Mirin complements and balances the flavor of natural soy sauce in dishes. Although mirin, along with natural soy sauce (shoyu and tamari) and dashi (kombu stock), are known as the three essential tastes of old Japan, mirin was the missing ingredient in early American attempts at cooking with Japanese foods. Americans were quick to adapt salty Japanese seasonings such as miso, soy sauce, and umeboshi (salt-pickled plums), but the sweet taste and alcohol content of mirin was at first viewed with suspicion by natural foods shoppers. Consequently, prepared foods often lacked the balance and subtle sweetness of traditional Japanese cooking. However, as cooks began to realize that the simple ingredients comprising authentic mirin could be naturally transformed into an outstanding liquid seasoning, mirin grew in popularity.
Cooking Methods and Suggested Uses
Following are tips for using mirin in both Oriental and Western cooking styles.
Sautéeing and Stir-Frying: Mirin adds depth of flavor to sautéed and stir-fried vegetable, fish, and noodle dishes. Its high natural sugar content allows it to burn easily, so it is often incorporated into a dish toward the end of cooking. This helps enhance and round out the flavors while contributing to the richness of the dish.
Simmering: Mirin is used to flavor many simmered and poached dishes including fish, shiitake mushrooms, reconstituted dried tofu, and deep-fried tofu. When simmering foods, use 1 tablespoon of mirin and 1 tablespoon of shoyu per cup of water or stock.
Here are some suggestions for using mirin in various ways.
In Desserts: Mirin is a delicious addition to such desserts as poached pears, fruit cakes, tea cakes, and glazes.
In Dips: Dips for tempura and other deep-fried foods, such as mochi, almost always include mirin.
As a Liqueur: Here is where the value of mirin made with traditional ingredients and unhurried, natural aging is most obvious. While other mirins and mirin-like seasonings are unable to be drunk, authentic mirin is delicious. Serve mirin chilled on ice or at room temperature, depending on the season. Enjoy it plain or with a little lime juice added. In Japan, mirin is sometimes served with ginger and hot water in the winter; it is also combined with certain herbs to make a delicious medicinal tonic called o-toso.
In Marinades: Sake or other wines act as tenderizers and are preferred for marinating fish and poultry. Mirin, on the other hand, makes food more firm and helps it maintain its texture and shape. Mirin marinade is best used with such tender foods as tofu; however, it is occasionally added in small amounts to fresh fish in order to help tone down the strong taste and aroma.
In Noodle Broths: Mirin is the "secret" ingredient that lends a characteristic flavor to noodle broths and dips. Without mirin, these dishes tend to be flat.
In Sauces and Gravies: A tablespoon of mirin can transform a ho-hum sauce into a rich, gourmet delight.
In Sushi: Before sugar became cheap and widely available, mirin was used along with salt and rice vinegar to season sushi rice. Mirin makes the rice soft yet firm and gives the grain a desirable glossy appearance.