Mirin, a Japanese rice wine used in cooking, has a subtle salty-sweet flavor prized in Asian marinades and glazes. The most traditional method for creating mirin usually involves combining rice, koji (a starch-digesting mold), and a distilled spirit made from low-grade sake. The mold converts rice starch into glucose, and the resulting liquid is drawn out and clarified. It has an extremely high sugar level, nearly 14 percent alcohol, and no additives. Most of the supermarket brands of mirin in this country are a cheaper variation that combines sake or some other type of alcohol with salt, corn syrup, other sweeteners, and sometimes caramel coloring and flavoring. These products generally have lower percentages of alcohol.
Would the type of mirin we chose make a difference in recipes such as our Grilled Beef Teriyaki? We chose four brands—three from the supermarket and one mail-order organic mirin—to sample plain and in our teriyaki sauce. Sampled plain, the cheapest supermarket brands stood out for overly strong flavors. Some tasters panned one sake as “saccharine,” while another was so salty it was deemed “brackish.” Tasters enjoyed the “roasted,” “caramel-like” flavors of the second-place mirin, made in Japan using mostly traditional methods but with added sea salt. (The alcohol content is just 6.7 percent.) Our winner was the mail-order mirin, made in Japan in a year-long, traditional process. It scored a notch higher than other brands, with flavors deemed more “robust, balanced, and rich.” However, cooked into teriyaki sauce, the differences among mirins were not pronounced enough to justify splurging on a mail-order brand. We’ll continue to use our go-to supermarket mirin, but any brand would be just fine in a pinch.
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its “big olive aroma, big olive taste” with a “buttery” flavor that is “sweet” and “full,” with a “peppery finish.” One taster said: “It’s very green and fresh—like a squeezed olive.” Another simply wrote: “Fantastic.”
|Spain||$19 for 17 oz|
Tasters noted this oil’s flavor was “much deeper than the other samples,” describing it as “fruity, with a slight peppery finish,” “buttery undertones,” and a “clean, green taste” that was “aromatic, with a good balance.” “It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have,” said one admiring taster.
|Italy||$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed “round and buttery,” with a “light body” and flavor that was “briny and fruity,” “very fine and smooth,” and “almost herbal,” with “great balance.” “Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it,” approved one taster. In a word, “pleasant.”
|Italy||$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted “overall mild” flavor and “very little aroma,” with only a “hint of green olive” and a “hint of spiciness at the end.” In pasta, it was initially “not complex,” but gradually “bloomed in your mouth.” Overall, it was “worthy of a second bite.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
While some tasters found this oil “sweet” and “buttery” with “medium body” and “slight spice at the end,” others complained that it had “zero olive flavor” and was “so floral it’s almost like eating perfume”; still others noted a “bitter” aftertaste. In pasta, it was “extremely mild” to the point of being “boring.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were “mild” and “neutral.” Some liked it on pasta (though one called it “Snoozeville”), but complaints were myriad: “metallic,” “soapy,” “briny,” “hints of dirt.” Carped one taster, “I can’t imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.”
|Spain||$13.99 for 1 liter|
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