Last week was a wipe out because I was in Denver to tape an online class for Craftsy. (More on that very cool new project in the weeks to come!) I was somewhat brain dead from the long work days so I didn’t tune into some of the comments on the teriyaki chicken recipe until today. There were several points made about mirin, how the typical stuff sold at many markets is basically fructose, glucose and a little alcohol. It’s also expensive, given the amount of mirin that many Japanese recipes call for. “Can you make your own mirin?” Gina asked.
While I’ve had to come up with mirin substitutes in a pinch, I’d never thought of making my own. Mirin seemed like such a mystery, kind of sacred. Gina put me to the task so I looked at the glossary of several Japanese cookbooks and the best source of information came from Hiroko Shimbo’s The Japanese Kitchen. Hiroko gave the best low down on mirin and as usual, her insights were illuminating:
- Real, honest mirin is golden yellow and sweet, with a rich mouthfeel. The alcohol content is roughly 14 percent, and it’s made from glutinous rice, distilled alcohol, and koji-cultured rice (koji refers to Aspergillus oryzae, a fungus used to produce liquor, vinegar, and to inoculate soybeans).
- Mirin was originally used as a sugar substitute in Japan because sugar was scarce and expensive. Mirin came out of the production of rice wine, during which starches are converted to sugars (i.e., glucose and maltose).
- You can drink well-made mirin. For example, toso is a mirin infused with various Chinese medicinal herbs. It used to be a new year libation.
- Synthetic mirin is the go-to these days so it’s not fit for drinking. The popularity of modern, synthetic mirin dates to the post World War II, when Japan’s tax on the authentic, boozy version of mirin rose to 230 percent; it was due to the severe rice shortage. People were forced to rely on the cheaper synthetic stuff and few people looked back.
I’ve made and eaten Chinese and Vietnamese fermented rice, so I had a sense of what the flavor of real mirin was like. It’s winey, sweet and thick. The difference is that there’s a higher alcohol content in mirin, due to the distilled liquor involved.
Hiroko suggested a mirin sub in her book: for 1 tablespoon of mirin, combine 1 tablespoon sake and 2 teaspoons sugar.
I wanted that rich round flavor so instead of white granulated sugar, I used organic sugar, which has a more complex flavor; organic sugar is a tad more intensely sweet than white sugar and weighs a bit more too. I also cooked the sake and sugar up – sort of like a simple syrup.
To give things a slight roundness, I also tinkered with combining sake with pure cane syrup, an old fashioned sweetener that’s popular in the American South. The color was dark but the flavor lovely. Then, I added a touch of the cane syrup to my blend of organic sugar and sake, which gave the mirin a bit more depth without darkening it too much. I had to taste all the variations and got a bit light headed with the boozy sweetness. The purchased bottled stuff seemed so flat and blah by comparison. While my homemade mirin is not a true, authentic version, it has more character than the synthetic stuff. I'm going to try it out on a new batch of teriyaki sauce.
What can you do? You have these options if you want to use DIY mirin instead of the synthetic stuff:
1) Swap out the quantity of mirin called for in a recipe with a mixture of 2:3 sugar and sake. If you use organic sugar like I did, back off the sugar in the rest of the recipe as the mirin will be more intensely sweet than commercially made mirin.
2) Make your own and keep the jar in the fridge. Below is a recipe to play with. If you have golden syrup (a light treacle), that would work in lieu of the cane syrup and/or granulated sugar. Try another kind of sugar, like turbinado. Halve the recipe, if you want to mess around with it without wasting ingredients. Do report your findings!
Yield: generous 1/2 cup (120 ml)
- 5 tablespoons (65 g) sugar, such as organic cane sugar
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) sake
- 1 1/2 teaspoons pure cane syrup, such as Steen’s (optional)
- Combine the ingredients in a very small saucepan, such as butter warmer/melter. Bring to boil over medium heat, give things a stir to ensure the sugar has dissolved.
- Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Taste and add the cane syrup for depth, if you like.
Several VWK recipes that use mirin: