What is Sake?
Sake (SAH-keh, not saki) is made from rice and water. Although sake is referred to in English as a type of rice wine, which alcohol is produced by fermenting the sugars naturally presented in fruit, sake is made through a brewing process like beer. For sake, rice starch is converted to sugar, then that sugar is converted to alcohol by yeast. A good quality of sake lies on the quality of rice and water being used for brewing.
Japanese use sake for cooking, just like how you would use wine for cooking. Sake is often used in marinades for meat and fish to tenderize and to remove their smell. Alcohol evaporates with the meat/fish odor. It also adds umami and natural sweet flavor (from rice – the ingredient for sake), so we usually add sake to the soup stock, sauces, nimono (simmered dishes like Nikujaga) and yakimono (grilled dishes like Teriyaki Chicken).
Types of Sake for Cooking
Similar to white wine, there are many styles of sake available, where they can be characterized from dry to sweet, and from delicate to robust. For cooking, an inexpensive bottle like Ozeki, Gekkeikan, or Sho Chiku Bai (or use leftover good quality sake too) would be fine.
You can also use cooking sake (ryorishu 料理酒). Cooking sake is a type of sake made especially for cooking. Manufacturers are required by law to add salt (2-3%) to cooking wine to make it unfit for drinking, so that shops without alcohol license can carry the products. Some people may not want to use cooking sake as it contains salt and other ingredients, but I think small amount of it should be okay. I usually use regular drinking sake.
For cooking purpose, sake can keep for two to three months, or even half a year if you store it in a cool, dark place.
For more details about sake, you can read here.
Where To Buy Sake?
If you are in the US, you will be able to find drinking sake from a well stocked liquor store. You can also find them from Japanese grocery store or Asian grocery store that have alcohol license. For cooking sake, you may be able to find them at the Asian aisle in your local grocery store or online at Amazon.
Substitution for Sake in Recipes
I hope you can find sake in your area as this is one of the important ingredients in Japanese cooking. However, If you can’t find sake or cooking sake, you can substitute with dry sherry or Chinese rice wine. If you cannot consume alcohol in your cooking, you can simply omit sake, or replace it with water or broth when a recipe calls for sake for steaming or making a sauce.
Differences Between Sake & Mirin
Sake & mirin are frequently used hand in hand in a recipe for Japanese cooking. Sake contains higher alcohol and lower sugar contents, while mirin has a higher sugar content and lower alcohol content. Mirin can be used untreated in a dish, whereas sake is often added earlier in the cooking process to allow some of the alcohol to evaporate. To learn more about mirin, click here.
Recipes with Sake
Just like wine, sake can be used as a key flavoring to a dish. With its strong characteristic that can intensify and accent the flavor of food, sake, when paired with simple seasonings, is wonderful for seafood, chicken, pasta, or pork dishes.
Here are some delicious recipes to cook with sake: