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What Is the Difference Between Sake, Cooking Sake, and Mirin?

Did you know that Japanese brewers use the same basic ingredients in the malting of both sake and mirin? Koji mold is the catalyst that produces alcohols from polished rice grains. It is also used to make popular Japanese seasonings such as soy sauce and miso.

Authentic Japanese rice-based alcoholic beverages such as sake contain differing concentrations of water, yeast, and of course, rice. Although sake, cooking sake, and mirin are sometimes confused with one another, they have their own distinctive enjoyments.

What Is Sake?

A type of grain alcohol brewed from rice and water, sake is the national drink of Japan. With an alcohol content of 13-17%, it is often called “rice wine,” although sake’s brewing process is quite different from the fermentation of grapes into wine. Japanese brewers have been producing sake for centuries using controlled koji malt populations to saccharify their rice harvests. The numerous selections available today range from common brews to premium-grade brews, much like the diverse availability of wines.

How to Refer to Sake

In Japanese, the term “sake” can refer to any type of alcohol, which is why sake is also called nihonshu. Two major categories of sake are Futsu-shu, also called basic sake, and Tokutei Meisho-shu, or premium sake. 

Futsu-shu sakes are widely available and inexpensive overall. You can use many Futsu-shu sakes as a substitute for cooking sake or when you want a strong flavor of sake to permeate a dish. You may also purchase this kind of sake as a drink to serve alongside a good meal.

Tokutei Meisho-shu, or “specially classified sake,” is a more extravagant beverage that comprises only about one-third of all sake brews. Japanese brewers strive toward perfecting the flavor and texture of Tokutei Meisho-shu to form brews in eight grades. These sakes vary in terms of the level of rice polishing and the content of added alcohol.

These terms are distinct categorizations from mirin, which is not a type of sake at all.

How to Serve Sake 

You can respectfully serve sake as a beverage to guests, whereas mirin is not commonly reserved for this purpose. Impress your guests with the following tips.

  1. The Japanese traditionally drink sake without eating rice. If you include a rice dish with the main course, reserve the sake for immediately afterward, unless it is requested earlier.
  2. Small ceramic cups are a fine choice as a vessel for serving sake. The traditional cups are called ochoko and are commonly crafted from porcelain. When serving chilled sake, use glass containers instead.
  3. Act as a generous host by refilling your guests’ drinks for them.

What Is Cooking Sake?

Cooking sake is marketed as an ingredient instead of a beverage. You can prepare sauces, broths, stocks, and many fine cuisines with cooking sake. You can even combine sake with mirin and simmer them together with sugar into a delicious Japanese soy sauce or teriyaki glaze. For a lower sodium intake, an easy substitute for cooking sake is any other bottle of sake.

Using cooking sake to prepare food has many advantages, such as how the sake:

  • Adds a hint of a sweet, umami flavoring to finished dishes.
  • Enhances the umami flavor of fish, beef, pork, and chicken.
  • Reduces strong odors in marinades.
  • Tenderizes meat as it cooks.
  • Releases antioxidants into the food.
How Cooking Sake Differs From Sake as a Beverage

How Cooking Sake Differs From Sake as a Beverage

Is cooking sake the same as drinking sake, or rice wine? No, it is not. Cooking sake is prepared the same way as regular sake, but with a small amount of salt to add extra flavor to meats and soups. The difference between drinking sake and cooking sake can also be seen in: 

  1. Taste: Sake brewed specifically for food preparation tends to be less sweet and lacks the robust flavor of traditional sake.
  2. Composition: A varying amount of salt and additives dilute the cooking sake, making it best used as an ingredient.
  3. Labeling: Transportation regulations are laxer for sake labeled to be used for cooking.

What Is Mirin?

Unlike most other rice-based alcohols, mirin is made from mochi rice and has a naturally higher sugar content than sake without any additives. Mirin was once primarily consumed in luxury as a sweetening agent in blended alcoholic drinks. Its popularity accelerated in American-style Japanese restaurants, and it has become so widespread that it is a staple of Japanese cooking everywhere.

How to Refer to Mirin

Mirin that contains an alcohol content of around 14% is known as hon-mirin, and mirin that contains low alcohol, around 1%, is known as mirin-fu. Aji-mirin, or a type of mirin seasoning created to “taste like mirin,” as the name suggests, is usually an easier variety to find at American grocery stores and supermarkets.

Mirin is different from sake, and it is a component in or can be added to many Japanese recipes. 

How to Cook With Mirin

The effects of mirin in cooking will vary depending on how you use it. Here are a few tips for making proper use of this sweet malt:

  • You can commonly purchase mirin with low alcohol content and added sweeteners for a lighter flavor. 
  • In addition to using mirin in recipes, you can add it as a mixer when blending drinks. 
  • If your recipe calls for mirin as the primary ingredient of an alcoholic beverage, a hon-mirin is recommended to achieve maximum flavor. 
  • If you use mirin as a mixer or use it as an ingredient, you can add mirin-fu.

How Mirin Is Different From Sake

While mirin is also made with koji and distilled rice through a fermentation process, it differs from sake in a few key ways:

  1. Rice component: One distinction is the mochi rice grain, which used to be produced in lower quantities than sake rice crops until mirin became more popular.
  2. Taste and Texture: Mirin tends to be sweeter than sake and syrupy, making it a desirable filler drink. Sake is often served pure from the bottle or as a cocktail base.
  3. Usage: Mirin is frequently marketed to be used for cooking, whereas sake is served as a beverage.
  4. Composition: Mirin typically contains a lower alcohol content than sake, but its sugar content is much higher.

Find Premium Sake From Takara Sake USA Inc.

We stock a fine selection of the highest quality Japanese alcoholic beverages for all of your desired uses. Our products are either produced in the United States or imported directly from certified breweries overseas. The list of possibilities is endless — whether you want gourmet mirin for a hearty ramen recipe or traditional sake to serve with your sushi.

View our map to check our delivery availability in your state, or make a reservation at our Tasting Room for a Variety Sake Tasting Course and learn more about this ancient brewing tradition.

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