Mirin is a common ingredient in Japanese cooking, but it’s gaining more popularity with a wider audience, as well as being used in more and more cuisines as well as an ingredient in more dishes.
But, it can be a tricky ingredient to find at times, especially if your local grocery store doesn’t have a good Asian cooking section and you don’t have a good Asian supermarket nearby.
Fortunately, there are some good substitutions that you can use in place of this versatile ingredient, and choosing the right substitute is a little less difficult than some of the other flavors commonly used in Asian cooking. But, that doesn’t mean that you can just throw anything in and get the right result.
What Is Mirin?
Mirin is very similar to sake and is even made in a similar way. However, mirin has a lower alcohol content and is much sweeter. It’s also got a thicker smoother texture than most sake, and in most preparations the alcohol in Mirin will disappear during cooking.
Different kinds of mirin can have different flavors, but outside of Japan you’re likely to have a limited selection that tends to be sweet, slightly syrupy, and slightly floral.
How Is Mirin Used In Cooking?
Mirin is a bit of a chameleon in cooking. It does add sweetness the way you would expect it to, but while cooking the liquid often thins out and becomes almost unnoticeable in your cooking. It can also work to really highlight savory flavors and spicy flavors, while masking or eliminating bitter and astringent flavors in your food.
Added to almost any spice and oil blend, soy sauce, or oyster sauce, the mirin will enhance the best properties of the ingredients, and can also help to blend the flavors together to help create a harmonious dish.
Mirin can also help mitigate acidity in cooking, which is part of why it’s common in Japanese cooking. A lot of Japanese cooking avoids high acidity, which also means that this ingredient is a helpful tool for adding sweetness and reducing acidity in a wide variety of cooking.
Not sure what rice to use with your Asian cooking? Learn the differences between Basmati and Jasmine rice and choose with confidence!
The Best Substitutes For Mirin In Asian Cooking:
Unlike a lot of other substitutes for cooking ingredients, there are a lot of 1:1 substitutions you can use that work well in place of mirin. However, some of these will give you a similar flavor, but also add acidity or change the dish in ways mirin wouldn’t.
So, when you’re thinking about your substitute, think about whether flavor, sweetness, or the acidity of the meal is critical for the finished dish. Usually, those three factors will lead you to the right substitute for mirin.
Sake is a good substitute for the taste and texture of Mirin. They are very similar, and sweeter or fruity sakes tend to be an even better replacement for mirin than drier sake.
You can add a little additional sugar or honey to your sake to get even closer, especially if you are using a drier or more astringent tasting sake.
Rice Wine Vinegar
Vinegar might not take away the acidity of the dish, and it can add to it, but the nice thing is that a lot of the flavor is very similar to sake and mirin, and you can add a sweetener both to reduce the acidity and add the sweetness you would expect from a good mirin.
The only thing is that you want to use a higher quality rice wine vinegar because you want to preserve some of that rice flavor to give it to your meal. Lower quality options often taste quite a bit like distilled white vinegar, which doesn’t have as much flavor as you want.
Sherry tends to be a bit drier than a good mirin, but it provides a lot of flavor and has a similar effect on the foods it’s cooked with. You just want to add Sherry a little earlier in the cooking process to give the flavors some time to mature.
Older or less flavorful sherry can benefit quite a bit from the addition of a sweetener. Agave and honey both work particularly well.
Sweet Marsala Wine
Sweet marsala wines are a good option, and are one of the most similar options to mirin. Like mirin, different wines will have different flavors and notes that they add, and you might want to add a little less than the recipe calls for and taste to see if you need more.
Sweet marsala wines can have a little more flavor than mirin, which can alter the flavor of your cooking quite a bit.
Dry White Wine
Dry white wines are another good option, though you don’t want to get too dry or you might have to add an additional sweetener. Don’t worry about buying something particularly nice, the flavors are there to bind together the rest of the meal, not to stand out on their own.
Just buy a reasonable brand that you like, that isn’t either too sweet or too astringent and it should work well in the place of mirin.
On the other side of the spectrum you can also use a dessert wine to capture more of that sweetness. Wines that have pear or plum notes are particularly likely to work as mirin substitutes because those flavors are often in good mirin as well.
However, like using other wines, it’s best to add about half of what the recipe calls for, and then taste and add more as needed.
Honey + Wine or Vinegar
If you don’t have anything particularly similar to mirin on hand, a 50/50 blend of honey and most wines or vinegars will also work. Just remember that mirin is traditionally clear, so if you’re using a red wine, a rose, or a colored vinegar, this mixture will change the color of your dish.
Aji mirin isn’t actually mirin, but it’s translation is like mirin. This is a very similar sake that is sweeter and closer to mirin flavor than most sake. That makes this the ideal mirin substitute, though it’s not necessarily perfect in all cases.
Unfortunately, this substitute can be harder to find at most grocery stores.
Dashi Stock and Sugar
Another good alternative, especially for Japanese cuisines, is adding a little sugar to your favorite dashi stock. It will work even better if you can get rock sugar closer to what is often used in traditional East Asian cooking.
The trick is adding enough sweetness to get a balanced flavor without overpowering the umami in the Dashi. So every brand of dashi is going to need a slightly different amount of sugar or honey. Trial and error are the best ways to test and find the right balance for your favorite meals.
White Grape Juice
White grape juice is a surprisingly effective option. While you won’t get the characteristic rice flavors, the juice provides plenty of sugar and similar flavors.
Just don’t use red grape juice, and try to get a brand that isn’t grape juice from concentrate since you lose some of the nuance of flavors in the concentrates.
Despite being a very dry option, vermouth is actually a very effective replacement for mirin, and serves basically the same purpose as mirin in mellowing and combining flavors in your cooking.
You probably won’t need quite as much vermouth as you would use mirin, and it’s a good idea to add a little extra sweetener to your cooking to get a similar result.
Shaoxing Wine (Chinese Cooking Wine)
Shaoxing wine has a very distinct and beautiful flavor, so using it can make your Japanese dish taste a little more Chinese. That said, this is a fantastic 1:1 replacement, and adds the same sweetness as mirin, so you’ll get very similar results.
This is also a good substitute for when you have a little mirin, but not enough for your recipe, since the two flavors actually complement each other well.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is a good choice when you want flavor but don’t necessarily need all the sweetness of mirin. It's sweeter and more flavorful than other vinegars, so it works better on its own than a lot of western vinegar replacement options.
Just be aware that adding apple cider vinegar will noticeably increase the acidity of your dish, so you probably won’t want to use as much.
Kombucha is a good option if you want probiotic benefits and the fermented flavor without having to add alcohol to your dish. The trick is finding a neutral flavored kombucha, making your own, or pairing the additional flavors with your cooking.
Lastly, Agave nectar is a good option for adding sweetness and a little of that fruity, almost floral flavor. It’s thicker than mirin, and noticeably sweeter, so you probably won’t need as much. But for dishes where the texture of mirin is important for the final flavor and texture, agave nectar is a good replacement. Agave works particularly well in Asian pork recipes, if you’re looking for inspiration!