Answering Questions: Sake/mirin redux, bulk buying Japanese rice, and storing Japanese ingredients

Sake and other beverages

Answering Questions is a very sporadic series where I attempt to answer some of the backlog of questions I receive via email, via Facebook, or in comments to unrelated posts, the answers for which may be of interest to a broader audience. I’ve taken out any personal details and so on in the questions. Today I am answering some questions about Japanese ingredients, especially as they relate to the upcoming Japanese Cooking 101 course.

The sake, mirin and alcohol question redux

Since I listed both sake and mirin in my list of required ingredients for the Japanese Cooking 101 course, some people have asked me again about substitutions for one or both. This is the question I am most frequently asked by far on this site.

I do realize that using alcohol in any context is a no-go for some people, for religious, moral or health reasons. But the fact is, both sake and mirin are a fundamental part of Japanese cuisine. They are usually used in very small quantities - a spoonful or two at a time at most and always in cooked dishes, which gives time for some if not all of the alcohol to evaporate - but they often make all the difference in the taste a dish. And yes, Japanese children eat food prepared with one or the other all the time, and it’s never considered to be a problem. (Keep in mind that fermentation, and tiny amounts of alcohol, are present in many foods that you may not even consider to be alcoholic, e.g. overrripe fruits.)

As I stated in the announcement for the course, one of the main objectives is to teach you what something is actually supposed to taste like when prepared the “authentic” way. While I do list substitutes for sake or mirin in most of my recipes where one or the other is normally used, for this course there will be no substitutes for either.

Sake and mirin are frequently used, always-stocked, common ingredients in a Japanese kitchen. There’s a reason also why both are used, either in conjunction or separately; they have different purposes and flavors. Mirin is like a thin yet strong, sweet syrup with slight alcoholic undertones that gives a shine and unique depth of flavor to dishes it’s added to. For instance, the ‘teri’ or shine of a real teriyaki comes primarily from the mirin in the teriyaki sauce. Sake is lighter, higher in alcohol, and better at counteracting the ‘gaminess’ in meat and fish as I described here: (The role of alcohol (and onions and ginger) in Japanese cooking.

I often recommend substituting sugar or another sugary substance like maple syrup or pineapple juice for mirin, and sometimes even for sake, but all that really does is to replace the sweetness. It does not replace the other flavors or characteristics.

As I mentioned in the alcohol and meat article, there are other alcoholic beverages you can substitute: dry sherry for sake, sweet sherry or xiaoxing (shaoxing) wine for mirin or a sake-mirin combo. I’ve also recently discovered when I ran out of sake that sweet vermouth makes an okay substitute for a sake-mirin combo.

But if you are taking the course, if at all possible please try to get a small bottle of both sake (cooking sake is fine) and mirin (hon-mirin is better, but aji mirin or mirin seasoning is ok too).

Question: Where can I buy Japanese rice/sushi rice in bulk to save money?

Most Japanese grocery stores stock up to 15 kg / around 30 lb bags of rice, which is quite a lot unless you have a large family. However, I don’t recommend stocking more Japanese type rice than you can eat within a month or two at a time.

Japanese rice doesn’t go bad if you store it for some time - no rice does really. However it does lose its desired flavor. Every kind of rice is different: for example, basmati rice tastes nuttier and more aromatic and cooks better for its intended purpose (i.e. in Indian dishes) when it has been aged for a minimum of a year. Japanese rice is very different: the fresher and higher in moisture content it is, the more it is prized — to the extent that shinmai or “new harvest rice” is highly prized and much anticipated every year. Rice that has been stored more than a few months is called furumai, old rice, and is considered undesirable.

We eat Japanese rice maybe 3-4 times a week in our house (we also eat other kinds of rice, especially basmati, the local Camargue rice, and Italian rices like vialone for risotto) but we only go through a kilo or so per month at most, especially now that I’ve reduced my rice portions quite a bit due to my diabetes. We buy rice in 5 kilo bags and repack it in airtight containers in 1-kilo portions to keep it as fresh as possible, and open as needed. (All our rice is stored at room temperature.) This is more cost-effective than buying the 1 or 2 kg bags, and allows us more choice in rice brands. If you do buy Japanese rice in bulk, consider doing something similar, especially if it’s Japanese brown rice (genmai) or sprouted brown rice (haiga-mai). (See also: Looking at rice.)

Question: Should I store soy sauce in the refrigerator? What about other Japanese ingredients?

Many Japanese condiments and other ingredients will not go bad, as in become moldy or unpleasant or unsafe, if you store them at room temperature. But some of them will deteriorate in flavor after a time. Unless you are cooking Japanese or Asian food several times a week, that bottle of soy sauce may last you quite a time.

Here is how I store the main Japanese ingredients I have. Note: I do admit to having quite a lot of refrigerator space — we have a big two-door fridge/freezer, plus a small counter-height refrigerator we were using for a while when we were in the midst of major house renovations and had no kitchen. So if you have limited refrigerator space, keep in mind that when I say something “must” be stored in the fridge that’s what I mean; when I don’t, it’s not critical.

Please refer to the Essentials of a Japanese Pantry ingredient list for descriptions. See above for storing rice.

  • “Bulldog” type sauces: tonkatsu sauce, ‘chuno’ sauce, etc. - refrigerated after opening (The same goes for things like oyster sauce. Worcestershire sauce on the other hand is fine at room temperature.)
  • Dashi ingredients - konbu seaweed, katsuobushi (bonito flakes): tightly sealed and stored in the pantry. Dashi granules can also be stored in the pantry - they seem to last forever.
  • Furikake and other ‘sprinkles’: Store in the pantry, but use up within a month or two of purchase especially if they contain sesame seeds.
  • Mirin: Stored in the pantry open or unopened - it’s quite sturdy.
  • Miso: Miso must be stored in the fridge, even before it’s been opened, although in a pinch you can store sealed unopened miso in a cool pantry. “Live” miso will continue fermenting at higher temperatures. Use up opened miso within about 3-4 months if possible (although it won’t become unsafe to eat, just lose its aroma somewhat).
  • Nori seaweed: Tightly sealed and stored in the refrigerator after opening, and used up within a week or so at most. Old nori is very unpleasant. Unopened packages can be stored in the pantry. Other dried seaweeds like wakame and hijiki can be stored in the pantry.
  • Pickled things in vinegar or brine like gari (sushi ginger), beni-shoga (red pickled ginger) and so on must be stored in the refrigerator after opening.
  • Sake: Stored in the fridge after opening; in the pantry if unopened.
  • Sesame oil: Store in the pantry, but use up within a couple of months of opening. The same goes for ra-yu or chili oil (used for gyoza dumplings and such).
  • Sesame seeds: I always store raw, untoasted sesame seeds in the freezer, where they keep longer before turning rancid. I take out some out and toast it periodically and store the toasted seeds in the kitchen, where it’s used up within a week or so.
  • Shichimi (nanami) tohgarashi or ‘seven ingredient’ spice: Store in the refrigerator after opening. The sesame seeds in it can go rancid if you keep it at room temperature for too long.
  • Soy sauce: Once I open a bottle I store it in the fridge. Again, it will not go ‘bad’, but the flavor and color will go a bit ‘off’. Nama-shoyu (‘raw’ soy sauce) and tamari are more fragile than regular soy sauce so should be stored in the fridge. I store unopened, sealed bottles in my rather cool pantry.
  • Umeboshi: Can be stored at cool room temperature, but I usually have it in the refrigerator. If you leave it exposed to air the plums will dry out, but still be edible.
  • Ume-su or ume vinegar: This is not a real vinegar, it’s the pickling liquid from making umeboshi. Store in refrigerator after opening, or the color and fragrance fade.
  • Vinegar - the real kind, such as rice vinegar: Stored in the kitchen - it’s fine at room temperature.

If I’ve omitted any Japanese ingredients you’re not sure how to store, let me know in the comments.

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23 comments so far...

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Re: Answering Questions: food

I've heard people wax almost poetic about Japanese mayonaise (with the infant in red on the label).
What makes it so special? I'll be in Japan in a few weeks...is it 'special' enough to bring home?
CHeers!

Margaret | 25 February, 2013 - 14:31

Re: Answering Questions: food

You can get Japanese mayo at Asian supermarkets, or regular stores with a decent ethnic food aisle. I like it for Japanese-style potato salads, or on cucumber salads. I'm not so much of a fan of using it in a western-style sandwich. It just has a slightly different flavour profile - it's mayo, but tastes a little different from, say Hellman's. I hope you enjoy it when you get your import from Japan! Good luck!

Lizzie | 25 February, 2013 - 15:34

Re: Answering Questions: food

Japanese mayo is made with either cider, rice or malt vinegar (usually a blend) and has a more complex taste and thinner consistency than the mayo produced in the US. I wouldn't use up valuable space for it though, as it's pretty easy to get stateside.

Anna | 25 February, 2013 - 18:50

Re: Answering Questions: food

Note that Kewpie mayo contains MSG. Just calling that out for anyone who is MSG sensitive.

anon. | 26 February, 2013 - 23:07

Re: Answering Questions: food

The mayonnaise you are referring to is called Kewpie Mayonnaise - it uses the Kewpie doll, which was very popular at the time the brand started (in 1925), as its mark. It does taste good - it's very eggy since it supposedly uses the yolks of the egg only rather than a whole egg, and is mild since it uses a combination of mild tasting vinegars including rice vinegar and apple vinegar. Some people do make an effort to buy some to take home - but it's a matter of taste of course. I like it a lot but not enough to give it luggage space over other things. ^_^

maki | 25 February, 2013 - 21:00

Re: Answering Questions: food

I loooooove Kewpie.

What would you say the shelf life for it is once open? The package says use within a month.

Also... do you have any specifics on Sake? I've always used a cheapie $6.99 huuuge bottle of drinking Sake from Mitsuwa and I think for cooking it tastes fine. In fact, I can't eat restaurant Jfried chicken anymore after following your Bento cookbook recipe.

LizLiz | 25 February, 2013 - 22:15

Re: Answering Questions: food

A month or so sounds right. It's the same as with other mayonnaises, except that since it comes in that squeeze bottle the mayo has little chance of getting contaminated like mayo in a jar does with a 'dirty' spoon getting stuck in.

I am not picky about the sake I use for cooking. A general drinking sake works for me too.

maki | 26 February, 2013 - 00:12

Re: Answering Questions: food

I love Kewpie mayo, and it's well worth trying if you're curious about it :) I actually wrote a blog post about Japanese mayo which might answer some of your questions.
http://yschoo.com/2013/01/31/the-secret-of-japanese-mayonnaise/

YSC | 2 March, 2013 - 06:25

Re: Answering Questions: Sake/mirin redux, bulk buying ...

Hi Maki,
have you ever tried to store rice in the freezer?
My father used to do it with risotto rice: he had a friend that sold him 2.5 kg bags of very good (and expensive) Italian risotto rice from a small producer, and recommended freezing it for optimal storage, and for protection against insects.
We took it out in small batches that we kept in an airtight container in the fridge, especially in summer, and for risotto it worked great.
I wonder if it might be a good idea with Japanese rice.

stefafra | 25 February, 2013 - 14:56

Re: Answering Questions: Sake/mirin redux, bulk buying ...

I'd recommend against freezing rice unless one's freezer is rarely disturbed, and then only in an airtight container. While freezing temperatures are fantastic for keeping insect from invading, it does mean that every time the freezer is opened and things moved about, warm and moist air enters, condenses on chilled surfaces and has some time to start doing the damage that wet does. So if your freezer is one that's opened multiple times a day, for waffles then freezer-pops then a bag of peas then ice cream, stick with an air-tight container in pantry or basement. (I know, most people think "cellar? That's where bug are!" But most of those are spiders and other predators, which are not interested in your rice and are very interested in eating anything that might like your rice. It's also naturally cooler and more stable temperature-wise.)

Peter H Coffin | 25 February, 2013 - 15:46
maki | 25 February, 2013 - 21:08

Re: Answering Questions: Sake/mirin redux, bulk buying ...

Our freezer at my parents home is one of those huge chest things in which you can loose a dinosaur and find it back years later...(I'm always afraid my mum will fall into it one day, and never be seen anymore). Rice was in close box in deep depth of the chest so rather safe.

The one I have now my be a bit more "disturbed", so not a very good place to be for the rice. It seldom gets open more than once a day, but it is not so big.

No cellar in this house (water table not very deep), but a very very cold larder. Will stick to close containers.

stefafra | 25 February, 2013 - 21:49

Re: Answering Questions: Sake/mirin redux, bulk buying ...

Like Peter said, storing rice in the freezer has some issues unless it's isolated from other food or from frequent opening. Rice absorbs odors very well...and a typical freezer has a lot of eh, odors. I guess if it's vacuum packed well the freezer is a good place for it. I personally just store it in my cool pantry and try to use it up relatively fast.

maki | 25 February, 2013 - 21:07

Re: Answering Questions: Sake/mirin redux, bulk buying ...

I store my sakekasu in the fridge, and I assume the stuff never goes bad. That being said I eat fish marinated in it quite a bit so it doesn't live love in my kitchen. I have occasionally noticed a pink tinge to it. I assume this is a harmless bacteria as I'm still around to comment here. Any thoughts on kasu? You had a nice post a few years ago on it.

Cheers,
Stephano

Stephano | 25 February, 2013 - 19:06

Re: Answering Questions: Sake/mirin redux, bulk buying ...

Sakekasu should be stored in the fridge and used up fairly fast, since it's a 'live' product like miso. The same goes for shiokoji after it's been matured. I store any excess sakekasu I have in the freezer. Although to be honest, since it's difficult for me to get a hold of sakekasu here in France, these days I'm using shiokoji in similar ways a lot more. I should write that up ^_^;

maki | 25 February, 2013 - 21:03

Re: Answering Questions: Sake/mirin redux, bulk buying ...

Hi Maki,

How long would you say sake keeps in the fridge?

Thank you!

Jess W | 25 February, 2013 - 21:44

Re: Answering Questions: Sake/mirin redux, bulk buying ...

I actually just store my sake-for-cooking (not cooking sake, regular sake I use just for cooking) in a kitchen cabinet, and it lasts for up to around six months for me. It should last around the same time or longer in the fridge, well sealed, unless it picks up undesirable odors.

maki | 26 February, 2013 - 00:10

Re: Answering Questions: Soy suce in the fridge?

Hah, I've just been letting mine sit around in the cabinet, since that's where the cheap-o La Choy my Ma always bought lived. Thanks for the tip!

Everbright | 2 March, 2013 - 00:45

Re: Answering Questions: Sake/mirin redux, bulk buying ...

I think some of these things are personal preference. I've lived most of my life in Tokyo, and I've seen a number of different households store things differently than you say here.

Some things are a must (miso must be in the fridge), but I think for others (like shoyu/soy sauce) it's just a matter of what you're comfortable with. Again using shoyu as an example, I've only seen other Japanese keep it (even opened) in their pantries, but in the US the bottle does say "refrigerate after opening."

I think it's like ketchup. Some always refrigerate, and some never do.

Haruko | 2 March, 2013 - 13:40

Re: Answering Questions: Sake/mirin redux, bulk buying ...

Can you recommend a good sake brand? I have tried Shintaro sake in one of the popular Japanese noodle resto in NYC and loved it but I can't find it in my fave Japanese supermarket in Fort Lee, NJ.

anon. | 8 March, 2013 - 20:00

Re: Answering Questions: Sake/mirin redux, bulk buying ...

I'm no drinking-sake expert by any means, because I just don't drink much period. but in general, buying good drinking sake is very tricky, because the best sakes tend to come from microbreweries - and there are so many of them, with limited capacity and distribution. My advice would be to find a good sake dealer (there must be a couple in NYC) and see what they recommend. Don't rely on the Mitsuwa sake department - they only carry the mass-market brands, which are fine for cooking and everyday tipples, but not necessarily the best. If they have a special sake fair or something where they invite in small breweries, that might be worth a try.

maki | 8 March, 2013 - 22:40

Re: Answering Questions: Sake/mirin redux, bulk buying ...

I am disappointed by the lack of non-alcoholic substitutes for sake.

I know you're trying to advocate for the traditional ways of doing things in cooking, but some of us abstain from buying alcohol not because of religious/moral/health reasons, but because we're underage.

There is a large demographic of people in the US who are 18-20 and living on their own for the first time, so they cannot purchase alcohols like sake for themselves.

Could you please post either a consumer-ready non alcoholic substitute or how to make sake at home?

anon. | 18 November, 2013 - 17:12

Re: Answering Questions: Sake/mirin redux, bulk buying ...

Hey, so I'm recently diving into Japanese cuisine in earnest for the first time. Been doing reading on it for the past few months and finally came into some money to buy all the various cooking tools and ingredients to do it right.

I bought hon-mirin by Takara as well as a bottle of Hakutsuru Sake Junmai Ginjo Superior (I know I might have overdid it on the Sake but I plan to drink it as well, not just cook with it, as I believe anytime you try something for the first time you buy high quality to find out if you really like it). Anyway, a couple questions I had, first about storing both.

Both of them are alcohol, so left unopened and in my closet (where most my other alcohols are), they should be fine at room temperature for a solid time frame right(over 6 months)?

Also, since I bought hon-mirin, is that going to impact how much I should use in recipes, or do most recipes assume that you are using it? I'm a newcomer so I don't know the taste difference between hon-mirin and aji-mirin, but from what I've read, people mostly said they could clearly tell the difference.

Thanks for any help that can be provided!

James | 2 February, 2014 - 19:12

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