One of the charms of teriyaki sauce is that it tells you some of the results you can expect when you use it. The name teriyaki is derived from Japanese words for "glaze" and "broil," and foods cooked in teriyaki have a sweet, salty, shiny coating that makes them look and taste delicious. Substitute ingredients let you capture the spirit of this tasty sauce and create your own glaze-broil effect.
Classic teriyaki sauce is made from soy sauce, mirin, sake and sugar. Its taste profile includes saltiness, sweetness, the meat-related taste called umami and a tangy subtle spiciness here referred to as zing. While there is no single ingredient that stands in for teriyaki sauce, a variety of substitutions let you make teriyaki from ingredients you have on hand, tailor teriyaki to a specific meat or poultry, or replace ingredients you do not wish to use.
The distinctive saltiness of fermented soy, a taste referred to as umami, is fundamental to teriyaki sauce, so, unless you have some form of soy sauce, you would be wise to develop another type of flavor mix, like a spicy-sweet Caribbean or vinegar-based Southern blend. Fortunately, any type of soy sauce can form the basis of a teriyaki. Use dark, regular, tamari or reduced-sodium soy sauce for teriyaki's briny, earthy base. Because teriyaki is both salty and sweet, you might cook down citrus/soy ponzu sauce to intensify flavors. Reduce 1 cup of ponzu to 1/2 a cup over moderate-high heat for a sweet- and soy-flavored base. Alternatively, marinate meat to be grilled in ponzu, then use more of it in a fruity barbecue glaze, for teriyakilike results.
Although white cane sugar is used in many Japanese dishes, the sweetness of teriyaki sauce may best be described as dark. Originally a mixture of equal parts soy sauce and mirin, a sweet Japanese rice wine, teriyaki sweetness has a fruity component as well. Brown sugar, a mixture of white sugar and molasses and honey all add depth to the sweetness of teriyaki. In the absence of mirin, or in addition, some cooks mix sugar with sake. Proportions are roughly 1 part of mirin and 1/2 part each brown sugar and sake to 1 part of soy sauce. In addition to sweetening the sauce, the alcohols enhance caramelization of meat surfaces during grilling, producing a dark brown finish. If you prefer to make teriyaki without alcohol, you can mix rice wine vinegar or cider vinegar with soy sauce and sugar. Pineapple juice, sweetened citrus juices, like frozen lemonade concentrate and melted apple jelly can also provide the fruity sweetness characteristic of teriyaki.
Less scientifically supported than umami, zing describes the often-complex tangy-spicy flavors that defy conventional flavor classification. As major manufacturer Kikkoman points out, Hawaiian-Americans deserve credit for adding aromatic flavors like green onion and ginger to classic Japanese teriyaki. Add zing to your teriyaki with grated onion, grated fresh ginger root, a few red pepper flakes and Asian spices like star anise. A quick substitute is anise-based Chinese five-spice powder, which also contains fennel, ginger, cloves and cinnamon. Add crushed garlic, if you like.
Gloss and Consistency
What distinguishes teriyaki sauce and helps it produce a glossy surface on meat is its syrupy thickness. To achieve classic teriyaki consistency, you will need to cook ingredients over moderate-high heat until you have reduced the volume by half. Your thickened sauce will not drip away during baking or grilling, and the sugars it contains will produce a shiny caramelized brown coat on your meat or poultry. If you are concerned about excessive saltiness or sweetness, skip the reduction step and thicken your teriyaki sauce with 1 or 2 tablespoons of cornstarch, dissolved in 1/4 cup water. Especially for oven-baked dishes, this produces a glossy but lighter-tasting sauce.