Here's what to know about this perfect blend of umami and sweetness.

Though no cuisine can truly be reduced to a single flavor, it's safe to say that without a sense of umami, Japanese cooking is missing one of its defining characteristics. There are a lot of ways to incorporate the "fifth flavor" into recipes, including soy sauce and fish sauce, but one of the more magical, maybe overlooked, ways is with a little something called mirin. 

Like other ingredients we may not be used to stocking up on, mirin can seem mysterious — maybe even intimidating. But that really doesn't have to be the case. Read on for everything you need to know about finding, cooking, and falling in love with mirin. 

What Is Mirin Anyway? 

Mirin is a rice wine. In its truest form (called "hon mirin" – more on that later), mirin is the product of fermenting a mixture of steamed glutinous rice and cultured rice called koji in a bit of shochu, which is a distilled rice liquor. After sitting for a period ranging from two months to a few years, the complex umami-rich, yet mildy sweet, flavor emerges to liven up all sorts of dishes. 

bottle of mirin
Credit: Amazon

What's the Difference Between Mirin and Sake? 

When you think of Japanese rice wine, you probably think of sake. Mirin is pretty close, but there are some important distinctions.

First and foremost, mirin tends to be slightly less alcoholic than your average sake. That lends itself to greater versatility and ease of use in the kitchen.

Mirin also features a higher concentration of sugar, thanks to the formation of unique complex carbohydrates during the fermentation process. This makes the average mirin sweeter without any added sugars.

Both mirin and sake have a role in Japanese recipes, and beyond, though how they're incorporated will likely differ. With its higher alcohol content, sake is often added a little earlier in the cooking process, which gives the booze a bit of time to evaporate. On the other hand, mirin can make its way into a dish without much in the way of additional treatment or transformation, making it especially handy for the creation of sauces and glazes. 

Are There Different Types of Mirin?

Yes. Generally speaking, there are four different classifications of "mirin." Some are regarded as true to form, while others make it clear that they're an approximation of mirin that'll mostly get the job done.

At the top of the heap is hon mirin (translation: true mirin), which registers at 14 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) thanks to the incorporation of shochu, a distilled spirit that reminds some people of vodka. With that alcohol content, hon mirin can live outside your fridge (in a cool dark place) for up to three months. 

Below that is what's often labeled as plain ol' mirin, which tends to swap out that shochu for the more familiar sake.

There are two categories of close mirin facsimiles, too, each with different alcohol contents. There's "mirin-type condiment," which is sometimes called aji mirin. Most of the time, this version will have 8 percent to 14 percent ABV, also incorporating a blend of starch syrup, rice, and salt to get its particular properties.

Similarly, there's also "mirin-like condiment" (sometimes labeled as kotteri mirin). The biggest difference here is the near or total absence of alcohol, with products in this category weighing in between 1 percent and 0 percent ABV. 

What Is the Best Mirin Substitute? 

As with any ingredient worthy of a place in your kitchen, there's no 1-to-1 replacement for mirin. However, you may be able to approximate it by mixing together some sake and sugar at about a 3-1 ratio.

Mirin vs. Rice Vinegar

Rice wine vinegar can't replace mirin on its own, but adding a half teaspoon of sugar for every tablespoon of rice vinegar could yield passable results as well.

If you don't feel like doing any mixing, some kind of vermouth or dry sherry could take its place in a pinch.

How Should You Use Mirin?

Any Japanese dish that may need a punch of umami and a hint of sweetness is a perfect time to add in some mirin. Your next homemade teriyaki sauce will benefit, as will your fish and seafood, with a splash to heighten their tastes without sacrificing their essence. Mirin can help round out flavorful ramen broth and savory Japanese salads. It is also key in eel sauce which is great over grilled proteins and is a common drizzle over sushi (does contain mirin, does not contain eel). It is frequently used in vegan and vegetarian sushi as well. 

Though mirin may be synonymous with traditional Japanese cuisine, there's no reason to limit its use to this arena. Mirin can play a role in dips, sauces, dressings, marinades, and dishes like Korean beef or steamed clams.

Try This Recipe: Tonkatsu Sauce

So there you have it: just as sake is to drinking, mirin is to cooking. You may not have the best luck finding hon mirin at a mass-market grocery store (though you can find it online), but knowing about the various approximations and substitutes can help your attempts at Japanese cooking really take off. Now, go enjoy that alluring mix of umami and sweetness you won't find anywhere else.