The Unique Appeal of Traditional Mirin

Maho Tanabe

December 27, 2022
Mirin is often used as a sweetener, in addition to, or substituting sugar, but it also has a complex and deep flavor and aroma unique to fermented seasonings. This humble liquid can be used in a variety of cooking applications and is said to even have a range of health benefits.
Mirin is one of the most indispensable seasonings on the Japanese dining table, but many a diner are unaware of its history and unique appeal.

Mirin is often used as a sweetener, in addition to, or substituting sugar, but it also has a complex and deep flavor and aroma unique to fermented seasonings. This humble liquid can be used in a variety of cooking applications and is said to even have a range of health benefits.

Mirin began its life as a drinkable sake, a means of relieving fatigue, and as a seasoning.

a bottle of hon-mirin and mirin in a white bowl
Over time, however, market mirin has strayed from its roots, and it’s said that only about 1% of the mirin in Japan is made using traditional methods.

Traditional mirin, or “hon-mirin,” can be applied in the making of sweets, in addition to its other cooking uses, and its complex and appealing flavors deserve attention the world over. There are many different types of mirin available at retailers in Japan and global specialty stores, but hon-mirin occupies a special space. Here are a few reasons hon-mirin may just be the perfect condiment for your kitchen.

Mild sweetness and depth of flavor provided by rice

Traditional mirin is made from glutinous rice, rice malt, and rice shochu – a type of alcoholic beverage. As their names imply, all of these ingredients are derived from rice. The starch of the rice gives mirin its sweetness, and the protein of the rice gives the condiment its umami. Mirin is not diluted and has no added sugar, allowing the unadulterated flavors of the rice to come through. The layered mixture of natural sugars and amino acids created by the aging process of hon-mirin give it a more refined sweetness and a deeper umami flavor. As an ingredient, hon-mirin lends complexity achieved through the fermentation process.
Steamed rice in a wooden barrel

Friendly for the gut biome

Oligosaccharides produced in the ripening process feed good bacteria, and organic acids such as lactic acid bacteria and citric acid make the gut biome more acidic, which helps good bacteria to proliferate.

Lower GI value prevents blood glucose spikes

GI value is a value that indicates the rate of increase in blood glucose level. The GI value of mirin generally clocks in at about 15 on this scale. Compared to other sweeteners, mirin has a very low GI value, making it less likely to cause a spike in blood glucose levels, placing less burden on the body and, some sources say, helping to maintain a healthy weight.
Miring being poured into a white bowl

*The figure of 15 is before heating. There is no data on the GI value of mirin after heating, and it is expected to be higher than 15 because of the increased sweetness of heated mirin. Even so, it is believed to be less stressful on the body than white sugar.

Fatigue-relieving effects

Hon-mirin has been enjoyed as a drinkable infusion beverage throughout history; especially as a means of relieving fatigue and preventing summer heat exhaustion. Traditional hon-mirin is rich in 17 kinds of amino acids, which repair broken tissues and are said to help energize the body.

Plentiful antioxidants

Traditional mirin is made by storing it in an aging process. During this long storage period, the color of mirin becomes darker due to the Maillard reaction, and it studies confirm that the antioxidant effect increases in proportion to the degree of coloration.

 

(Source: Journal of the Japan Brewers Association)

Hon-mirin, which is made by maturing sake over a long period of time, is said to be effective in removing excessive active oxygen, which is believed to have anti-aging effects. It may even help prevent cancer to a degree and reduce blood pressure!
Three different types of mirin in bottles and glasses
(From left to right: freshly squeezed white mirin, three-year aged hon-mirin, and 10-year aged koko mirin)
Freshly squeezed Shiro Mirin – recommended for drinking as it still features strong shochu aromas. It has a refreshing sweetness that doesn’t linger on the palate. Great for use in sweets making.

Last year, this type of mirin was even used in chocolates by a famous chocolatier!

A box of Maison Cacao chocolate and a bottle of mirin
A box of Maison Cacao mirin chocolate touched by hand
Most mirin on the market currently is aged two to three years. It is easy to use for cooking and sweets.

Long-aged koko mirin is a rare type of mirin with a brandy-like aroma and color that can be enjoyed as a liqueur or used in high-quality sweets and French cuisine. It’s reminiscent of a dessert wine and is a perfect drink to pour over vanilla ice cream or to make a sweet cocktail with.

Vanilla ice cream in a glass container with koko mirin poured over
The sugar content of mirin remains the same across the aging process, but the types of sugars and amino acids present increase, and the richness of the flavor improves over time. These notable differences in flavor and color depending on aging make mirin unique among condiments.

Shiro mirin and koko mirin are rare among the types of traditional mirin, but are worth seeking out for fermentation lovers.

2 different hon mirin in bottles and white plates
Maho Tanabe poured mirin into a glass

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