-95)
- Suzu-hie is around room temperature on the cool side (between 50-59)
- Hana-hie is cold sake (between 41-50)
Heated sake takes on a flowery note with a slight umami flavor. The heating process loosens the sake up.
This process releases some sweetness and removes the slight bitterness of the drink.
Best Available Sake Warmers reviewed
Now, let’s get into the sake warmer reviews.
I am sharing the best ones on Amazon, and the good news is that they are all made of different materials, so you can find one that suits your needs.
Best Sake Warmer Machine: TWINBIRD Japanese Electric Sake Warmer
Best for: quickly warming up sake for guests while entertaining or taking it on the go.
By far, one of the coolest sake gadgets you can find.
This TWINBIRD Japanese Electric Sake Warmer is the easiest and most convenient way to heat sake. It heats up the drink in seconds.
It’s basically a portable sake kettle that you can use to make a drink for yourself or serve your guests quickly at home or on the go.
The way it works is so simple, and you’ll be wondering why you haven’t tried this yet!
You place the sake inside the recipient and turn the machine on.
You can control the temperature by sliding the slider to the right to increase the heat.
The recipient is shaped like a small pot, and it is detachable.
Once the sake is at the desired temperature, you can remove it and pour it straight into sake glasses.
After you’re done serving, you can wash the sake container with warm water and a sponge, so it’s a hygienic device.
Best Budget Sake Warmer: MyGift 6-Piece Japanese Ceramic Sake Set
Best for: trying hot sake for the first time or just occasional drinking.
Want to try warm sake without spending a lot of money?
You can make and serve sake to friends and family with this budget 6-Piece Japanese Ceramic Sake Set.
It’s a small carafe but just big enough if you’re an occasional sake drinker.
If you don’t have a lot of space in your home, then this set is great because it’s smaller than other sets so you can store it without a hassle.
This 6 piece set features a bottle warmer, a carafe for the sake, and four drinking cups.
It is a classic Japanese ceramic sake set with a traditional-inspired design.
It imitates traditional sake sets but costs a fraction of the price. Therefore, you can use it to try different brands and flavors of sake in small quantities until you find the one you like most.
It works the same way as other ceramic warmers.
Fill the warmer with hot water, then add the decanter and wait until the sake starts to warm.
You can’t control the temperature but it makes your sake lukewarm to medium warm in only a few minutes, so it’s effective.
Best Advanced Ceramic Sake Set with Warmer: Japanese Ceramic Sake Serving Gift Set with Warmer
Best for: this ceramic set is ideal for those looking for an affordable sake set to enjoy with a small group of people.
Try the hot sake experience with this 7-piece handmade sake set.
You heat the sake with a small candle until the drink is at the desired temperature. It contains a sake warmer, which heats up the liquid via a tealight candle.
This warming style is called a candle stove warming method.
The candle is placed inside the warmer, and the alcohol is placed on top of the warmer.
After a few minutes, the sake is warm and ready to serve. I want to note that the heat from the candle is not really enough to make the sake piping hot, rather it warms it up slightly.
You can preheat the sake in another recipient and use this set to keep it warm for longer.
If you’re a sake aficionado, you will enjoy heating up your own sake. It’s a great way to try serving this drink in a traditional Japanese style.
In terms of design, this is beautiful drinkware. There are 4 serving cups in the set, with a traditional Japanese design.
The set is made from a glazed durable ceramic and comes in a stylish greenish-blue color.
Best Sake Warmer for Restaurants: Taiji Sake Warmer
Best for: Bars and restaurants because this machine has a large tank and heats up the sake real quick, so you can serve lots of customers.
Taiji is the Japanese brand that makes the best sake warmer machines in the world.
This restaurant-friendly sake warmer is used to heat large volumes of sake at once indirectly.
Therefore, you can continuously serve many customers without waiting for someone to heat the drink via hot water.
The machine has a compact vertical design, so it fits into small spaces.
You can set the desired temperature and operate the machine with your fingertips, so there is no complex knowledge required.
It has a 3.6 Litre tank, which is enough for quite a few patrons.
But the main reason Japanese restaurants use the Taiji machine is that it doesn’t impact the sake’s taste or clarity.
Thus, the quality remains high, and the sake tastes delicious. The machine works by heating the sake through warming baths.
The alcohol flows through special tubes and gets heated as it moves through the machine. The gentle heating process ensures the alcohol doesn’t evaporate or alter its taste.
Best Glass Sake Warmer Set: ZENS Sake Set Glasses
Best for: this glass set is ideal for those of you looking for premium elegant design and stylish drinkware. It is a modern alternative to traditional ceramic sets.
If you like the look of expensive glassware, then this set is for you.
This ZENS sake set is the most modern style you can find.
It is made of borosilicate glass (frosted glass) and has a cool curvy carafe.
It holds 250ml of sake, so you can serve about 4 portions. The beveled mouth of the carafe makes it easy to pour out the drink into the 4 glasses.
The outer vessel is where you place the hot water or the ice, depending on your preferences.
You can make super hot sake because the glass is high-hear resistant. It’s also dishwasher and microwave safe.
So if you ever feel lazy, you can heat up the water in the microwave and then place your sake in the inside recipient to warm it up.
So, if you want to impress someone with your premium sake warming set, you can take out this glass set.
Since it’s made of glass, you can watch as the sake gets warm and the glass fogs up.
Best Candle Stove Sake Warmer: Japanese Ceramic Black Glaze Sake Set with Warmer Pot and Candle Stove
Best for: This one is for sake enthusiasts who want a durable sake set that looks just like traditional Japanese pottery.
If like me, you’re fascinated by traditional Japanese pottery, you’ll appreciate this premium Ceramic Black pottery sake set.
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It’s handcrafted with vintage materials, so the design is definitely one of a kind.
It has a candle stove, which is a place where you place the tealight candle to warm up the drink.
It’s ideal for serving larger groups because the sake pot has a 360 ml capacity. There are 6 sake cups, so it’s enough for your family and friends to try warm sake.
What makes this set great is that it has an anti-skid bottom and textured surface so it’s easy to pour the alcohol from the bottle.
The price is higher than other ceramic pottery sake warmers, but this is truly a premium material and unique design.
It’s definitely a collectors sake set you can pass on to the next generation because it will never go out of style.
Upgrade your Sake Experience with the Best Sake Warmer
If you’ve tried drinking sake cold and you like the flavor, then you must try it warm or hot.
The flavors are more intense, fruitier, and distinguished.
Honestly, even if you buy a low-quality sake, you can improve the flavor by heating it up.
But, I recommend you get yourself some high-quality flavorful Japanese sake and a warmer or set and try it at home.
Did you know you can also cook with sake? Try out this delicious Toban Yaki recipe, with Sake as one of its ingredients!
How to enjoy sake & how to choose the best
As I mentioned already, sake is often served at restaurants and drinking establishments like izakaya (bars). There are also some specialty sake bars but they’re less common these days.
Like wine, sake has various flavors and they’re all different in terms of taste and flavor complexity.
Sake can be sweet-ish (amakuchi), dry (karakuchi), or superdry (ch0-karakuchi).
When you’re at a bar or restaurant you’ll see a number listed beside the name of the sake. This number refers to the Sake Meter Value (nihonshudo).
The scale goes from -15 (very sweet sake) to 0 (normal) and all the way up to +15 which is very dry sake.
You’ll find fresh sake and matured sake (koshu). Koshu has a much stronger and rougher taste which isn’t to everyone’s liking. Mild and sweet sake is the most popular for everyday drinking.
Can I drink sake every day? Is it healthy?
As with all kinds of alcohol, it’s not a good idea to drink sake excessively. Maybe have sake every day is a bit too much. However, sake is one of the healthiest alcoholic beverages.
Sake contains a lot of amino acids which help the body build protein and synthesize hormones. In addition, sake is gluten-free so most people can drink it. Interestingly, sake also helps to clear skin because it inhibits excessive melanin production, which is why people get lots of dark spots.
There’s evidence that drinking sake in moderation helps to prevent cancer, osteoporosis, and diabetes.
But, the key word is moderation.
Does sake have a lot of sugar?
When you compare sake with other types of alcohol, sake contains more sugar. It’s a relatively high sugar content but since sake also has a high alcohol content, you consume less of the sugar. For example, if you enjoy a couple of pints of beer, you’re actually consuming more sugar from the beer than if you drink sake.
The good news is that sake has less sugar than most wine.
Does sake have a lot of carbs?
Sake has carbohydrates. And quite a lot of them compared to other alcoholic drinks like vodka which are carb-free.
Sake has a lot of sugar and therefore a lot of carbs. 6 ounces of sake has approximately 9 grams of carbs. If you’re on the keto diet or a weight loss program, skip the sake!
Is sake better for you than beer?
When it comes to consuming fewer calories, carbs, and fats, a drink like sake is a better option than beer. Sure sake has more calories than beer but you drink a much smaller quantity of sake than you do beer in most cases.
Therefore, the less you drink, the fewer calories you consume. Sake is generally healthier than beer.
How is sake served?
The sake is served out of a big flask or bottle called a tokkuri. It’s usually made of porcelain but these days glass tokkuri is popular too.
Then, the sake is poured into tiny cups which are called sakazuki or o-choko. Sometimes they use a fancier serving setup called masu. This masu is a box in which rice is served. The sake is placed in the cup and inside the box. This is usually a ceremonial type of service, so if you go to a bar, you’ll probably just drink out of sakazuki small cups.
You’ll find that sake is sold in a traditional unit called “go” which is about 180ml per portion.
If you drink alone, you can just pour the sake into the cup and drink it. But, if you are with company, then you usually serve others first and wait to be served by the others. Hold the cup and let your friend or the server pour you the sake. Now, it’s time to return the favor and serve the others.
Usually, drinking sake is accompanied by a common toast called Kampai. Simply bring the cup close to your mouth and smell the sake to show that you’re taking in the aromas. It’s a form of respect for the drink and the other guests. Then, take a short sip and savor it in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing.
You don’t gulp down sake like you do beer because you drink it in small quantities, so try to savor it.
Why do the Japanese over pour sake?
If you’ve seen servers or Japanese people over pour sake, don’t worry, it’s not an accident.
Spilling the sake is a performance and a part of the sake drinking experience. The role of over-pouring is to express generosity towards guests and to offer a bit of entertainment.
When sake is served that way, it’s called Mokkiri Zake (もっきり酒).
Does sake need to breathe?
As a general idea, sake does not need to breathe.
But, there are two types of sake that benefit from “breathing”.
Super highly-polished sake benefits from a bit of air which helps bring out the aromas and flavors. As well, those aromatic sakes also taste better after a bit of aeration because the volatiles will evaporate and the taste will be cleaner.
What do you drink with sake?
If you don’t want to drink sake on its own, don’t worry, you can drink sake in cocktails.
A popular sake cocktail combination is Coca-Cola and sake, or yogurt and sake.
Alternatively, you can combine sake with gin or vodka (hard liquors) and then add lime juice and simple syrup. This makes for a delicious cocktail that will slightly mask the sake’s flavor and letting the taste of gin or vodka come through.
What’s the difference between cooking and drinkable Sake?
Sake is often mistaken for wine or hard liquor. It is a Japanese alcoholic drink made from fermented rice and brewed like beer. The term sake is used by Japanese people to refer to a wide variety of alcoholic drinks. Today, we’re comparing nihonshu (drinking sake) which refers to the sake we often find in sushi restaurants and bars. It’s not cooking sake, it’s the type of sake you drink and enjoy for its unique taste.
But, sake is a drink of choice for recreational drinkers as well as a kitchen staple for cooking many Japanese recipes, especially meaty ones. Sake has a medium alcohol content of 15-20% ABV (alcohol by volume). This drink can be served hot or cold and it’s served from a flask called tokkuri (徳利) and drunk out of small cups.
A cooking sake, also known as Ryorishi, is not much different from regular sake for drinking. Even the alcohol content is the same.
The only difference is that cooking sake contains salt, making it taste less sweet.
The production of Ryorishi started when the government mandated that stores have special permits to be able to sell alcohol-based substances.
By adding salt to the liquid, the sake becomes no longer fit for drinking.
Stores with no alcohol permit can still sell cooking sake under the section of cooking ingredients, alongside soy sauce and mayonnaise.
Moreover, the tax for alcoholic beverages is pretty high, making the products generally expensive.
But as Ryorishi no longer falls in this category, manufacturers would be able to sell it at a much cheaper price.
The alcohol content of Ryorishi is slightly lower than the regular drinking sake. Most brands offer cooking sake with only 13-14% of ABV.
Why cook with sake?
Japanese use sake to cook, much like how you’d cook with wine. Alcohol evaporates along with the smell of the meat/fish.
Sake can tenderize meat, making the liquid popular to braise or marinate beef or fishes.
Moreover, sake can also eliminate the fishy odor from seafood due to its alcohol content.
But the main reason why people love pouring sake in the middle of the cooking process is that the traditional rice wine strengthens the umami flavor.
It does provide umami and a naturally sweet flavor (from rice – sake’s main ingredient), so Japanese cuisine usually adds sake to
- their soup stock,
- nimono (simmered dishes like Nikujaga)
- and yakimono (grilled dishes like Teriyaki Chicken).
Types of Cooking Sake
Looking to try cooking sake?
Here are 3 popular brands:
- or Yutaka.
However, any kind of sake can work for cooking purposes, and I prefer using drinkable sake because the cooking sake has added salt in it (more on that later in the post).
Now that might leave you wondering, how is cooking sake different from drinkable sake? This article will inform anything you need to know about cooking with sake.
There are many varieties of sake available, similar to white wine, where they can be classified from dry to sweet, and from delicate to robust.
You can find cheap bottles, such as Gekkeikan, Sho Chiku Bai, or Ozeki, at Japanese or Asian grocery stores.
Sake comes in many variations based on its quality, process, and ingredients. Here are the variations of sake, starting from the highest class:
The finest type of sake is Daiginjo with 50% or less of the rice remaining unpolished.
The production method is more complicated, resulting in the richest complexity of the taste and aroma of the beverage.
Without added alcohol, this type of sake is called Junmai Daiginjo.
Ginjo sake uses 60% or less unpolished rice in the production. The fermentation process goes at a colder temperature and for a longer time.
This type of sake tastes light and fruity. Ginjo sake with no added alcohol content is called Junmai Ginjo.
Considered as the entry-level sake, Honjozo uses 70% or less unpolished rice. With a strong flavor of rice, this type of sake is refreshing and easy to drink.
Junmai also refers to pure sake, as it contains no added starch or sugar for fermentation.
Futsushu is the most common type of sake, where people buy and drink it casually. Almost 80% of sake in the market is Futsushu.
The cheap sake usually contains added sugar and organic acids to create a tasty flavor. This type of sake is similar to what westerns usually call “table wine”.
Cooking sake (Ryorishu) can also be used. Cooking sake is a kind of sake especially crafted for cooking.
Manufacturers are required by law to add salt (2-3 percent) to cooking wine so it’s unfit for drinking, that way the products can be carried by shops without an alcohol license.
I prefer to use regular drinking sake since cooking sake includes salt and other ingredients (like the 3 brands mentioned above in the article), but I think a small amount of cooking sake should be okay.
Best sake for cooking
It might sound surprising, but you can find great sake in Walmart!
So you don’t even need to visit a Japanese market to get it, although we do recommend it to get the best sake you’ll ever taste.
Sake is fermented from four basic ingredients: water, rice, a microbe called koji, and yeast. Brewing just the right batch of sake takes skill, precision, and patience.
My advice: use drinking sake for cooking
We’ve had great results with the Takara brand. Depending on how you might want to spice things up on your meal, you could use the Takara Masamune Sake:
For more flavor you could use this flavored Takara Hana Apple Sake:
You also can’t go wrong with the Tozai Sake Well Of Wisdom:
However, the absolute best cooking sake in our opinion is the Sho Chiku Bai Sake:
You can get the 750ml version or the small version. This sake is also very affordable so you won’t mind testing with the bigger bottle.
Best cooking sake brands
Understanding the difference between drinkable and cooking sake, it would be better to just opt for cooking sake if you only plan to use a little, and want to spend less.
But which brand of Ryorishu is best to try? Here is what we recommend:
An old Japanese company, Kikkoman, has been famous for its distinct products of Japanese condiments and cooking ingredients such as soy sauce and tempura batter.
Undoubtedly, they also provide high-quality Ryorishi. The brand is popular worldwide, so it must be easy to find in the US.
Kikkoman Cooking Sake has an alcohol content of 13%.
Per 100 grams, this Ryorishi contains 2.7 grams of salt and 17 grams of carbohydrate, with about 2.5 grams of it coming from sugar.
The total energy for this portion is 446kJ/106kcal.
Although Ryorishi originated from Japan, Yutaka Cooking Sake is a product of China. Even so, it has an authentic flavor of Japanese cuisine.
The brand is notable for various foods and ingredients of Japanese cuisine.
The alcoholic content of the Yutaka Cooking Sake is about 13.5%. The total energy contained in 100 grams of this liquid is only 91kJ/ 21kcal.
This cooking sake also contains less than 0.1 grams of salt and 5 grams of carbohydrate, with about 3.2 grams of them being sugar.
Hinode is one of the most loved brands of cooking sake in Japan, so you might want to consider trying out this one as well.
This Japanese company is an expert in delivering many kinds of high-quality Mirin and Sake, including cooking sake.
Hinode Ryorishu has an ABV of 13-14%, which is similar to other cooking sake brands. Per a portion of 100 ml, this liquid contains 347kj/83kcal of energy.
There are also 2.1 grams of salt and 1.5 grams of carbohydrates without any sugar content.
Drinkable Sake buyer’s guide
When it comes to buying drinkable sake, there’s a lot of confusion, especially among non-Japanese people. In fact, picking the best sake is no easy task.
The main problem people encounter is the language barrier – reading sake labels and understanding sake terminology is not something you learn overnight. There are many types of sake, but hopefully, this guide will instruct you on how to search and find good sake.
Read the label
Ok, this is a bit of a tough one because sake bottles are known for being full of very hard-to-read kanji calligraphy (one of the 3 Japanese scripts/ideograms).
But the most important thing to keep in mind is that drinkable sake is labeled as NIHONSHU. Don’t mistake it for shochu, which is a different drink and a Japanese hard liquor.
First, look at the name of the sake which is usually in Kanji lettering. Some modern breweries are also adding the names in romaji lettering which means that the Japanese sounds are represented in roman characters.
Next, check out the name of the brewery. There are some famous breweries such as Otokoyama, Suehiro, or Sawanoi.
Look for the make of the sake or the type i.e light, dry, etc.
Bottling date: the sake should be no older than 1 year (unless it’s a specialty product).
Ingredients: high-quality sake is only made from a select few base ingredients like rice, kome koji, and brewing alcohol.
Check the rice polishing ratio which determines whether the sake is table sake (futsushu & over 70% polishing) or specially designated (tokutei meishoshu & less than 60% polishing grade). Futsushu is the cheapest type of sake and usually served at izakaya or informal bars and cheaper restaurants. The designated stuff, like ginjo and daiginjo is much more expensive.
Which to buy
For beginners, I recommend sweet amakuchi sake because it has similar characteristics and acidity to regular white wine. I also recommend futsushu, especially warm sake. These will help you get accustomed to the taste of rice beverages. You can then try the dryer sakes like ginjo.
If you aren’t a big fan of the rice flavored drinks, try fruity varieties.
For those who want to taste original sake, nigori, and namazakes, with about 15% ABV, are great options. They are a cloudy sake with a milky appearance and closely resemble how sake used to be way back in the day.
The dry sake like Karakuchi has the harshest rice flavor.
Top Drinkable Sakes
|Top pick: Otokoyama “Tokubetsu Junmai”|
|Best Fruity Sake: Nanbu Bijin “Plum Sake”
|Best Unfiltered Nigori: Hakutsuru “Sayuri”
Best Overall: Otokoyama “Tokubetsu Junmai”
This is the top pick when it comes to sake because it’s one of Japan’s best-loved sakes, and it’s not harsh when it comes to rice flavor. Brewed in the Hokkaido prefecture, this sake has a strong 5-star rating, and the brewery has been around since 1661, so it’s a traditional must-try drink.
It’s a dry Junmai sake, commonly served at most izakaya bars. Known for its full-bodied flavors and hints of plum and dried fruit, this sake is the perfect pair for sushi and sashimi, so you can expect to find it at the top of the menu in sushi restaurants.
While it’s a dry sake, it doesn’t lack in sweetness. It has a velvety texture that’s light on the tongue yet full of flavor. It has an alcohol content of 15%. Even first-time sake drinkers will love the light and earthy characteristics of this popular sake.
Best Fruity Sake: Nanbu Bijin “Plum Sake”
This is one of the best naturally sweet sakes. It has a rich and sweet ume plum flavor but without added sugar or artificial sweeteners. Some plums have a strong tart taste, but ume plums are naturally sweet, so this sake maintains a fruity, light, and sweet taste. Therefore, it’s best suited for people who want fruitiness instead of a strong rice flavor.
The sake has a low alcohol content of about 8% and compared to other sake varieties, it’s not as strong, so it’s perfect for light drinkers too. I recommend this sake because it’s very versatile. Since it has a high acidity, it pairs well with almost all meals, especially meaty recipes. It’s a great sake to serve cold or on-the-rocks and even add into cocktails.
Best Unfiltered Nigori: Hakutsuru “Sayuri”
You can’t say you’ve had sake until your try a traditional unfiltered Nigori. Brewed in the Hiyogo prefecture, this sake will delight your taste buds. The drink is bottled in a pretty pink frosted glass bottle, and it makes a great gift idea. It’s rich and sweet but has a certain creaminess since it’s unfiltered. It has a higher alcohol content than Nanbu Bijin, but at 12.5%, it’s lower than Tokubetsu Junmai.
The sake has a creamy texture and creamy, milky color. Don’t expect a strong rice flavor because this one has a fruity strawberry and some floral notes. It’s the perfect light brew for fish and lean meats. I recommend serving this particular sake cold as it brings out all the subtle flavors, and the creaminess will make you feel like you’re drinking a premium luxury drink when in fact, it costs less than $20 per bottle.
How to drink Sake
Premium sake (Ginjo grade or higher) is best if drunk between chilled and at room temperature.
Quality sake is served chilled most often, while average sake is usually served hot to mask its imperfect flavors.
Think of sake as it is a fine chardonnay wine that is
- very good if served at room temperature,
- still pretty nice, and perhaps a little more refreshing if served chilled,
- but then loses all its flavor if served cold as ice.
For years, sake was identified by most Americans with the teapots used to heat it up and the small ceramic glasses into which the steaming liquid was poured.
But this step was not merely aesthetic, it was to cover up the poor sake quality that was being served.
So put away the sake warmer, and serve your sake in your finest glasses of wine, (as many high-end Japanese restaurants do nowadays), and experience one of the most fascinating rituals in the potable world.
The sake degustation procedure is exactly the same as you would a wine, tossing the sake around the mouth to ensure that it also touches the taste buds underneath the tongue.
Swirl the sake in the glass. The sake should have more body (more anatomy), usually rich flavors, and feel more full or round in the mouth if rich legs appear on the glass.
It should be clear, but occasionally it can look a bit yellow.
Swirling the sake releases tiny droplets in the glass that let us smell the sake more easily. Try it by smelling the sake before swirling, then swirl it and sniff again.
The intensity difference should be considerable.
Using sake in your meals
There are two ways to pair sake with food. One, as mentioned above, you can serve the sake as a condiment beverage for a meal.
Somehow, many kinds of dishes will taste even better if you eat them alongside drinking sake. The tastes complement each other.
Almost any type of sake can pair well with any kind of food. But some pairs are much more enjoyable and popular.
For example, sushi and sashimi will go perfectly with Junmai Daiginjo sake. Fatty meals like yakitori can be paired with dry Junmai Ginjo.
Not only Japanese food. You can also drink sake to complement dishes from other countries.
- For example, pizza would go well with Honjozo or even Futsushu sake.
- Beefsteak and any other fatty meals, like yakitori, can pair perfectly with Junmao Ginjo.
Honeydew, cantaloupes, peach, tropical fruits, minerals, dirt, green apples, coconut, and anise are popular sake aromas.
If your meal is enriched by these aromas (think tropical fruit salsa on grilled chicken), then the sake and food will fit together well.
You’ll taste flavors similar to some of the aromas you’ve encountered, but not necessarily all.
The simple tastes your tongue is able to identify are sour, sweet, bitter, and salty.
Needless to say, sake has no salt and should not be bitter. But the palette often notices tropical spices, minerals, coconut, earthiness, and, of course, rich creamy sake rice.
Sakes infused with fruit should have aromas and flavors which are true to their particular infusion. Ideally, the taste will linger.
A long finish is a good indication of high-quality sake.
Where Can I Buy Sake?
If you’re in the US, you’ll be able to find a well-stocked liquor store with drinking sake.
These can also be found in any Japanese grocery store or Asian grocery store that has an alcohol license.
You may be able to find cooking sake in your local grocery store in the Asian aisle or online at Amazon.
How should you store sake?
Now that you have sake, you’re probably wondering can you keep sake after opening?
Yes, cooking sake has a long shelf life while drinking sake can be consumed for about 2 weeks after you open it.
For cooking purposes, sake can be kept in a cold, dark place for two to three months, or even half a year.
Regular drinking sake has a shelf life, so try to finish an opened bottle within about a week or two.
Most sake contains no preservatives, making it vulnerable to changes and spoilage.
Sake is sensitive to light, temperature, and humidity. Hence, you should never store it in a place where the condition fluctuates.
Both drinkable and cooking sake requires similar treatment of storing.
Keep the bottle in a cool and dark place. A temperature of 41°F is ideal for sake storage, but it should never go beyond 59°F. A refrigerator can be your best bet for it.
The shelf life of unopened sake, in general, is about one year after the brewery process. But if you store it well, a good quality sake might even last up to two years.
After you open it, unlike wine, you don’t have to finish the whole bottle of sake in one go. You can close it tight and store it back in the refrigerator.
As long as you seal the bottle properly, Ryorishi can last longer, up to 2-3 months or even half a year.
Without a refrigerator and proper sealant, sake can only last for no more than three days before losing its best taste.
After that, the sake would still be consumable. It just won’t taste as good as it used to be.
Best Substitution for Sake in Recipes
I hope you’ll find sake in your vicinity, as this is one of Japanese cooking’s most important ingredients.
If for whatever reason you can’t find sake or cooking sake, however, you can replace it with dry sherry or Chinese rice wine.
The easiest substitute for cooking sake is obviously drinkable sake. Besides that, some other ingredients might work as well.
Also, it is important to notice that some ingredients can seem very much alike to cooking’s sake that people can get confused.
If in your cooking you can not consume alcohol, you can easily omit sake, or substitute it with water or broth when a recipe calls for the sake to steam or creating a sauce.
You can also use mirin in some cases, so in the next section, we’ll discuss the differences between these two.
Cooking Sake and Mirin can replace each other in a cooking recipe as these two can serve similar purposes.
Both also have a kicking umami flavor to enhance the taste of the dish. It is easier to replace Mirin with cooking sake as you just need to add more sugar to the dish.
But if you need to replace cooking sake with Mirin, you need to anticipate the extra sweetness in your food.
Chinese Rice Wine (Michiu)
Michiu is like a Chinese version of sake. Both are the results of fermenting rice and water. Furthermore, Michiu is also common to use both for drinking and cooking.
The alcohol content of Michiu is around 15-20%, pretty much the same as Japanese sake.
And as alcohol tax is expensive, manufacturers add some salt in some of the product variations so they can sell the products as cooking ingredients.
With so many similarities to share, Chinese rice wine becomes the most perfect substitute for Japanese cooking sake.
This product is also easier to find in the US and other countries.
Dry sherry might be the easiest substitute for cooking sake if you live in the US because the product is much easier to find.
The booze has a salty and sweet aroma, as well as a slightly nutty flavor. Similar to sake, many people use dry sherry for cooking.
With similar features and 17% of ABV, you can consider dry sherry to fill in the call of cooking sake in a recipe.
Grape Juice with Vinegar
Some people are not able to consume alcohol in any way, either it is for religious or health reasons.
In this case, you can try mixing one part of vinegar with three parts of grape juice.
For the vinegar, you can either use rice vinegar or apple vinegar. And as for the grape juice, a white one would be a better fit than the purple one.
You can also use less grape juice and add more plain water to create a lighter taste.
Other ingredients that many people consider using as substitutes for cooking sake are rice vinegar and white wine.
However, these two are not the best fit to replace a splash of Ryorishi. Both have low umami kicks.
Using either one of them for cooking would make your dish lacking depth in its taste. Rice vinegar is also too acidic to create a flavor balance.
Meanwhile, white wine has too wide of ABV ranges, from 5-23%, making it hard to get the right measurement.
Differences Between Sake & Mirin
Many people sometimes confuse mirin with cooking sake as both are Japanese rice wines intended to be food flavoring.
The difference between these two is that Mirin can have lower alcohol content, around 1-14% of ABV. Mirin contains more sugar, so they taste sweeter than Ryorishi.
Moreover, Mirin is mostly used as a dipping sauce or condiment, while cooking sake is used in the cooking process.
Throughout Japanese cuisine, sake & mirin are often used hand in hand in a recipe.
Mirin has a high sugar content and low alcohol content, while Sake, on the other hand, has a high alcohol content and low sugar content.
On top of that, Mirin can be added to a dish untreated, with ease.
Contrary to sake which is added at the beginning of the cooking process most of the time to let some of that alcohol evaporate.
Recipes You Can Make Using Sake
We’ve talked about how important sake is for Japanese cuisine, so now you’re probably curious and want to try out making a dish of your own.
Sake’s strong and distinctive taste can accentuate the flavor of any meal when paired with simple seasonings.
It’s perfect for chicken, pasta, seafood, and even pork. Below we’ll share a couple of recipes that are delicious with sake.
The most popular Japanese cuisine that uses cooking sake as its key ingredients is nabe (hot pot soup) and teriyaki.
People also love using sake to marinate chicken or seafood before frying or roasting them. Here are some recipes to try out:
2 pounds of Manila clams or cockles, scrubbed
1 cup sake
1 cup water
2 teaspoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
2 scallions, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
(Optional) Togarashi spice blend
Note: Togarashi is a Japanese blend of cayenne, sesame seeds, and seaweed. It is available in most Asian markets.
Use a medium bowl and fill it with cold water, then add 1 tbsp of salt. Let the clams stand in this salted water for 1 hour. Afterward, drain them and rinse well.
Take a large, deep skillet and combine the measured sake and water and bring them to a boil.
Add the clams and cover the skillet tightly.
Start cooking them until most of the clams have opened. This takes about 4 minutes, make sure to shake the pan every now and then.
Our recipe serves four.
Serve the clams and broth into medium-sized bowls and top them with butter, then garnish with the scallions and (optional) togarashi.
Serve immediately for the best taste!
Sake-Marinated Beef Ribs
We recommend serving the beef ribs cut across the bone since they are more manageable pieces that way.
Ask your butcher to do this for you and let the ribs marinate overnight
8 meaty beef short ribs (8 pounds), cut crosswise into 2-inch lengths
3 cups sake (rice wine)
2 large onions, thinly sliced
2 medium carrots, finely chopped
1 celery rib, finely chopped
24 green olives, pitted
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp finely grated ginger
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Pinch of saffron threads
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
2 cups short-grain rice (about 14 ounces)
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp mascarpone cheese
(Optional) 2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
Spread the ribs in an even layer in a large glass or ceramic baking dish. Pour 2 cups of the sake over the ribs, cover, and let marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Drain the ribs. In a large roasting pan, toss the ribs with the onions, carrots, celery, olives, coriander, garlic, ginger, turmeric, curry powder, cayenne, saffron, and the remaining 1 cup of sake; season with salt and white pepper.
Cover with foil and roast, turning the ribs halfway through cooking, for about 3 hours, or until the meat is very tender; skim the fat occasionally. Season with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the rice and boil over moderate heat until tender, about 17 minutes.
Drain the rice and return it to the saucepan. Stir in the soy sauce and mascarpone.
Spoon the rice into 4 bowls. Spoon the short ribs and sauce over the rice, garnish with the parsley and serve.
The dry but sweet sake marinade calls for a soft, generous red wine without too much tannin.
Consider the Rosemount Estate South Eastern Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia or the Markham Napa Valley Merlot.
Hot pot soup (nabe) is the best comfort food in cold weather to enjoy in a group, either with friends or family.
Japanese cuisine has a large variety of Nabe. Yosenabe is the easiest one to create.
12 cups of dashi
¼ cup of Japanese soy sauce
½ cup of cooking sake
salt if necessary
The Soup Contents:
300 grams of meat (any kind)
200 grams of tofu
one piece of carrot, sliced
100 grams of enoki mushroom
100 grams of Chinese cabbage
Spring onion as sprinkles
Pour in dashi, sake, soy sauce, and salt in a hot pot to make the broth.
Once it boils, add in the meat and vegetables gradually, starting from ones that take longer to cook.
Sprinkle it with spring onion
Shrimp Yakitori (Grilled Skewer)
Traditional yakitori requires a special grilling device. But you can still use a regular grill to cook the dish. Instead of shrimp, you can also use chicken or beef for this dish.
½ cups of water
¼ cups of Mirin
⅓ cups of rice vinegar
¼ cups of brown sugar
¼ cups of sake
½ teaspoon of ginger powder
one teaspoon of onion powder
1 pound of peeled shrimp
bamboo sticks for the skewer
Mix all the ingredients for the glaze and boil it over medium heat.
Turn down the heat to low and simmer the glaze until it thickens. Set aside to cool.
Marinate the shrimps with the glaze and leave them for 15 minutes
Spear the shrimps in skewer while preheating the grill
Starts grilling. Brush more glaze to the skewer and flip occasionally.
Teba Shio (Chicken Wing)
Chicken wings are easily lovable by a lot of people. By marinating it with sake, you will elevate the savory taste of the flavor with an ultimate umami kick.
To make it taste even more perfect, you can add some spices to the dish.
15 pieces of chicken wings
1½ cups of sake
a pinch of sea salt
a pinch of black pepper powder
one piece of lemon
two tablespoons of Japanese seven spices
Soak the chicken in a bowl of sake for 15 minutes
Pat dry each piece of wings
Sprinkle the chicken with salt and black pepper on both side
Roast at 500°F for 10 minutes, flip them all upside down, and continue roasting for 10 more minutes.
Take the tray out of the oven and sprinkle the chicken with Seven Spices and lemon
If you want to explore more about cooking sake, try using these ingredients when cooking dishes from other countries.
For example, in any western-food recipes that call for wine, you can substitute it with sake. It
Cooking with sake can be such a unique experience in your kitchen. And you don’t even have to spend a lot of money to get the best cooking sake as any kind of sake will do.
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