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Mirin: a rice wine that elevates Japanese dishes

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  July 8, 2022

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Mirin is a staple ingredient in Japanese cooking and you are to have come across it.

This classic type of rice wine is ideal for creating glazes, sauces, marinades, and dressings due to its high sugar content and rich flavor. Especially combined with salty soy sauce, mirin will make any dish shine.

Mirin: a rice wine that elevates Japanese dishes

But know that not everything labelled mirin is the same thing. There are important differences between various types of mirin and it is crucial to use the right type for your cooking.

In this article, you’ll discover why mirin is such a superstar in Japanese cuisine, how to use it properly and how it can elevate your cooking, even if you’re a complete beginner!

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What is mirin?

Mirin is a type of rice wine, used as a condiment or sauce, with a consistency similar to soy sauce. It’s an essential condiment used in Japanese cuisine.

It’s similar to sake, but it has a lower alcohol content of 14% and more sugar. Many people confuse mirin with rice vinegar, but they aren’t the same thing.

Mirin is much sweeter because it has higher sugar content.

The sugar content is a complex carbohydrate that’s naturally formed via the fermentation process and not from refined sugar.

The alcohol content is lowered even further or evaporates completely when the liquid is heated and you use it in your dishes.

So it complements many dishes and helps bring out the umami flavor. It also helps to balance the saltiness of soy sauce.

It’s a key ingredient in all kinds of glazes, marinades, and sauces. As a marinade, it makes the meat more tender and juicy.

Since it has a syrup-like consistency, it’s often used as a glaze for foods like teriyaki sauce.

Different types of mirin

You will find there are three general types of mirin for cooking available:

  1. The first is hon mirin (lit. true mirin), which contains alcohol.
  2. Then there’s mirin seasoning (or aji mirin), which isn’t real mirin in the sense that it contains alcohol but is specially made to use in cooking.
  3. The third one is sake mirin, also called fermented-seasoning mirin.

Hon mirin (本みりん)

This type of authentic mirin contains 14% alcohol and is the only one that contains no salt.

It’s made by mixing:

  • Steamed rice
  • Koji (mold)
  • Shochu

You get mirin by fermenting these together for 40 up to around 60 days.

The enzymes in the koji will start to break up the starch and proteins of the rice, which releases amino and organic acids.

Hon mirin can be stored in a cool place for up to 3 months, but don’t store it in the fridge or the sugar may crystalize.

Finding true hon mirin is not easy, especially outside of Japan. It can also be very expensive (here’s why).

Fermented seasoning mirin

Fermented-mirin seasoning is real mirin (with alcohol) like hon mirin, but salt and other seasonings have been added to it to make it undrinkable.

This is done so it can be sold without needing to add the Japanese liquor tax, making it much more affordable.

Mirin seasoning

The last one is mirin seasoning, also called aji-mirin, which is actually not really mirin at all.

It’s an alcohol-free alternative that contains sweeteners (sugar or high fructose corn syrup), salt, and monosodium glutamate.

It was created as a cheaper option to mirin that could be sold in regular grocery stores.

Although pure mirin is gluten-free, halal as well as vegan, aji mirin might have ingredients that don’t agree with those dietary specifications.

So have a good look at the label!

Learn more about the exact differences between aji mirin and hon mirin here

How to use mirin for cooking

Hon-mirin is more flavorful than sugar, and the alcohol helps to enhance meats, poultry, and fish by providing a mild sweetness.

It’s commonly used in Japanese dishes because it gives them an appetizing sheen.

There’s not much alcohol in mirin, therefore most of it evaporates when you cook with it.

However, if you’re using it for uncooked foods like aemono (garnished salads), first boil off the excess alcohol at a high temperature and utilize the cooled liquid.

This process is known as nikiri; it’s also employed for sake.

Wondering if mirin is vegan?

What’s the origin of mirin?

Mirin wasn’t used as a cooking ingredient until the early 1800s, during the late Edo Period (1603-1868).

Before that, mirin was called hocho mirin, and it was used primarily as an offering to the gods and for religious ceremonies.

It wasn’t until the Meiji Period (1868-1912) that mirin came into common use as a cooking ingredient.

Around that time, the dark, rich soy sauce from the Kanto area became more popular than the light, salty soy sauce from the Kansai area.

To keep up with this culinary trend, mirin producers in the Kansai region began to add more alcohol and sugar to mirin, which made it more like the soy sauce from the Kanto region.

This new and improved mirin became known as hon mirin, or “true mirin”.

This dark soy sauce was combined with mirin as well as sake, and later on sugar, to create a new type of Edo cuisine.

Dishes that feature this sweet-salty combination of flavors and ingredients are still popular today.

These include eel kabayaki, mentsuyu (the dark, rich dipping sauce used for cold noodles), teriyaki, and sukiyaki.

However, until the postwar period, mirin was too costly for most home cooks to use as an ingredient in cooking due to its high cost.

Mirin became more affordable following tax cuts during this time frame.

Mirin made it to other parts of the world only in the 1970s, when the popularity of Japanese cuisine began to rise.

You can buy it at most Asian markets and grocery stores (here’s where to look for it on the shelves).

Know the difference: mirin vs rice vinegar vs rice wine vs sake

While mirin is a type of rice wine, it is not to be confused with other types of rice-based alcoholic beverages.

Here’s a quick guide to the differences between mirin, rice vinegar, rice wine, and sake.

Mirin is a sweet, syrupy type of rice wine that is used for cooking.

It has a lower alcohol content (around 14%) but a higher sugar content and is not meant to be drunk on its own.

Rice vinegar is made from fermented rice and has a sour, acidic taste, making it very different from sweet mirin.

It is used as a condiment or in pickling recipes.

Rice wine is made by fermenting rice and water. It often has a higher alcohol content (around 20%) and can be drunk on its own.

There are many types of rice wine, and mirin is one of them.

Sake is a type of rice wine that is made by fermenting rice and water. It has a higher alcohol content (around 15 to 20%) and is meant to be drunk on its own.

Where can you buy mirin?

Would you like to get started with this Japanese condiment yourself?

Of course, and you can! The sauce is easy to get at most Asian markets and even most grocery stores sell it right on the shelf with the soy and teriyaki sauces.

I like ordering my Asian groceries online though, and my favorite brand of mirin is this one:

Sushi chef traditional mirin

(view more images)

So now that you know a little bit more about mirin, let’s take a look at some of the most popular dishes that use this delicious ingredient.

Teriyaki chicken

This dish is made by marinating chicken in a mixture of soy sauce, mirin, and sugar before cooking it. The result is a sweet and savory dish that is perfect for a weeknight meal.

Tempura

Tempura is a Japanese dish of fried seafood or vegetables. The batter is made with eggs, flour, water, and mirin.

Sushi

Mirin is often used in sushi rice to give it a slightly sweet flavor. It also counters the saltiness of the soy sauce and gives a delicate umami flavor to the dish.

Miso soup

This traditional Japanese soup is made with miso paste, water, and mirin.

Tonkatsu

Tonkatsu is a breaded and fried pork cutlet. It is often served with a sauce made from mirin, soy sauce, and fruit juices.

As you can see, mirin is a versatile ingredient that can be used in many different dishes. Moreover, mirin is also nice in dishes made with tofu, rice, vegetables, fish, and other seafood.

Whether you’re looking for a quick weeknight meal or a traditional Japanese dish, mirin will help to elevate your cooking.

FAQs

Here are the most common questions people asked about mirin, so let me clear this up too.

Can you drink mirin?

Most mirin is not intended for drinking. Its purpose is to season meals.

Some culinary wines are drinkable, but pure mirin is challenging to come by, and grocery store mirin has added sugar and preservatives.

Is mirin healthy?

Mirin contains amino acids and antioxidants that can promote good health.

It also has a lower alcohol content than most wines, so it is less likely to cause negative health effects.

What can I substitute for mirin?

If you can’t find mirin or don’t want to use it, there are a few substitutes that you can use. It is advised to use a sake and sugar concoction as a replacement.

The recipe often calls for three parts sake and one part sugar to achieve a harmony between fermented sharpness and sweetness.

Alternatively, you might try substituting mirin with a mixture of dry white wine vinegar and sugar (approximately a half teaspoon of sugar per tablespoon of vinegar).

In an emergency, dry sherry or sweet marsala wine can also be used in place of mirin.

Find more inspiration and a full list of the best substitutes for mirin here

Can I have mirin during pregnancy?

While alcohol is generally not advisable for pregnant women, having mirin on cooked food will be just fine as the alcohol will be minimal.

Just make sure to add the mirin early in the cooking process, so the alcohol has time to evaporate.

What does mirin do to meat?

Not only does mirin make meat firmer, but it also prevents the protein from shattering during cooking. As an added bonus, it gives the meat a nice sheen.

So, when you’re cooking any type of meat that requires long-term stewing, adding a proper amount of mirin will help to maintain the integrity of your dish and make it more appealing to look at.

What happens to the alcohol in mirin while cooking?

Regular mirin has an alcohol content of 1% to 20%, max. It all depends on the brand, but generally, most mirin contains about 10% to 14% alcohol.

Since this is a low amount, it quickly burns off while you’re cooking. However, it still has enough time to impart flavor to the food.

The bottom line

Mirin is a type of rice wine that is used in cooking. It has a lower alcohol content and a higher sugar content than other types of rice wine.

It is a very versatile cooking ingredient and can be used in many Japanese dishes, such as sushi, tempura, and soup.

With that being said, mirin is surely a star in your cooking that will surely win the taste buds of those who taste it!

Are you ready to indulge yourself in Japanese cuisine? Grab a bottle of mirin on your way home now and cook the best dish ever!

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Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.