I think I can safely say that rarely a week goes by that I don’t use Mirin in the preparation of at least one meal. It is invaluable as a marinade component and a glaze, as well as being a great addition to steaming mediums, broths, and stir-fry and dipping sauces. Indeed, I have listed it as an ingredient in so many recipes published on my blog that is high time that I gave this useful foodstuff a proper introduction…
Essentially, a true Mirin is a brewed rice ‘wine’, similar to the Japanese beverage Sake, wherein the starch rice is converted into a sugar by a Koji mold (Aspergillus oryzae) and, during this same process, fermented to produce alcohol. In Sake, the fermentation will consume all, or most, of the sugars but in Mirin, a good deal remains and thus it may be described as a ‘naturally sweet rice wine’.
Products sold as Mirin that destined for the kitchen (as opposed to being purely potable) may be ‘true’ Mirins, but they may also be artificially sweetened Sake, or else non-brewed concoctions that have the taste, and usually not the alcohol content, of proper Mirin. The three products we will look at here are chosen because they provide a pretty good illustration of the range of purchasing possibilities…
Sushi Chef Brand™ ‘Traditional Japanese Mirin’
I have been using this Baycliff Company product for quite a while, although I should point out that this was less by choice than the fact that, for quite some time, it was the only brand locally available. That being said, though, it is not a bad product at all.
Although the label declares it to be ‘Traditional Japanese Mirin’, it is really a sweetened sake (and, to be fair the label, states this as well). Sake and fructose are listed as the primary ingredients and the darkness of this product comes from the addition of caramel. The aroma is faint, but there is a definite hint of rice wine to it, and the liquid is quite viscous and thick when poured. The taste is very sweet, very reminiscent of honey or brown-rice syrup, and there is, lurking somewhere in the background, a hint of alcohol (8% by volume according to the label) and some of the complexity of sake. This may not a particularly ‘high-end’ product, but, as I will discuss in my concluding comments, I shall likely continue to purchase it.
Eden Brand™ Mirin
Of the three products described here, this variety from Eden Foods is the only ‘true’ Mirin in the purest sense. The ingredients are limited to water, rice, koji mold and sea salt and there is no added sugar or other sweeteners. It smells like, pours like, and tastes like a sake (albeit being slightly sweet) and, indeed, except for the presence of salt, it would actually be drinkable. If you are looking for a traditional mirin taste in a variety of preparations, you could do far worse than this product.
Kikkoman™ Brand Mirin Style Sweet Cooking Seasoning
Kikkoman has some very decent products (indeed, their Soy Sauce is top-notch) but this item is decidedly not one of them. It is not a true rice wine, being chiefly corn syrup with a bit of ‘fermented rice seasoning’ and, really, any resemblance between this and a proper Mirin would be purely coincidental if, in fact, there was such a similarity. There is no aroma I can detect and the taste is of nothing so much as a rather insipid rice syrup. It is no substitute for a real Mirin and will not grace my kitchen again.
The Kikkoman product should, for the reasons discussed above, be avoided except in an absolute emergency. In the absence of a true Mirin, or commercially sweetened Sake, you can always use a plain rice wine, or even a nice dry Sherry, and then add sugar to sweeten. I do this frequently myself and, indeed, as a general rule, I would recommend this practice over using anything that describes itself as a ‘Mirin-Style’ seasoning.
As for the last two products, you may be surprised to learn that I would likely purchase the Sushi Chef variety over the Eden brand ‘true’ Mirin. The latter is adequate, certainly, but, really, if I need a high quality Mirin for a very delicate preparation and don’t have access to the same, I would, rather than use this, just as soon substitute a good, complex sake, or even a Chinese rice wine, and then sweeten as necessary.
As for the Sushi Chef Brand, while the thick sweetness and the dark color limit its use somewhat (as in the case of steaming or making broths, for example) it is a pretty good general purpose Mirin for things like marinades, glazes and dipping sauces. As such, I would prefer to have this on hand for certain purposes and then, for special needs, have a very high quality Mirin or Sake available as well.