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Substitutes For Sake – What Can I Use Instead?

Substitutes For Sake – What Can I Use Instead?

Outside of Japan, you might be more used to seeing sake on the shelves of the sushi bar rather than in a recipe book. However, as well as being a tasty beverage to wash down your norimaki, sake can also be a versatile ingredient in the kitchen.

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Sake is a national beverage in Japan and it’s ubiquitous across the country, often supped from tiny bijou cups. Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice – often called a wine but technically, since there’s no fruit in the fermenting process, it isn’t one. Thanks to a unique combination of rice, yeast and a mold called Aspergillus oryzae, the fermentation process produces a crisp, bitter and subtly sweet beverage with an alcohol content of around 15 – 20%, a little higher than your average Western wine.

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What Is Sake Used For?

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Sake is a common ingredient in Japanese cooking and many fusion dishes and it can be used for a variety of reasons. It can add flavor to broths, stews and stir fries and it works great as part of a marinade on meats. Like wine, there are many varieties of sake on the market, some are sweeter, some are dryer, some will have a more delicate flavor and others more robust. Most recipes will use a generic sake, however, and any inexpensive sake serves much the same purpose in Japanese cuisine. A closer look at how sake is used in cooking will help us understand what we can use as a substitute, and when.

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For its flavor, sake is added to dishes such as soups, stews, broth. To these dishes, saki adds a depth of flavor and it balances darker ingredients such as soy sauce and garlic perfectly thanks to its delicate bittersweet combination. A dash of sake can also be added to stir fries to ramp up the Asian flavors and give them a vibrant kick. Sake is also used to introduce a little umami into dishes – the deep savory flavor that’s characteristic of East Asian cooking.

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Sake is also frequently used as an ingredient in marinades for meat and fish – again, this is most prevalent in Japanese cooking but has been bleeding into the Western culinary arsenal. The alcohol content of sake helps to tenderize meat and, combined with simple ingredients like ginger and garlic it gives a marinade a delicious tang. In a marinade, sake also helps to dampen powerful aromas from meat and fish, allowing for a more balanced flavor overall.

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Sake isn’t an ingredient found in everyone’s cupboards so when the recipe calls for sake you might be stumped. Or maybe you’re reluctant to add a splash of booze to whatever you’re cooking. When you’re avoiding sake, what can you use instead? Fortunately there are a number of effective substitutes for sake in every context.

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What are the best substitutes for Sake

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Whether you’re using sake to marinate your meat for a tender texture or looking to add depth and umami to your stir fries or soups, there’s always a substitute for sake.

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Mirin

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Mirin is another common ingredient in Japanese cooking and it’s produced in a similar way to sake. Mirin, unlike sake, is never consumed as a beverage and it’s exclusively a culinary ingredient. Mirin is slightly sweeter than sake and much less alcoholic, with an alcohol content of between 1 and 14%. When cooking with mirin, the alcohol usually burns off and leaves a negligible impact on the taste of the product.

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Mirin makes an excellent substitute for sake in all recipes, whether you’re marinating meats or splashing it into a stir fry, but because of the sweetness of mirin your overall flavor will be slightly sweeter. If you’re using mirin instead of sake in a soup, stew or stir fry then adding a dash of citrus or vinegar can help to cut through the sweetness and balance your dish.

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In marinades, mirin is equally adept at tenderizing meat and masking the stronger aromas of fish – you can replace sake with mirin in equal ratios in any recipe.

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Chinese Rice Wine

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Across the East China Sea, a process of fermenting rice takes place to create an ingredient similar to sake and found at the heart of Chinese cuisine. Chinese rice wine is produced by fermenting glutinous rice, breaking the sugars down with yeast to form a drink with an alcohol percentage of 10 – 20%, depending on the processes used. Chinese rice wine is used to add depth and aroma to many dishes as well as being common in marinades on the Asian continent, making it a valid substitution for its Japanese cousin, sake.

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Chinese rice wine is usually less flavorful, pungent and sometimes less alcoholic than sake so you can use 1 – 1.5x the quantity of sake called for by the recipe. Taste your creation as you go to determine whether any additional seasoning is required.

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Dry Sherry

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A more common liquor in Western drinks cabinets, dry sherry makes an excellent substitute for sake in all contexts. Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes, fermented and then combined with a spirit such as brandy to create an alcoholic beverage of around 14 – 18% alcohol content.

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In sherry production, yeast is added while the wine ferments, creating a beverage akin to sake. Whilst the majority of sherries are dry, some are naturally sweeter thanks to the production process or artificially sweetened by being blended with a sweeter wine. When substituting sake for sherry, reach for dry sherry – this better matches the balanced bitter and savory character of sake.

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Substituting sake with dry sherry will work well in marinades, tenderizing meat and masking aromas. Soups and stews, as well as stir fries, can take a splash of dry sherry to balance the darker ingredients in the same way that sake would. You can replace sake with an equal measure of dry sherry in most recipes – but taste test your cooking to see if any additional seasoning will be necessary once you’ve made the substitution.

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White Wine

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White wine is a common ingredient in Western cooking, particularly French and Italian traditions and it’s used to add depth of flavor to risotto, chicken soups and stews as well as in marinades. Although white wine has less of a savory punch to it, it can be used as a substitute for sake in a number of contexts.

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There’s a huge variety of white wines out there and when substituting white wine for sake you should aim to select a dry white wine with a higher alcohol content. Dry whites such as sauvignon blanc or pinot blanc make good substitutes for sake, and chardonnay – with a high alcohol content of around 15% – is best of all.

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Rice Wine Vinegar

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Rice wine vinegar is another product, like sake, produced by fermenting rice. With rice wine vinegar the product is further fermented, until the alcohol turns to acid and you’re left with a sharp vinegar with no alcohol content at all. Because rice wine vinegar is produced from rice, many of the flavors are shared with sake making it an excellent substitute, especially if you’re looking for a product without alcohol.

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Rice wine vinegar is milder and sweeter than regular vinegar so it should not overpower your cooking, nor provide too much of an acidic tang. Nevertheless, it is still a pungent product – when substituting rice wine vinegar for sake you can dilute the vinegar with water or grape juice to get the right balance of flavor.

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Conclusion

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Sake offers a unique combination of bitter, sweet and savory flavors to your cooking that can give it an authentic Japanese tang. Using mirin or rice wine vinegar mixed with grape juice will be the best way to preserve these flavors, but dry sherry or white wine can function as excellent substitutes for sake as well. Whether you’re marinating meat or fish or splashing your substitute in soups and stews, taste your creations as you go to identify whether some additional seasoning with ingredients such as soy sauce or citrus will help you balance your meal.



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