Japanese Sweet Rice Wine
Mirin (pronounced MEE-rin) is a type of sweet Japanese rice wine, and an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine.
Mirin is not the same thing as sake, though the two are similar in many respects. As a general rule, true mirin has a lower alcohol content and a higher sugar content than sake (and other rice wines). There are several mirin variations that are commonly available, including some with much lower alcohol content. These are detailed below in ‘types and varieties.’
Other names: Mirim/Milim (미림) (Korean). Note that other words may be attached to the word ‘mirin’ to denote the type or variety. Mirin is 味醂 or みりん in Japanese.
Authentic, brewed hon-mirin (see types and varieties) can be difficult to find depending on your local laws and restrictions. This is because it contains alcohol, but not salt. This means that it tends to be designated as an alcoholic beverage, rather than a cooking wine. This may limit its sale to liquor stores, though this is no guarantee that you’ll find it in one. Your best bet for finding hon-mirin outside of Japan is probably online. All other mirin varieties tend to avoid these restrictions, and are generally available in grocery stores.
Mirin can theoretically be made at home if you have access to a koji starter, though the process is somewhat complex and time-intensive.
When looking for true, brewed mirin, it’s best to either seek out a brand you already know, or to shop based on ingredients. Look for a relatively high alcohol content (12-14%) without added sugar.
Unless you are shopping in a specialized liquor store or a part of the world with relatively liberal alcohol sale and taxation rules, you will most likely find that your mirin contains salt.
I recommend avoiding the overly sweet corn syrup-based mirin-like condiments. If this is all you can find, consult the ‘substitutions’ section.
While mirin is used in a variety of dishes, sauces, marinades, etc, it is rarely the dominant ingredient. Because of the historic rarity of sugar in Japan, it was most frequently used for its ability to sweeten and balance a dish. For example, sauces used for teriyaki cooking (called tare [TA-ray] sauces) get their glossy, sweet flavour from the inclusion of mirin.
Use mirin in places where you want to use a rice-wine flavour (and its masking/balancing properties) while adding a sweet edge. Mirin is often used alongside sake in order to avoid over-sweetening a dish.
Mirin generally doesn’t require any preparation and can be used right out of the bottle. That being said, different Japanese cooking styles dictate slightly different approaches to using mirin, with some advocating that it be used as-is while others suggesting that it be boiled (on its own or as part of a sauce) in order to reduce the alcohol content (though it would have to be boiled for a long time to reduce it substantially). This boiled mirin (called nikiri-mirin) style of preparation is rather regional in Japan, and can generally be considered optional.
I tend to briefly boil my mirin when using it to make a sauce (e.g. tare or ponzu), though I rarely do so when using it in a marinade.
Mirin is quite shelf-stable, but it should be stored out of direct sunlight. If you are living in a very hot and/or humid region, you may want to refrigerate opened mirin to help prevent spoilage (especially around the cap and spout, which can becomes sticky and syrupy). True mirin contains alcohol, which tends to make it more stable than the mirin-like condiments (see “types and varieties” below).
Brewed mirin may darken somewhat with age. This is normal, but your mirin should generally be straw colored or pale amber.
NOTE: The Japanese names given are intended to help you shop, but they are not always a perfect guide. Inexpensive, lower quality mirin can sometimes be given the same name as higher grade varieties. The best guide is going to be the ingredient list, not the name.
TRUE (BREWED) MIRINS
These mirins are made in the same manner as sake (or are made from an alcohol base). Because they are fermented and aged, these mirins tend to develop a more complex and balanced flavour. They also tend to be more expensive.
Hon-mirin (本 みりん) – Literally “True Mirin,” this should be made with nothing more than rice, rice koji (starter) and small amount of salt. Shochu (another Japanese rice alcohol) is generally added during the brewing process, but because this likewise contains only rice and koji, it is not listed as a separate ingredient. Hon-mirin generally has an alcohol content of 12-14%. It is not, strictly speaking, a cooking wine, and is actually consumed as a beverage in some situation. This means it is generally subject to any laws (and taxes) that affect the sale of liquor and spirits. Because of this, it is generally the hardest mirin to find. Hon-mirin derives all of its sweetness from the fermentation process, and does not have any added sugar. Hon-mirin may simply be sold as mirin, and beware cheaper, corn syrup-based products that are labeled as hon-mirin.
Shio-mirin (塩 みりん) – Literally “Salt Mirin,” this is brewed mirin that has had salt added to render it undrinkable. This means that it can generally avoid the sales and tax restrictions that apply to alcohols intended for drinking. This tends to make it the easiest of the brewed mirins to find in stores. Like hon-mirin, it generally has a 12-14% alcohol content. Shio-mirin may have some added sugar as well, but it should not be a corn-syrup based product. Because of the difficulty and expense of obtaining hon-mirin, I tend to use shio-mirin. I use a variety that contains 619 mg of salt per 100 ml and it does not taste salty. If you do use shio-mirin, you may choose to adjust the seasoning of your dishes to lower the salt content, though I rarely find this necessary. Shio-mirin can vary in quality (and price) so shop around and keep an eye on the quality of the ingredients and (if you can read enough of the bottle) the brewing time — longer is better. As with hon-mirin, shio-mirin is often simply sold as mirin. Check the ingredients to figure out what you’re getting.
These are the most commonly available ingredients labeled as mirin, despite the fact that they are not true mirin. They are usually seasoned with some rice ingredients to impart a flavour somewhat like mirin, but they are not brewed or aged, and they are usually very sweet. Because they are not naturally sweetened during fermentation, they instead rely on the addition of sugar, usually in the form of corn syrup. Many of these actually list corn syrup (or HFCS) as the first ingredient.
While these may seem ‘inauthentic,’ they are in fact quite popular in Japan. This is partly because of the changes in cooking that accompanied draconian alcohol taxation following the Second World War.
I personally don’t use these seasonings, though I used to when I started cooking Japanese food. If these are all you can get, I still would not use them in dishes that rely heavily on mirin, as they are generally far too sweet.
The mirin-like seasonings may be labeled as shin-mirin (新みりん) literally “New Mirin,” or mirin-fu chomiryo (みりん-府 ちょミリョ), literally “mirin-like condiment.”
Kotteri-mirin (こってり みりん) which, oddly enough, translates to chunky mirin, is basically mirin-flavored corn syrup, and it is extremely sweet. It has less that 1% alcohol, and tends to be the easiest mirin-like seasoning to find. I personally recommend avoiding it, as it tends to create the kind of one-dimensional, overly-sweet dish common in cheap western-style Japanese food.
Aji-mirin (味 みりん), literally “taste mirin” is something of a hybrid. It may have rice and water as the first two ingredients, or it may be corn syrup based. Either way, it is still sweetened somehow. It also has added alcohol (generally about 8%). If you cannot get a brewed mirin, I would suggest using a decent quality aji-mirin for something closer to the right taste, or sweetened sake (see ‘substitutions’ below). As with everything listed in this section, the names can be used and abused in confusing ways, so look to the ingredients to figure out what you’re dealing with.
Simply combine 1 teaspoon of sugar for each cup of sake to create a simple mirin substitute. This works best with hot or boiling sake, as it helps to dissolve the sugar and emulate mirin’s ability to contribute to a good glaze in a sauce. The better the quality of the sake, the better the flavour of the substitution.
In a pinch, other wines (e.g. Sherry and Marsala) can be used to replace mirin, but they are not going to emulate the rice-wine flavour of mirin or sake. Inexpensive Chinese or Japanese rice wines may also be used (with added sugar), though you may find these a little harsh and brash tasting if they make up a major component of your dish.