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If you have traveled to Japan or dined at an authentic Japanese restaurant, you are probably familiar with the subtle tang and sweetness mixed with rich umami flavor. You will be surprised to know that it’s not due to sugar but a typical Japanese rice wine called mirin. But, is it used in all Japanese dishes?
Do you need mirin to make sushi? There are some recipes that mention mirin as a substitute for rice vinegar to season sushi rice but traditionally, mirin is not needed to make sushi (except dipping sauces). The acidity level of mirin is considerably low and it’s too sweet to give the perfect flavor to sushi rice.
Typically, cooked rice is seasoned with a mixture of rice vinegar, salt, and sugar. How much sugar is added to seasoning mix depends on the chef, region, and traditions. The original Edo-style sushi uses very little to no sugar while those in the Kansai (Kyoto region) prefer a sweeter version of sushi rice.
The sushi rice seasoning may also vary depending on the type of sushi dish to be prepared. For example, nigirizushi that uses raw fish toppings usually have a salt/ sour sushi rice base to balance the flavors. However, sushi rolls and dishes like chirashizushi and barazushi may use sweetened sushi rice.
Use of Mirin In Japanese Cuisine
Mirin like this on Amazon is often confused with sake or rice vinegar, but this thick and golden colored condiment has its own unique characteristics that separate it from the two. Mirin is responsible for the typically rich and subtle tang in the sauces served with Japanese delicacies.
This is a type of sweetened wine prepared by fermenting glutinous rice alcohol and rice malt. In Japanese dishes, it may often be used in the place of sugar due to the sweet flavor it imparts to the dishes. The scrumptious glaze in teriyaki sauce is particularly due to mirin.
Difference Between Mirin And Rice Vinegar
While both mirin and rice vinegar are derived from the same base ingredient, the biggest difference lies in the way they are made and used. Mirin is produced when yeast converts the sugar present in the rice into alcohol. Rice vinegar is formed when sugars in the rice are fermented to produce alcohol and then it converts into acid.
Rice vinegar is not as acidic as white vinegar and has a mild and slightly sweet flavor. Mirin is too sweet to be used as a substitute for rice vinegar. Both of them are used to enhance the flavor of Japanese dishes but they are not interchangeable. They must be used correctly for specific cooking tasks.
You must maintain the correct ratio when adding mirin or rice vinegar to enhance the flavor of dishes. For example, you must add ½ cup rice vinegar to every 3 cups of uncooked short-grain sushi rice. I have created an article to help a beginner make perfect sushi rice in cooker or pot, read it here.
Good Substitutes For Rice Vinegar
Now that you know mirin is not traditionally used to make sushi, you may wonder about the alternatives to rice vinegar. So, if you run out of rice vinegar or don’t find it in the Asian grocery store near you, here are some good substitutes.
#1. Apple Cider Vinegar
This type of vinegar is prepared from fermented apple cider. The mild taste and subtle apple flavor make it a good substitute for rice vinegar. It works as a good replacement in just about any Japanese dish such as sushi and marinades.
To use the condiment for seasoning sushi rice, take an equal quantity of apple cider vinegar for rice vinegar in the recipes. As apple cider vinegar is not as sweet, consider adding extra sugar to adjust the taste to your liking.
#2. White wine vinegar:
This slightly acidic and mild vinegar is prepared by fermenting white wine. It serves as an excellent dressing for sauces and salads. As it shares a similar characteristic with rice vinegar, it can be easily used as a substitute in sushi and other dishes.
Please bear in mind that the sweetness level of white wine vinegar is less than that of rice vinegar, so you may want to add some sugar to match the flavor. While you can substitute white wine vinegar in the ratio of 1:1 with rice vinegar, add 1/4 teaspoon of sugar to every 15 ml of white wine vinegar to adjust the sweetness.
#3. Citrus Juices
If you wish to substitute rice vinegar in marinades/ dressing used for preparing raw toppings or veggies for sushi, citric juices can work fine. I recommend using the juice of lemon or lime to add some zing to the dishes.
As the citric juices from lemons and limes are highly acidic in nature, they effortlessly make up for the acidity level in rice vinegar. To replicate the acidity of rice vinegar, make sure you add double the amount of citric juices for rice vinegar to the recipes. While it acts as a great substitute, remember that it may change the taste of the final product.
#4. Champagne Vinegar
When fermented, champagne produces a type of vinegar that has a subtle and delicate flavor. Due to its mild taste that does not overpower other ingredients in the dish, champagne vinegar can be used as a substitute for rice vinegar in different types of recipes
It can be used as marinades for raw fish or seafood and also as salad dressings and dipping sauces. In sushi, you may use it to season sushi rice or marinade the fillings/ toppings. To use champagne vinegar in the place of rice vinegar, maintain a ratio of 1:1.
#5. Seasoned Rice Vinegar
Preparing sushi rice is an important step in sushi making and seasoned rice vinegar may be used instead of regular rice vinegar to flavor the cooked rice. However, let’s not forget that seasoned rice vinegar already contains salt and sugar so avoid adding any extra.
To use seasoned rice vinegar in the place of regular rice vinegar, you may use the same ratio but avoid adding any additional seasoning on the dish. The end results may be slightly overpowering but it’s usable as an emergency substitute nevertheless.
#6. Sherry vinegar
This is a special type of vinegar prepared from sherry fruit and it is often described as nutty, rich, and mildly sweet. If you have run out of rice vinegar, you may use sherry vinegar as a replacement due to its similar acidity levels and mild flavor.
Sherry vinegar may be used for marinating raw fish or seafood. It may also be used for seasoning the sushi rice. To get the best results, use the same quantity of sherry vinegar as rice vinegar in your recipes.
Uses of Mirin In Japanese Cuisine
Although mirin is not needed to make sushi or as a substitute for rice vinegar, it has different uses in Japanese culture. Due to its sweetness and rich umami flavor, mirin acts as a tasty addition to Japanese soups and sauces, such as miso soup and teriyaki sauce.
The naturally sweet taste of mirin helps in balancing the salty flavor of other condiments such as soy and tamari sauce. Here are some more interesting uses of mirin.
• When mixed with wasabi and soya sauce, it can produce a tasty dipping sauce that goes well with all types of sushi rolls.
• Mixing mirin with tomato paste, cinnamon, garlic, cumin, salt, and pepper can give you a yummy barbecue sauce.
• Add a dash of glaze to your skillets by using a mixture of soy sauce and mirin. You may also drizzle a little on soups to enhance the flavor.
Easy Homemade Mirin
If you would like to use mirin in your dipping sauce or soup served with sushi, here’s a quick recipe but remember that it takes time to ferment. You will need three different ingredients – steamed glutinous rice, cultured rice (koji), and alcoholic beverage (shochu).
Mix the items and allow them to ferment, during which the starch content in the rice is converted to sugar. It may take up to two months for the fermentation process to produce a distinct flavor. The condiment is then strained out to eliminate the solid waste particles.
Authentic mirin produced in this method is known as hon-mirin and it is different from the mirin-style condiments that are created to resemble the taste of mirin. If you are looking for real mirin, avoid the products labeled as aji-mirin because it means ‘tastes like mirin’ in English. These substitutes are cheaper as they contain less than one percent of alcohol.
Are rice wine and rice vinegar the same things?
If you are a beginner at sushi making, it may be difficult for you to differentiate between rice wine and rice vinegar. Although they look similar and are often kept on the same shelf in grocery stores, they are not used interchangeably in recipes.
Rice vinegar is fermented for long to convert the alcohol into acid. The high acidity level makes it good for seasoning sushi rice and as marinades for raw meat. However, it cannot be used as a replacement for rice wine.
What substitute can I use for mirin?
Mirin is one such ingredient whose flavor cannot be properly replaced in a recipe. There’s no such substitute that can replicate the authentic flavor and aroma. However, if you cannot find a substitution, you may use sake mixed with sugar.
The ratio of sake and sugar should be 3:1 to match the taste of mirin. You may adjust the sweetness based on your personal preference.
Is it possible to use mirin in the absence of other substitutes?
I recommend using rice vinegar or the substitutes mentioned above in sushi recipes. However, if you don’t get a suitable last-minute replacement, you may use mirin but make sure you boil the seasoning for a few minutes to remove the raw alcoholic taste.
Where can I buy mirin and rice vinegar?
You can find mirin and rice vinegar at any Asian grocery store in your area. You may also buy them online from Amazon.