Mirin's sweetness and fragrance have enchanted human tastebuds since the late 16th century, when the Japanese upper class imbibed the golden liquor at posh get-togethers. Today, mirin is produced in much the same way it was then -- though now it exists almost exclusively for its culinary usefulness.
How Mirin Is Made
Technically a rice wine, mirin is made from a blend of glutinous rice, rice koji and distilled alcoholic spirits. As the mirin matures, it produces the amino acids and simple sugars that drive its distinctive flavor profile. This process results in a sweet, light rice wine. If it's left longer to mature, mirin darkens and its sharp flavor mellows. Mirin can be used for cooking in much the same way as any other sweet white wine, though it is most commonly used in Japanese cuisine.
A Multipurpose Flavoring
Mirin's sweet, almost floral note introduces complexity to a wide range of dishes, including soups, sauces, poached dishes, marinades, gravies, dressings and sautées. Most often used for simmering, mirin transitions easily to the grill: Brush it on meat, fish, seafood, tofu, vegetables and even fruit to add a compelling note of flavor.
Mirin's proportionally high sugar content has another trick up its sleeve: It camelizes, adding a shiny luster to all it touches. As a result, a combination of mirin and soy sauce is often used to dress oven-baked foods. House-made teriyaki sauce, for instance, often includes mirin for this purpose.
Perfect Sushi Rice
A small amount of mirin adds a sweet note of flavor -- and an attractive gloss -- to sushi rice. Mix it into the rice just after it has finished cooking, combined with a bit of rice vinegar.
Make a Dip
Simple Japanese dipping sauces often integrate mirin in a combination also including soy sauce, fresh ginger and wasabi. The resulting dip is sufficiently multipurpose to use for vegetables, meat, tofu, seafood or anything tempura-fried.
Whip Up a Unique Dessert
Since mirin is sweet, its utility extends to courses beyond the entree. For example, an enterprising cook can glaze dessert pastries with a generous brush of mirin to achieve a shiny, golden finish. Mirin also works well in fruit-poaching liquids and puddings -- or, reduced by two-thirds, as a drizzle on ice cream.