Essential for many Japanese dishes.
For cooking, inexpensive, dry sake is recommended. Pricey, higher grade sake often tastes too sweet to use in food preparation.
Sake and mirin are often first boiled to get rid of alcohol before main food preparation.
There is sake specifically labeled for cooking (料理酒: ryorishu), but it is not recommended, since it normally contains sodium or occasionally vinegar. These are added so that the liquid is not suitable for drinking (and thus escapes alcohol tax). Ryorishu sometimes contains MSG.
Sweet sake. Often used in combination with sake.
Originally consumed by the upper class as a sweet alcoholic drink in the 16th century; premium mirin is still used as a beverage today, although the quantity is limited, and mirin is now largely associated with cooking.
Mirin gives a glossy look to food. In addition, it firms ingredients while sake tenderizes them. Adding mirin helps ingredients to stay intact even when cooked in broth.
As with many other foods today, there is fake mirin, which is called mirin-fu chomiryo [mirin-like seasoning]. It contains a small amount of sodium but no alcohol, is made by blending such ingredients as syrup, colorant and MSG, and costs much less than true mirin. Real mirin is sometimes called hon mirin [true mirin] to differentiate it from the fakes.
As a sweetener, mirin provides a very mild, soft note that does not linger in your mouth, compared to other sweeteners such as sugar, honey, maple syrup, and, of course, fake mirin. If mirin is not at hand, sugar can substitute. Use 1/3 or less sugar per specified amount of mirin.
Shokoshu / Shaoxing (Shaohsing) wine
For Chinese dishes.
Tastes deeper than clear rice wine.
When a recipe calls for sake rice wine in Chinese or Southeast Asian recipes, replacing a part or all with Shaoxing wine and adding a tiny amount of Japanese* kurozu brown rice vinegar lets you cut back on sodium-loaded seasonings such as oyster sauce without compromising the taste of the final dish. (*Chinese hei cu brown rice vinegar available at grocery stores normally contains sodium.)
(Last updated: February 4, 2015)