Sake isn't just a beverage to consume with a meal; it's also a magical elixir that can elevate your cooking to a whole new level. Here's everything you need to know about sake.
What is Sake?
In Japan, sake means "liquor," but to the rest of the world, it's become synonymous with an alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. It's known as nihonshu (日本酒) in Japan, and it's made through the parallel fermentation of rice using koji and yeast.
The koji breaks down the starch in the rice into simple sugars, which the yeast then ferments into alcohol. Koji also contains enzymes that break down the protein in rice into amino acids. This gives sake the taste of umami, which not only makes it a flavorful beverage to consume with a meal but it can also be added to food as a sort of natural MSG.
Why Cook with Sake?
- Umami - Due to the protein content of rice, sake naturally contains amino acids like glutamate, aspartate, and proline, which create the taste of umami in food. Since grapes contain little protein, wine does not have the same flavor-enhancing effect as sake.
- Flavor - Sake has a mild fruity flavor that compliments a wide variety of ingredients without overpowering them. This makes it a natural fit for delicate Japanese cuisine, but it can also be used to enhance the taste of Western dishes as well.
- Low acidity - Unlike wine, sake is not very acidic, so it won't make foods you cook with it taste sour.
- No alcohol - Ethanol (the alcohol in sake) has a boiling temperature of 78.37°C. Since this is significantly lower than the boiling point of water (100°C), the alcohol burns off as you cook it.
Difference between Sake and Mirin
Both sake and mirin play vital roles in Japanese cooking but are not directly interchangeable. Real mirin, like sake, is brewed from rice, which means it's also rich in umami-producing amino acids. Good mirin tends to be dark amber and has a much sweeter taste than sake. The sweetness of mirin is a natural result of the fermentation process, and there should be no added sugar. Unfortunately, most mirin found outside of Japan is not brewed and is just alcohol mixed with sweeteners and flavor enhancers. This is why I generally recommend substituting an equal amount of sake with ½ the amount of sugar (i.e. 2 tablespoons of sake and 1 tablespoon of sugar) if you can't find real mirin.
What's the Best Sake for Cooking?
The rabbit hole of sake is deep, and there are whole books on the subject. When choosing the best sake for cooking, there's just one important thing to remember: the polish ratio (a.k.a. mill ratio). When making premium sake, the protein-rich outer layers of rice are polished away to leave the starch-rich core. This results in a more fragrant sake; however, it comes at the expense of umami (which comes from the protein in the rice). Since the goal of using sake in cooking is to add umami to your food, you want to use sake made from rice that's been polished as little as possible.
The polish ratio is expressed as a percentage of the remaining rice. So, for example, sake made from highly polished rice may have a ratio of 23%, which means it's been milled down to 23% of its original weight. This type of sake will not only be expensive, it's not great for cooking because it will have a lower concentration of amino acids. Instead, you want to look for sake with a higher number for the polish ratio. Futsu-shu and Junmai-shu typically have a polish ratio above 70% (higher rice remaining), so these are good categories of sake for cooking. Sho Chiku Bai and Hakutsuru both make relatively affordable sake in these categories.
One thing I implore you to avoid is using "cooking sake." Like "cooking wine" these products have often had a large amount of salt added to them to make them undrinkable. Using "cooking sake" in recipes that call for sake will most likely make the dish inedibly salty.
Substitutes for Sake
Sake is added to food for three reasons: as a liquid, for flavor, and for umami. Although there is no good substitute for the flavor of sake, you can replace it with an equal amount of water along with a pinch of MSG.
How to Use Sake
Sake can be used as a liquid in almost any dish to add more umami and flavor. Try substituting some sake in place of (wine, stock, or water) in your favorite recipe. If you need some ideas, here are just a few of my recipes that use sake:
Marinades - When used as a marinade, sake not only imparts umami to the food you soak in it but can also help neutralize gamy odors from meat or seafood. It's a great addition to marinades for Shogayaki and Karaage, but it can also be used to marinate things such as boiled eggs to make Ajitsuke Tamago (Ramen Egg).
Braising liquid - In the West, braising is usually done with stock or wine, but in Japan, sake or dashi are the preferred liquids. Nimono, Kakuni, and Umeboshi Chicken Wings are just a few of my recipes that feature sake as a braising liquid.
Soups and stews - While most Japanese soups are made with a base of dashi stock, sake is often added to boost umami in soups and stews. My Tonjiru and Chicken Udon feature meat-based stocks, but the addition of sake contributes glutamate, which creates synergistic umami with nucleic acids in the meat. Mentsuyu is the base for many Japanese noodle soups, and sake makes the umami from the dashi pop.
Sauces - We can't talk about sake's role in food without discussing one of the most famous Japanese sauces: Teriyaki Sauce. With just three ingredients, sake is what differentiates between sweet soy sauce and teriyaki sauce. I also like to add sake to my Tebasaki Sauce as well as my dipping sauces for cold noodles such as somen or soba.
Stir-fries - Sake also works great for stir-fries when you just need a little extra liquid but you want something more flavorful than water. I use it in dishes like my Okinawa Taco Rice, Beef Yaki Udon, and Orange Chicken.
Although most sake is clear, it can have a wide range of complex flavors that belies its simple appearance. The taste can range from light and dry with a mineral flavor to sweet and rich with aromas of melons and strawberries. Fruity aromas come from more polished rice, so you generally want to avoid these for cooking unless you want the fruity aroma.
Sake is a 2-syllable name pronounced as follows (read the italicized parts).
sa like socks
ke like kept
Sake, like most brewed beverages, will oxidize when exposed to oxygen, heat, and light, so storing it in a cool dark place is recommended. This should make it last for over a year. I usually store mine in the fridge. That being said, a small amount of oxidation will not be noticeable when you cook with it, so as long as your kitchen doesn't get too hot, it's okay to keep the sake at room temperature for a few months.
Because sake has not been distilled, it will oxidize over time. Telltale signs of oxidation include a yellow or amber color and a sweet caramel-like aroma. For drinking, this is generally considered undesirable (though there are exceptions where people deliberately age sake). However, the effects of oxidation aren't as noticeable for cooking, which is why it is generally okay to use sake that's gone "bad" for cooking. That being said, you should avoid cooking with sake that has a rancid or sour smell.
Sake is made with only plant-based ingredients, so it is inherently vegan. However, some large producers of sake use gelatin to clarify their sake. It won't be listed in the ingredients since the final product doesn't contain any gelatin; however, this might be off-putting if you are vegan or vegetarian. Be sure to check with the maker to see if their sake is vegan or not.
Yes, real sake is made with rice, koji (a type of fungus which grows on the rice), and yeast and is therefore gluten-free.