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Mirin (Japanese Rice Wine)

By Cook's Illustrated Published May 2009

How we tested

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*