Published May 1, 2009. From Cook's Illustrated.
This Japanese rice wine has a subtle salty-sweet flavor prized in Asian marinades and glazes. Does brand make a difference?
Mirin, a Japanese rice wine used in cooking, has a subtle salty-sweet flavor prized in Asian marinades and glazes. The most traditional method for creating mirin usually involves combining rice, koji (a starch-digesting mold), and a distilled spirit made from low-grade sake. The mold converts rice starch into glucose, and the resulting liquid is drawn out and clarified. It has an extremely high sugar level, nearly 14 percent alcohol, and no additives. Most of the supermarket brands of mirin in this country are a cheaper variation that combines sake or some other type of alcohol with salt, corn syrup, other sweeteners, and sometimes caramel coloring and flavoring. These products generally have lower percentages of alcohol.
Would the type of mirin we chose make a difference in recipes such as our Grilled Beef Teriyaki? We chose four brands—three from the supermarket and one mail-order organic mirin—to sample plain and in our teriyaki sauce. Sampled plain, the cheapest supermarket brands stood out for overly strong flavors. Some tasters panned one sake as “saccharine,” while another was so salty it was deemed “brackish.” Tasters enjoyed the “roasted,” “caramel-like” flavors of the second-place mirin, made in Japan using mostly traditional methods but with added sea salt. (The alcohol content is just 6.7 percent.) Our winner was the mail-order mirin, made in Japan in a year-long, traditional process. It scored a notch higher than other brands, with flavors deemed more “robust, balanced, and rich.” However, cooked into teriyaki sauce, the differences among mirins were not pronounced enough to justify splurging on a mail-order brand. We’ll continue to use our go-to supermarket mirin, but any brand would be just fine in a pinch.