Japanese cuisine is pretty common all over the world. There is a huge chance that you have tasted it at least once in your lifetime. Maybe you even loved it since and actually crave for it from time to time. And no, we are not just talking about sushi. From noodles like ramen and soba to seafood like sashimi and tempura, Japanese cuisine offers a wide variety of choices to satisfy even the pickiest gourmand’s palate.
So if you have fallen in love with their cuisine, you probably tried to recreate at least one or two of their dishes. You did some research on the recipe you want to try and chanced upon an ingredient you have never seen nor heard about before – mirin. Whether you realize it or not, you had already tried and tasted mirin long before you became aware of its existence. Think about the first time you ate an authentic Japanese dish and try to focus on the sauce. Surely you could remember that certain umami flavor, that subtle richness in flavor that is hard to explain. That’s mirin! It is the not so secret ingredient behind that taste.
To give you a better background, mirin – also known as Hon-Mirin which literally translates as pure mirin – is a slightly sweet Japanese rice wine similar to sake but with only 14 percent alcohol content and more sugar. It is slightly thick and gives a beautiful golden to light amber color. It is an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and it is a necessary staple in most Japanese kitchens. Mirin is actually so important that it even has its own national day wherein traditional dishes that use mirin as an ingredient are prepared all over Japan to celebrate the Day of Hon-Mirin every November 30th.
Mirin is actually more of a condiment than a drinking wine as it is mainly used for cooking purposes. It can also be up to 45 percent sugar based on the mirin types, so it gives off a syrupy texture. This makes it as a must-have in creating dipping sauces and is best paired with soy sauce. In fact, even the blandest sauce can be transformed into an appetizing one. Once you have discovered the uses of this miracle ingredient, there is no going back as you have just unlocked a culinary treasure trove.
The Best Mirin Substitutes
After being introduced to Mirin, you must have been encouraged to add this condiment into your kitchen armory and start experimenting with its versatility. However, finding the pure mirin kind in your local grocery store could be as easy as finding a needle in a haystack. Shops and markets don't usually have this and your only chance to find one can be on Asian grocery stores.
But even Asian grocery stores and markets have a highly unlikely chance that they have the pure kind. Finding Hon-Mirin outside of Japan is really difficult as it is even rare to find one in Japan. The creation of Hon-Mirin involves a long aging and fermenting process.
And if you are lucky enough to find one, prepare yourself and your budget because it’s going to be really expensive. So if you like to try your own pinch of Japanese cuisine and you can’t find this essential ingredient, no worries! There are substitutes that you can use depending on the recipe you want to try whether it’s for dipping sauces, noodle broth, or meat marination. Here, we will share the best substitutes so you can start with your cooking.
The phrase Aji-Mirin can literally be translated to tastes like mirin, so this can be close enough when it comes to substitutes for Hon-Mirin. If you ever find mirin in your local grocery store, chances are it is Aji-Mirin. Aji-Mirin is a lot different than Hon-Mirin, though. Aji-Mirin has even lower alcohol content and even more sugar than Hon-Mirin; sometimes it does not even have alcohol content and just sugar depending on the brand.
While it is not exactly the kind of mirin used in authentic Japanese cuisines, you can use it in your daily cooking as it will do a good job of adding that umami flavor. But keep in mind that Aji-Mirin has a lot of added sugar and sweeteners like corn syrup so if you are sugar conscious then opt for other options.
2. Takara Mirin
Takara Mirin is the substitute that would give you the closest consistency to Hon-Mirin. It also has 12 percent alcohol content and a deeper flavor that comes from sake since Takara Mirin uses sake instead of shochu rice (which is traditionally used for pure mirin). Using Takara Mirin in dishes will give you a similar taste of the authentic Japanese cuisine that was served in restaurants.
This will be your perfect get-go substitute especially if you are going to use it for marinades and glazes. You can also formulate those dipping sauces and salad dressings recipe with Takara Mirin.
3. Dry Sherry
Another replacement with alcoholic content is dry sherry. Dry sherry is usually made from dry palomino grapes and stimulated with brandy then left for a while for the aging process. Sherries are widely used for cooking due to its stiff and acidic flavor, but if using it as a substitute to mirin, we recommend adding sugar. To be precise, use half a tablespoon of sugar for every tablespoon of sherry you use (this is equal to a tablespoon of mirin).
But if you can get your hands on some other substitutes in this list, we suggest that you use that instead especially if you really want to recreate that umami taste. Dry sherry is a pretty decent alternative but expects the taste of your Japanese cuisine to be different than usual. Nonetheless, dry sherry still makes dishes taste wonderful.
Vermouth is quite similar to dry sherry and is also a good substitute for mirin. Vermouth is an aromatized wine that is fortified with brandy. It is also sweetened and infused with herbs and spices, so it's pretty good for cooking purposes. There are two kinds of Vermouth – red which is the sweet one and white which is the dry one – and both are suitable for cooking.
When you use Vermouth as a substitute for recipes requiring mirin, be sure to add sugar. Add two tablespoons of sugar for every half a cup of vermouth that you use. This will be perfect to use for glazing, dressing, and dipping sauces.
5. Marsala Wine
When it comes to creating sauces that have a rich caramel and nutty taste, Marsala wine is a wise pick. It’s a fortified wine that originated from Sicily. There are two kinds as well – dry marsala and sweet marsala. Sweet marsala is a much more suitable replacement for mirin. So if you want to make some sauce for teriyaki, tonkatsu, and tempura and you happen to run out of mirin to use, you can trust a Marsala wine to do the job.
You can use it for sautéing vegetables and marinating with meat and poultry. It is a multipurpose and flavor friendly ingredient. And if you are using the sweet marsala kind, there is no need to add some sugar and just enjoy the elegant taste it will add to your dishes.
6. White Wine
Mirin is basically wine, so if you have some white wine around you, you just found a suitable substitute. The results you get may not be exactly as it would have turned out if you used mirin, but it will be a decent one. Try experimenting with white wine, preferably dry, and you might even find yourself welcoming a delicious and a bit fruitier dish.
If you are ready to use white wine as an alternative, make sure you add sugar. Add two tablespoons of sugar for every tablespoon of white wine you use. This proportion is equal to a tablespoon of mirin that is required for your recipe. And when it comes to cooking with white wine, look for Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, or Sauvignon Blanc.
We have mentioned before that Mirin is a variation of Japanese rice wine and when it comes to Japanese rice wine the first thing that probably comes to your mind is sake. Sake and mirin have been used hand in hand in Japanese cuisines for years. In fact, some people even call mirin as sweet sake. The only difference is that sake has higher alcohol content and lower sugar content as it is mainly used as a drinking wine. But when it comes to cooking, you can trust sake to do the job as well.
Sake is best used when you use it as a marinade to remove any odor from meat and fish. It is usually added before cooking – so it is best for marinating – to remove some of the alcohol content. Sake makes an okay job of tenderizing meat and adding umami flavor.
As a substitute for mirin, you have to lower the alcohol content of sake by adding sugar in order to bring it closer to the level of mirin. If a recipe requires one tablespoon of mirin, you equate that to a teaspoon of sake and two tablespoons of sugar. Just follow this ratio for every tablespoon of mirin that you need in your recipe.
8. White Grape Juice
So far, every mirin substitute that we have shared on this list contains alcohol. That's why there is an alternative that does not have alcoholic content. Some people don’t like to consume alcohol even if it is in a dish so having an alternative that does not contain any alcohol is pretty essential.
White grape juice is made out of green skinned grapes. If you want to replicate the sweetness in your recipe that is made by mirin but prefers non-alcoholic ingredients, you can always opt for having white grape juice instead. Just add a tablespoon of lemon juice per cup of white grape juice for best results.
9. Rice Vinegar
Another non-alcoholic substitute that you can use is rice vinegar which is also known as rice wine vinegar. Although it’s other name states rice ‘wine’ vinegar, it's some kind of a misnomer as this went through a fermenting process to make acetic acid which is the final product to turn it into vinegar. It’s a pretty good substitute for mirin especially if you are going to use it to concoct some dipping sauce and dressings.
Rice vinegar is mild, and it has a slight taste of sweetness. However, it is still vinegar, so the sour taste is a given. Make sure you add half a teaspoon of sugar every time you use a teaspoon of rice vinegar to counteract the sourness.
10. Distilled White Vinegar
A pretty okay mirin substitute is distilled white vinegar because they both ascend from rice. Just like its name suggests, distilled white vinegar is distilled specifically from ethanol. This process created a colorless solution that has only 5 percent to 8 percent acetic acid, so it has a relatively weak taste when it comes to vinegar standards. However, this kind has quite the strong smell of vinegar.
When used as a replacement for mirin, it is best used for flavoring broth in noodles, stir-frying vegetables and making the dipping sauce. Make sure that you add half a teaspoon of sugar every time you use a teaspoon of distilled white vinegar to contradict the sourness of vinegar and obtain something close to the sweetness of mirin.
11. Balsamic Vinegar
Balsamic vinegar originated from Italy and is made from boiled down grape must or the juice of freshly crushed grape including all its skin, seeds, and stem. It is then placed in several wooden kegs and left to age for at least 12 years to be called as balsamic vinegar. Some of the best and high-quality ones are aged 18 years up to a hundred years, the longer, the better (and more expensive). As it ages throughout the years, the moisture evaporates and makes the vinegar thicker in consistency. The finished product is a dark colored and strongly flavored, concentrated vinegar that has a rich and slightly sweet taste.
The richness of balsamic vinegar is perfect for making salad dressings, dipping sauces, gourmet marinades, and soup broth which is why it makes a perfect substitute for recipes that require mirin. Even a small amount of this condiment can enhance the flavor of your cooking.
12. Apple Cider
Last on our list is something quite unconventional as a mirin substitute. Apple cider is basically the fermented juice of apple and usually contains alcohol. As apple cider tastes more robust and earthy than the usual apple juice, it makes a great cooking ingredient.
This is not to be confused as apple cider vinegar which is apple cider that went through another fermentation process. Apple cider is much better than apple cider vinegar when used as a replacement for mirin as they both have the sweet taste and the alcohol content.
Although it will not be able to offer the same distinctive umami flavor when mirin is used in recipes, apple cider still gives a wonderful taste to dishes. Apple cider is best used when making soup and broth. Just make sure to portion it well and add some salt and sugar.
Japanese cuisine is not just about sushi. It’s a world filled with delicious discoveries. There are the undeniably good noodles like ramen, udon, and soba, flavorful meat dishes such as katsudon, gyudon, yakiniku, tonkatsu, and donburi, and the savory seafood like sashimi, tempura, takoyaki, and unagi.
And that’s just a small part! Just thinking about it makes us crave for it that we want to eat some right this instant. But truly thinking about these dishes, you’ll find that they have something in common and it's not how delectably good they are, but that's also one similarity.
All of these dishes, as most Japanese foods do, have a common ingredient called mirin. Mirin is that miraculous but hard to explain flavor enhancer in Japanese cuisine. It is such a wonderful ingredient that it became so important that you can rarely get your hands on it. So it is quite tough luck when you want to recreate your own version of your favorite Japanese dish when you are missing an important element. That’s why we have listed a few alternatives that you can use instead.
The substitutes we shared in this article may not be able to offer the same quality and taste unlike when mirin is used, but they can still offer a decent and flavorful addition. As pure mirin is hard to find and quite heavy on the budget, some of these substitutes – like aji-mirin, takara mirin, and sake – allow you to have something similar that is easier to find and pretty economical. Most of the replacements we found contain alcohol content just like mirin.
But if you don't want anything alcoholic, there's also a non-alcoholic option like white grape juice. Whatever your preference is, there is something that you may find suitable for you on our list. Sometimes you might even be surprised how well these alternatives blended with your recipe that it turned out even better.