If you’re new to Japanese cooking, you may not have thought too much about cooking with sake yet. So what do you do if you stumble upon a recipe that calls for it and you don’t have any to hand?
All is not lost. Here we’ll cover 7 great alternatives you can substitute for sake in recipes, before you click here to begin your journey to sake connoisseurship and stock up on a few bottles for next time.
Of course, each sake replacement has its own properties when it comes to cooking, so you first need to think about what sake is and its role in cooking.
What is sake?
Sake is a Japanese wine made from polished rice. That means the rice has had its bran removed, giving sake a water-like clarity, as opposed to other rice wines, which are usually darker.
Sake’s tradition is ancient, dating back well over two millennia, and has evolved significantly since its origins. Techniques used in proto-sake drinks included treading the rice grains to remove the husks, as well as chewing up and spitting out the rice to begin fermentation—the enzymes in saliva began breaking down the starch into sugars, which then were converted into alcohol. Traditionally, sake was brewed in cedar trunks, though now the process uses ceramic or steel vats.
Another shift is how the fermented mash (called moromi) is pressed. The processes is largely automated now, but some of the best sake is still made by placing the morami in canvas sacks, and then pressing it in a compacting wooden box called a fune.
How does sake compare to other brews or spirits?
Another interesting thing about sake – and, in fact, rice wines in general – is that its brewing process is much closer to that of beer than common grape wines. This means that starches are first converted to sugars, which are then fermented into alcohol.
Consequently, because rice is very starchy, sake is a fair bit stronger than your average grape wine. Its alcohol content is closer to fortified grape wines like sherry and vermouth (more on those later).
How to drink sake
Sake is often drunk hot in the winter, although higher quality sakes should be enjoyed cold, in order not to cook off any of their distinctive aromas. It can also be used as a cocktail base and, like grape wines, for cooking. As with more readily available wines, you can also buy sake that’s intended specifically for cooking.
Although it will impart its own flavours, sake is used for cooking in much the same way that common grape wines are. It helps to enhance the natural flavours of other ingredients and, as a marinade, can break down the proteins in meat and fish to make them more tender.
Seven sake substitutes in cooking
1. Shao Xing Cooking Wine
Sake is simply Japanese rice wine, so the most obvious sake replacement is, unsurprisingly, rice wine from somewhere else.
Huangjiu is a category of Chinese yellow wine made from rice or millet. One of the most easily attainable outside of China is called Shao Xing (or Shaoxing) wine, from the prefecture of the same name.
Shao Xing wine is essentially Chinese sake, although there are some differences that are noticeable when drinking. Firstly, because the rice it’s made from isn’t polished, it’s a brownish yellow colour, as opposed to clear like sake. It also contains a small amount of salt.
These differences don’t matter so much for cooking, but are worth bearing in mind in case you’re making a pale-coloured sauce or cooking for someone on a low sodium diet.
2. Dry sherry
Sherry is a fortified wine made from grapes. To put it simply, that means it’s stronger than regular wine. In fact, its alcohol content is closer to that of sake, which is generally also stronger than grape wines.
Importantly, the flavour profile of dry sherry is also quite similar to sake. When used in cooking, you’re unlikely to be able to tell the difference. However, its darker colour is closer to that of Shao Xing wine.
You can also use sweet sherry if that’s all you have to hand, but then you really will be able to tell the difference. If the recipe already uses sugar or other sweetening ingredients, simply use less of it and make up the difference with your sweet sherry.
3. Dry vermouth
Here’s another good sake substitute that may have been sitting in your liquor cabinet for some time. Vermouth, like sherry, is a fortified grape wine.
The difference is that it’s also aromatised with botanicals. This is just as likely to add an interesting depth of flavour to your recipe as it is to throw the flavour profile completely off balance.
For that reason, you might want to experiment with dry vermouth in a meal for one before cooking for guests. And, unlike with the sherry, we’d also advise against using sweet vermouth – at least before you’re more experienced with it. There’s already a bit too much going on.
4. White wine
Given how well dry vermouth and, particularly, dry sherry do in matching sake’s flavour profile – at least when it comes to cooking – it’s probably no surprise that white wine is also an option. Of course, its main advantage is in being easy to get hold of.
Again, a dry white wine is far and away your best option here, although a sweet white wine probably won’t ruin the recipe, as they don’t tend to be quite as sweet as sweet fortified wines.
Stronger, fuller-bodied white wines make a much better sake substitute too. Aim for a 13%+ Chardonnay, Semillon or White Rioja.
In lieu of sake, kombucha can add a similar acidity to your cooking, albeit without the distinctive alcoholic taste. Some people might view that as a good thing, however.
We’d recommend going for homemade kombucha though, as commercial kombucha brands are generally sweetened. You’ll also want to avoid any of the added flavours that are common in store-bought varieties, as these can mess with your recipe.
OK, this one might raise an eyebrow, but water does have its uses as a sake replacement. Obviously it won’t help you replicate the flavour of sake, but if the sake is being used primarily for consistency, then a flavourless liquid like water isn’t a bad option.
It may even be a very good option if you’re trying to avoid alcohol, or simply don’t like the taste of it in food. On that note, you can also use it to dilute the relatively strong flavour of our next suggestion...
7. Rice wine vinegar
Rice wine vinegar is to sake what white balsamic is to white wine. The core flavours are there, just massively intensified.
You’ll need to dilute it to create a decent non-alcoholic proxy of sake (although we wouldn’t recommend drinking it as an aperitif) - 1 part sake to 3 parts water should get you pretty darn close to the equivalent amount of sake.
Recipes with sake
Eager to try cooking with sake (or one of the above substitutes) for the first time? We’d recommend starting with this delicious recipe for stir-fried mushrooms with quail egg in a nest of pastry, courtesy of renowned Brazilian–Japanese chef Robert Okabe.
The perfect ending to such a meal is to enjoy a mug of hot jasmine sake – the Japanese answer to mulled wine.
How to make sake at home
Finally, here’s a little tip for the home-brewers among you. If you don’t have easy access to sake in your area, have you considered making your own sake at home? If you’ve ever brewed your own alcohol at home, then you already have the equipment. You’ll need: koji-kin (the specific mould that breaks starches into sugars in the fermentation process), saké yeasts, soybeans, a large bamboo rice steamer, an instant-read thermometer, aquarium thermometers, citric acid, two large food grade containers with fermentation caps, quality Japanese rice, a fine cheesecloth, and a dehydrator wrapped in plastic. Click here to learn how to make sake at home from a master.