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What is Mirin?
Mirin (みりん) is a sweet seasoning containing alcohol that developed uniquely in Japan.
It may just seem like a sweet touch to Japanese dishes, but it’s much more—a cornerstone seasoning that shapes taste with its unique sweetness and alcohol content. In this article, we’ll explore the indispensable role of Mirin in Japanese cooking.
Originating in the bustling trade hub of Kyushu around the 16th century, this sweet seasoning, once a luxury enjoyed as a more-or-less cocktail named “Naoshi (直し)” in Tokyo and “Yanagage (柳影)” in Osaka, was a cherished drink during the Edo period (1600-1868). Today, this tradition remains a celebratory sip in “Toso (屠蘇)” during the New Year festivities.
Mirin transitioned from an exclusive condiment in high-end restaurants to a staple in homes, thanks to a streamlined brewing process.
Now, alongside the traditional and newer varieties of Mirin, budget-friendly alternatives and fermented seasonings offer similar effects at a fraction of the cost.
The crafting of authentic mirin is an art, balancing just three ingredients: glutinous rice, rice malt, and shochu (Japanese distilled beverage).
The choice of glutinous rice is pivotal—it saccharifies more quickly than ordinary rice, unlocking a deeper sweetness. Yet, the artistry lies in halting fermentation at its peak; this is where shochu steps in, curtailing the process to preserve the sweetness before it fully converts into alcohol.
With an alcohol content between 11-14%, mirin is not classified as a condiment but an alcoholic beverage in Japan.
Role in Japanese Cuisine
|Effect of Mirin
|Simmered blue fish, Dried fish
|Preventing boiled fish from collapsing
|Simmered fish, Nikujaga, Buri Daikon
|Kabayaki, Yakitori, Teriyaki
Mirin, at its essence, is a sweet sake. Before its common use in home cooking, a mix of sake and sugar was the go-to alternative, yet it fell short of mirin’s unique qualities.
Crafted through the fermentation of glutinous rice and rice malt, mirin boasts a complex composition that infuses dishes with a profound, layered flavor and a richness that mere sugar can’t offer on its own.
Its alcohol content plays a dual role, quelling strong odors and enhancing flavor absorption while also protecting foods from collapsing.
This is why mirin is indispensable for simmered fish and for Nikujaga, which tend to be easily broken.
Mirin can also be added at the end of cooking to give a nice shine to dishes. The delicious glossy teriyaki and kabayaki are all made possible by mirin.
Mirin vs Sake
While mirin and sake are both pivotal in Japanese cuisine, their natures diverge significantly.
Sake is made by slowly fermenting Uruchi rice with rice malt and yeast to break down the sugar generated into alcohol. By using yeast as well as rice malt, sugar is actively decomposed into alcohol, producing components of sweet, sour, pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes.
Mirin, by contrast, arises from fermenting glutinous rice, which saccharizes more swiftly with rice malt. Then shochu is added when a large amount of glucose and other sugars remain in the mixture, preventing it from breaking down into alcohol. This alcoholic fermentation is the most significant difference between sake and mirin.
This makes mirin a unique seasoning that has the same alcohol content as sake but also contains a large amount of sugar.
That said, substituting mirin with sake is generally not recommended because of the significant difference in taste and sweetness.
If you want to know more about sake as an ingredient, you can check out my Sake 101 article.
Hon Mirin vs Aji Mirin
As explained earlier, mirin is classified as an “alcoholic beverage” and thus subject to a higher tax rate. That’s why you’ll often find “aji mirin,” a mirin-like seasoning that’s easier on the pocket.
On the other hand, real mirin is always labeled as “hon mirin,” so if you’re looking for real stuff, pay attention to the label.
From my experience, while aji mirin is a go-to for its affordability, it just doesn’t quite match up to the authentic taste of hon mirin.
Let me dive into the nuances of each and how you can use them in dishes that’ll delight your senses.
|Old-style Hon Mirin (traditional process)
|Glutinous rice, rice malt, rice shochu
Dark in color
|Shinshiki Hon Mirin (modern process)
|Glutinous rice, Uruchi rice, rice malt, rice shochu, alcohol, sugar
Light in color
|Mirin-Style Seasonings (Aji Mirin)
|Saccharides, acidifiers, etc.
|Often less than 1% (Not subject to liquor tax in Japan)
|Uruchi rice, rice malt, alcohol, sugar, salt, etc.
|Short to medium-term
Cannot drink at all
Hon Mirin is a fermented sweetening condiment containing 11-14% alcohol.
There are two types of hon mirin: old-style hon mirin, which is produced using traditional methods, and new-style hon mirin, which can be made in a relatively short period of time using machinery.
- Old-style Hon Mirin (旧式本みりん): Aged for a long period of time. It has a rich and complex flavor, with a wide variety of sugars, and is characterized by its deep sweetness. It has a rich aroma and adds depth to dishes.
- New-style Hon Mirin (新式本みりん): It is lighter in sweetness and flavor than the old-style Hon Mirin, but has an elegant, clean taste. Because it is aged for a shorter period of time, it is more reasonably priced than the old-style Hon Mirin.
- Mirin-style Seasoning/Aji Mirin (みりん風調味料): This is a non-fermented seasoning made by blending sugars and acidifiers. They are inexpensive but contain little alcohol and lack the richness, umami, and flavor of real mirin. At the end of the day, Aji Mirin is just a different seasoning that attempts to mimic the taste of hon mirin.
- Mirin-type fermented seasoning (みりんタイプ発酵調味料): Like hon mirin, it has complex sweet and umami flavors, but salt is added to prevent it from becoming a beverage due to the tax system. It is not subject to the liquor tax law and is cheaper than hon mirin. However, because of its salt content, care must be taken to reduce the salt elsewhere when using it in cooking.
Even for me, as a Japanese, these names sound too complicated, and it’s no wonder some people think that all the different types are the same due to their confusing names.
Simply put, if you can get your hands on hon mirin, then using hon mirin is the best way to make the most delicious Japanese dishes!
This is because Hon Mirin has a complex and rich flavor due to the presence of different types of sugars from the fermentation process. The alcohol also acts to eliminate fishy smells, improve flavor penetration, prevent overcooked fish, and add shine (teri).
Unfortunately, Ajimirin, only contains little alcohol and does not achieve these effects.
Although slightly more expensive, I strongly recommend using hon mirin instead of aji mirin for the rich taste and flavor unique to authentic Japanese cuisine.
Recommended Hon Mirin You Can Buy in the US
As mentioned earlier, Hon Mirin is classified as an “alcoholic beverage” and is not readily available overseas from Japan because of that.
Please note that if you simply search for “mirin” on an e-commerce website, most of what you will find is “Mirin-like seasoning.”
Below is a list of hon mirin available on Amazon US:
- Hinode Junmai Hon-Mirin: The catchphrase for this mirin is “so good you can drink it,” and it is sold in Japan. It is characterized by its elegant sweetness and rich, full-bodied flavor.
- Hinode Premium Hon Mirin: Hinode’s global Hon Mirin product line. This company has been in business since 1900 and is a reliable company.
As far as I checked, these are the only two Hon Mirin sold on Amazon US. The rest are all “mirin-like seasonings,” so keep that in mind.
If you know any Hon Mirin brands you can get in the U.S., let me know in the comments!
Looking for mirin substitutes? If you need a substitute for mirin, either you’re out of mirin or to avoid alcohol, consider these alternatives:
- Mirin-Style Seasoning: When hon-mirin is not available in your area, a mirin-like seasoning is a top substitute. For instance, Kikkoman’s Ajimirin offers a similar flavor profile.
- Sake + Sugar: To mimic mirin’s unique sweet and alcoholic characteristics, combine 1 tablespoon of non-salted drinking sake with 1 teaspoon of sugar. Alternatively, you can use a slightly lesser amount (just under 1 teaspoon) of honey, maple syrup, or golden syrup for a different sweet twist.
- White Wine + Sugar: Similar to the sake substitute, you can mix white wine with sugar. Combine 1 tablespoon of white wine with 1 teaspoon of sugar to make up for 1 tablespoon of mirin, or for a variation, use a slightly lesser amount of honey, maple syrup, or golden syrup as a sweetening agent.
- Cola: For an alcohol-free alternative, cola can be used, especially if you’re avoiding alcohol in your cooking. However, it’s important to note that if the recipe requires a significant amount of mirin, using cola might result in an unusual flavor profile.
Each of these options provides a different take on mirin’s unique usage, allowing you to adjust your recipes according to your preferences or needs.