“Mirin” Sweet Rice Sake Beyond Seasoning

Tateki Matsuda

December 23, 2022
Using a bottle of true “mirin” is an easy way to reduce sugar intake and make healthier meals that still taste great.

Mirin is a sweet rice wine used as a seasoning in Japanese cuisine. It has a mild flavor and slightly sweet taste that enhances the flavors of the food it is cooked with. Mirin can be found in most grocery stores, and it is easy to use. When most people think of mirin, they think of a sweet rice wine used as a seasoning in Japanese cuisine. But many people don’t know that mirin has a range of other uses – from being a natural tenderizer for meat to adding delicious flavor to cocktails. Mirin is generally made from fermenting several ingredients together: steamed sweet or glutinous rice, koji (malted rice used as a fermentation starter), and wine—typically sake (rice wine) or shochu, distilled rice wine. Mirin adds depth, shines to sauces and glazes, and balances out any gaminess or fishiness in meat or seafood. In general, the color of mirin is golden, though the exact shade can differ across brands. When poured, mirin has a slight syrupy thickness, but it is not nearly as heavy or sticky as maple syrup or honey.

Mirin in a wooden bowl being poured with a silver spoon
Mirin adds sweetness to dishes such as teriyaki and many other traditional recipes. However, when looking at the nutrition label on bottles, mirin contains large amounts of sugar as its primary ingredient; it can contain up to 40% sugar content by volume. This means that mirin can be just as unhealthy as traditional sources of sugar – like white table sugar. Many health practitioners advise people to look for a healthier alternative to mirin while still maintaining the flavor profile of their dish. Natural sweeteners are plant-based and have no added sugar or artificial additives. Examples include coconut sugar, agave nectar, and stevia. However, as a Japanese, it is sad to see people miss authentic opportunities to taste Japanese history and tradition. Mirin could be a better sweetener than conventional refined sugar and affect our gut microbiome. I want to share why mirin is a healthier alternative as a sweetener and teaches us complex flavors of sweetness. Hopefully, we can enjoy Japanese dishes without worrying about sugar overload. Using a bottle of true “mirin” is an easy way to reduce sugar intake and make healthier meals that still taste great.

Types of mirin

Did you know that there are different types of mirin? There are a few types of mirin, but all have the same goal: to add a delicious and subtle sweetness to dishes. While there are variations, all bottles of mirin are not created equal.

Hon mirin

The ingredients are glutinous rice, rice malt, and shochu. It is made by combining steamed glutinous rice and rice malt, adding shochu, preparing it, pressing it, and storing and aging it for six months to a year (sometimes longer). The alcohol content is around 14 degrees. It has a mild, deep sweetness. It is classified as an alcoholic beverage under the Liquor Tax Law.

Traditional method

High-quality glutinous rice is used as the raw material and boiled in a Japanese kettle. Mirin is made by the traditional method of sugaring and aging mirin moromi (the softly solidified product with ingredients in the brewed liquid for making mirin) for an extended time after preparation. Mirin is made using Otsu shochu (rice shochu), the original mirin production method. The brewing and maturation period is relatively more extended than the industrial process.

Industrial method

This industrial method has been used since the end of World War II, in which the utilization of starch and protein is increased in a short period of time through processes such as pressurized steaming and high-temperature liquefaction. It uses Kou-type shochu, such as white liquor, instead of Otsu-type shochu. The brewing and aging period is relatively short, from 40 to 60 days.

Fermented seasoning mirin (Kashio mirin)

A mixture of sugars and alcohol is made by saccharifying Uruchi rice with malted rice and fermenting it with yeast. It is also combined with mirin. Because it is adjusted by adding salt, it is not considered a taxable alcoholic beverage.

Mirin-like seasoning

The mirin-like seasoning was created after World War II by mixing glucose, syrup, other sugars, glutamic acid, and flavorings. The alcohol content is less than 1%. Mirin-like seasonings with less than 1% alcohol by volume are not subject to liquor tax, whereas hon mirin contains 13-14% alcohol. Mirin-like seasonings are less expensive to produce and are distributed at a lower price than hon mirin.
Rice koji on a wooden spoon

Where does the price difference come from?

Hon-mirin is widely used in traditional Japanese cuisine to bring out the sweetness and umami in food. Its subtle sweet taste makes it a great natural sweetener for sauces, marinades, and dressings. When choosing mirin, Hakko Hub readers should go for hon-mirin to get the best quality and flavor out of your cooking. Hon-mirin also helps to deepen the flavor of foods without adding too much saltiness. Due to its slow fermentation process and high alcohol content, Hon-mirin is more expensive than other types of mirin. However, its quality makes it worth the extra cost, as it brings out the best flavors in your cooking. In addition, since hon-mirin contains no artificial additives or preservatives, you can enjoy all the flavors naturally. The fermentation process can take 40 to 90 days, so you know your mirin is made with care. Since it contains alcohol, it would be difficult for people in certain countries to find hon-mirin. Sometimes you may have to visit liquor stores to find one. To ensure you’re getting the best hon-mirin, check the label carefully. If there is any added sugar or salt, it’s not a genuine bottle of hon-mirin. You may need to go to a Japanese supermarket to locate a quality mirin bottle and ensure it does not contain additives.

The enzymes in the rice malt break down the glutinous rice’s starch and protein to produce glucose and amino acids, which give mirin its distinctive flavor. In other words, mirin is a seasoning made from glutinous rice extracted over a long time through the power of koji. Mirin-like seasonings” and “fermented seasonings” are similar to mirin but differ in both production methods and ingredients. I recommend hon-mirin. Compared to sugar, which has an intense sweetness, hon-mirin has a mild and elegant sweetness. This is due to the different types of sugar contained. Sugar mainly consists of sucrose, whereas hon-mirin primarily consists of sucrose and oligosaccharides. This gives it a mellow, complex sweetness and a richer flavor.

Mirin being poured onto a silver spoon

Hon-mirin as a better sweetener

The main components of mirin that contribute to its cooking effect are as follows.

  1. Sugars (glucose, isomaltose, oligosaccharides, etc.)
  2. Amino acids (glutamic acid, leucine, aspartic acid, etc.)
  3. Organic acids (lactic acid, citric acid, pyroglutamic acid, etc.)
  4. Aromatic ingredients (ethyl ferulic acid, ethyl phenylacetate, etc.)

Source: Knowledge of Hon Mirin

In addition to sugars, amino acids, organic acids, and aromatic ingredients, the alcohol used as a raw material have a pleasing effect on the food. The above ingredients are produced through saccharification and maturation in the presence of alcohol over a long period of time. According to “Bioscience, Biotechnology, Biochemistry,” Japanese researchers analyzed aroma compounds in mirin. Although only quantitatively major components of esters, acids, alcohols, and aldehydes had been identified and recognized as aroma components in mirin, they found that minor components might have low detection thresholds as the candidates of aroma-active components.

The sweetness of mirin is extremely mild, consisting mainly of glucose and various disaccharides, trisaccharides, and oligosaccharides such as isomaltose, nigerose, kojibiose, and maltose. Some of these sugars are both sweet and bitter, and their complex combination of tastes imparts a full-bodied taste to foods. Obviously, hon-mirin is a lower GI seasoning compared to mirin-like seasoning. As Maho Tanabe mentions, mirin is 15 on GI Index in her article “Enjoy Mirin in Sweets!”. This is 4.8 times lower than maple syrup, and you still feed your gut microbiome with long-fermented seasoning.

Scientifically speaking, hon-mirin is beyond seasoning. We learn and experience the complexity of sweetness, which needs to be researched, and we can use mirin as a better sweetener alternative. None of the “healthy sugar alternatives,” such as coconut sugar and raw honey, feeds our gut microbiome well, except hon-mirin. Mirin is a delicious, versatile ingredient in many dishes to enhance flavor. If you are looking for a way to add some extra flavor to your food, mirin is an excellent option. Hon mirin is the real deal Japanese seasoning made from fermenting several ingredients together. Try adding it to your next dish and see how it enhances the flavors of your food.

References:
1. Kokonoe Mirin https://kokonoe.co.jp/
2. Knowledge of Mirin https://www.honmirin.org/knowledge/
3. Shu Kaneko, Kenji Kumazawa, Aroma compounds in Japanese sweet rice wine (Mirin)
screened by aroma extract dilution analysis (AEDA), Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, Volume 79, Issue 3, 4 March 2015, Pages 484–487, https://doi.org/ 10.1080/09168451.2014.980218
4. Fujiwara A, Okada E, Okada C, Matsumoto M, Takimoto H. Association of Free Sugars Intake with Cardiometabolic Risk Factors among Japanese Adults: The 2016 National Health and Nutrition Survey, Japan. Nutrients. 2020 Nov 25;12(12):3624. doi: 10.3390/ nu12123624. PMID: 33255814; PMCID: PMC7761430.

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