A form of sake with high levels of residual sugar, mirin imparts a signature touch to many Japanese dishes. It lends sauces a nicely balanced combination of sweetness, acidity and alcohol, just as dessert wines and fortified wines do in Western cooking.
It’s not always easy to find at the last minute, but there are substitutes available if you feel the impulse to cook Japanese.
Wine and Dine
Western-style sweet wines provide one possible replacement. White dessert wines are best, because unlike port or Marsala they won’t darken the sauce. The Western wine that’s most like mirin in flavor is dry sherry, though it needs to be slightly sweetened with sugar, agave syrup or some other sweetener to make a good substitute.
If you have a bottle of regular sake in your cupboard or fridge, that’s an even better option. When sweetened to match mirin — approximately 2 parts sugar to 3 parts sake — its flavor is very similar.
A Tart Alternative
Sake and most wines are quite perishable once they’re opened, so opening a bottle to provide a few tablespoons of mirin substitute isn’t always practical.
Rice vinegar, though, is more obliging. It has excellent shelf life, and a flavor similar to sake or mirin.
Whisk in your sweetener of choice until the sweet and tart flavors are balanced, and then use the mixture in place of mirin.