Cooking With Sake - I

Cooking With Sake - I


As much as sake is a delight to drink, it is even more perfect as an ingredient in cooking. This is the first in a three-part series outlining the benefits of cooking with sake, which kinds of sake to use, and the brewers and regions in Japan that are producing some of the most useful and interesting styles of sake for cooking. Cooking tips and recipes are included to illustrate sake’s versatility and deliciousness in cooking.


Sake flows like a stream of rejuvenating crystalline water through every aspect of life in Japan. A symbol of purity, it is ritualistically presented as a sacred offering to the gods at Shinto shrines and customarily used as a toast at weddings, banquets, and other commemorative events. A liquor with a generous alcohol content, it enlivens seasonal spring cherry-blossom-viewing picnics, summer fireworks displays, autumn harvest festivals, and winter new year celebrations. A subtly rich-tasting drink, it is the perfect culinarily companion to Japan’s light, yet deeply satisfying cuisine, enjoyed alongside refined multi-course kaiseki meals, with small plates of food at izakaya pubs, and between simple licks of salt (which cleanse the palate and enable continuous drinking) at stand-up yatai stalls.

Sake also flows in the Japanese kitchen. Not imbibed behind a closed pantry door, but as one of the essential ingredients in Japanese cooking because, in practical terms, it is, essentially, a form of enriched water.

Technically, sake is an alcoholic liquid made by fermenting rice. Its ingredients are water, rice, koji, and yeast. Koji is a portion of rice that has been prepared in advance by cultivating it with the mold Aspergillus oryzae. This creates a base of enzymes that are needed to break down the starch in the rice into sugars, which, in turn, are fermented by the yeast into alcohol. This two-step brewing process occurs simultaneously and can be completed in one to three months.

Fresh, delicious water is the most important ingredient in making sake, and brewers use copious amounts from streams, springs, and deep wells to wash, rinse, soak, and steam the rice and then to fill the tanks in which the mash of rice, koji, and yeast ferments. Water is added two more times to the tanks during brewing and again at the end of the process to dilute the sake to keep its alcohol content between 15% and 20%.

The final product is 80% water; water that has been fortified with alcohol, enriched with umami, and enhanced with a delicate sweetness. Yet, like water, sake is nearly odorless, colorless, and pleasantly neutral in flavor. Together these attributes make it a powerful cooking agent, able to perform water’s principal roles in cooking better than ordinary water. It is better at cleansing foods, infusing and extracting the flavors of foods, and also cooking foods as a medium. A particular advantage is that sake also seasons foods, and is an important ingredient in building and layering umami in dishes. Like water, sake can be used in every step of the cooking process, with every type of cooking technique, for all types of foods—vegetables, seafood, fish, meats, and starches, such as rice, potatoes, and flour—and in every kind of dish, including savory, sweet, Japanese, and non-Japanese.

Spring water used to make Kamotsuru’s sake in Higashihiroshima City is made available to local residents to come and fill bottles. When used in cooking, sake is better than ordinary water if for no other reason than the fact that it is made by brewers with some of the best water available in Japan.

The water at Geikkeikan Sake’s main brewery in the city of Fushimi south of Kyoto comes from a deep well fifty meters below the ground. The brewery considers the water sacred and prizes it for its gentle flavor due to minerals dissolved into it from the granite layer of rock at the bottom of the well.

Sake Means “Pure Food” in Japanese

Sake’s fundamental benefit is its alcohol content. Alcohol is important in cooking because of the way it purifies the flavors of food by cleansing foods and conserving and clarifying their flavor. Sake does this better than other alcohols like wine and beer because of its higher alcohol content (see a comparison of the alcohol by volume, or ABV, of sake, wine, and beer in the sidebar) and also because it lacks strong and off-flavors like wine’s fruitiness and astringency and beer’s graininess and bitterness. In addition, sake’s mild taste disappears quickly. It can even be used “as is” without a need to boil it first to remove its alcoholic taste.

Splashed on seafood, fish, meats, and vegetables before cooking, sake kills bacteria and takes away any bad smells. Similarly, a splash in a bag of meats destined for the freezer prevents freezer smell from developing. It also prevents freezer burn because sake’s alcohol helps foods retain their juices and texture and seal in their flavors. This quality makes sake an important addition to marinades. Other common ways of using sake are to add a splash when blanching, sauteing, and sweating vegetables and boiling starches like rice, potatoes, and pasta.

Sake also acts as a mild preservative, and alone or in combination with other seasonings like salt, soy sauce, citrus juice or vinegar, sake helps capture a food’s fresh flavor at a moment in time. It can be used to make quick vegetable pickles and cured fish dishes like Japanese zuke maguro (marinated tuna), Peruvian ceviche, and Hawaiian ahi poke. It can also be used to prep Italian seafood carpaccio as well as French steak tartare.

A benefit of using sake in these ways is that less salt is needed to prep and cook foods. For example, a cup of sake in two to three cups of water to make a brine for chicken or pork means you can use about half the salt usually required.

Freshly-caught sea bream (tai) is lightly marinated in sake and soy sauce before being served on a bed of delicately sweet sushi rice and garnished with peppery kaiware sprouts, salty nori seaweed strips, a minty shiso leaf, and creamy ikura salmon roe.

In the top right blue bowl is horenso ohitashi, which is spinach lightly pickled in sake and soy sauce overnight and topped with toasted sesame seeds. In the bottom left black bowl is mame goma-ae, a medley of spring beans and peas coated with an earthy sauce made of ground toasted sesame seeds, sake, soy sauce, and sugar.

Umami Punch

At the same time as sake is helping the flavors of foods shine, it is also subtly working to boost their flavors and add depth and complexity to dishes. Sake is rich with umami—the fifth flavor of deliciousness. Among cooking alcohols, sake has much more umami than beer and wine, and infinitely more than distilled spirits, which have practically no umami at all. (For a comparison of the umami-producing amino acids in sake, wine, and beer, see the sidebar.) Sake’s umami comes from the amino acids and peptides created during its unique brewing process.

Sake’s umami ranks it among Japan’s top four umami-laden seasonings, which include dashi stock, soy sauce, and miso. Sake’s advantage over them is both its neutral taste and convenient suspension in a clear watery liquid, which is why sake is used to build umami in almost every dish served in Japan. Even Kyoto chefs add a drop or two of sake in the final stage of making dashi soup, which of the four seasonings has the most umami. Sake provides just the right additional layer of depth to their soup.

There are many ways, separately and in combination, that sake is used in cooking to add and build umami. Sake provides an initial infusion of umami when used to rinse foods and prep them in a marinade. Or it can add a finishing touch of umami when used in a dressing or sauce or as a seasoning. In cooking, sake is a good way to heighten the umami of dishes when light cooking methods that do not generate any umami are used, such as blanching, poaching, steaming, and boiling foods. Sake is particularly helpful when cooking light foods like poaching fish, especially tender white fish, because sake also helps the foods retain their texture.

Sake is equally valuable for deepening and enriching the flavor of more complex and longer-cooked dishes. It can be used to deglaze pans when making sauces and in simmers, braises, stews, stocks, and soups. Sake can even be used as the sole cooking medium for dishes. One example is Hiroshima’s famous nabe hot pot recipe called Bishonabe, which is made of sake, meat, and vegetables, seasoned only with salt and pepper. The luscious clear soup that results from this recipe is due to sake’s alcohol content, which makes sake as good at extracting flavors from foods as it is at enriching them. A pot-au-feu made only with sake as its sole stock would be similarly delicious.

Building umami in dishes using sake means that fats and oils are not needed to make them satisfying. Sake is particularly good at achieving a light yet rich flavor because of its creamy mouthfeel. Seventy percent of its flavor is in the mouth (versus 30% for wine), and sake’s light lusciousness is another reason why Kyoto chefs add it to their dashi soup.

Bishonabe in the top left black pot is a luscious clear soup made here with thin slices of pork and seasonal vegetables and seasoned only with salt and pepper.

“Taste As Close To Water As Possible”

There is an old Japanese saying that sake should taste as close to water as possible. Sake is as delicately sweet as pure, fresh water. (Sake tends to taste sweeter than wine because it has less acidity than wine. For a comparison of the sweetness and acidity of sake, wine, and beer, see the sidebar.) 

Sake’s sweetness comes in handy in cooking. For one, it aids browning, and sake in marinades or spritzed on meats or other foods before grilling or roasting helps give them a tasty crust and appetizing aroma. More broadly, small amounts of sake are an excellent way to balance and refine the flavor of sauces, pastes, and dips as it suppresses saltiness and evens out tartness. There is a gamut of Japanese sauces that rely on sake to meld and brighten their flavors, including Tosa sauce and all of its derivatives, miso dengaku, and ponzu sauce. A teaspoon or two is equally effective in Aurora, Romesco, chimichurri, and barbeque sauces, among many others.

Sake’s sweetness also lends sake to being useful when making sweet confections. Sake’s by-product, the lees leftover from sake brewing (sake kasu), is an especially sweet and rich as well as a nutritious paste and adds body as well as flavor to all kinds of desserts. Because sake kasu can stand up to long cooking, it is also good for adding body to savory dishes.

A glass of sake served alongside nasu dengaku, which is a roasted eggplant that has been glazed with a sauce made of sake, miso, hon-mirin, and sugar. The sauce can also be used to glaze tofu, fish, and vegetables.

In the brown bowl kasu-jiro is a rich, slightly sweet stew made with sake kasu and either pork or salmon and vegetables.


Lastly, sake has an important role to play at the table. A glass of heated or chilled sake is a perfect way to “finish” a meal as an accompanying drink. Its fresh, clean taste and subtle savoriness is a delight to drink and pairs well with all cuisines.

Sake was spritzed on the slices of duck breast before grilling them over a flame to help them brown. It was also used in the dipping sauce which is equal parts sake, soy sauce, and mirin. The sake served with the duck is a highly acidic one, typical of the artisanal types made in Nara prefecture, to best accompany the rich, gamey meats eaten in that mountainous, land-locked region of Japan.


Story: Tom Schiller
Photos: Tom Schiller

A stream flowing in front of Buttsuji Temple located deep in the mountains of Hiroshima prefecture.

“Meisui Hyakusen” — Japan’s 100 Remarkable Waters

Water is everywhere in Japan. Not just in the seas that surround the archipelago, but also on land. The country’s extensive high mountain ranges capture the heavy snowfalls that Japan experiences in winter and equally heavy rains in summer and cascade it down their slopes, filtering it along the way through volcanic soil and thick forest humus. It emerges pure and sweet in streams, springs, and wells found at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, towns and villages, and the courtyards of Japan’s traditional food makers. In Japan, water is believed to be a living spirit, and beautiful and delicious natural waters are honored by a Shinto shimenawa (woven lengths of rice straw or hemp) stretched across their source. Water is also considered culturally signficant, and one often finds springs and wells that have a plaque nearby describing the water’s history and importance.

Sponsored by the Environment Ministry, the “Meisui Hyakusen” is a ranking of the country’s most beautiful and delicious waters and also those that have a unique history or benefit from local communities’ efforts to protect and conserve them. There are 100 registered Meisui on the ministry’s list, and they include rivers, streams, irrigation channels, lakes, ponds, springs, and wells. Although only available in Japanese, the list and maps by major region of Meisui provided by the ministry may give you some ideas when planning your trips in Japan’s countryside as the Meisui are typically located in beautiful natural environments and interesting traditional locations.

A sacred water spout in the hills behind Kyoto city marked by a stone Shinto torii gate and shimenawa of woven rice straw.

Sake’s Key Attributes

Cooking Tips & Recipes

Shrimp Cocktail

At its most basic, sake cleanses food and gives it new life. It does this better than water because of its alcohol content and all because of the potential for water to breed bacteria on food. This recipe is an example of sake’s ability to eliminate odors and restore a food’s juiciness and pure fresh flavor.

  • Slowly defrost a bag of frozen shrimp in a large bowl of ice water. Drain and return the shrimp to the bowl and fill it again with ice water and add 2 tablespoons of sake and 2 wedges of lemon (lightly squeezed.)

  • Drain and pat the shrimp dry when ready to serve. Cocktail sauce, wasabi-mayonnaise, or other dipping sauces are good accompaniments, but you’re likely to find yourself eating the shrimp as is.

Similarly, you can cleanse, refresh, and also tenderize meats by putting them in a bowl or freezer bag with 1 tablespoon of sake a few hours and up to a day before cooking. This is especially good for chewy seafood like squid and octopus and for lean meats like white-meat chicken.

Zuke Maguro (Marinated Tuna)

This is a versatile base recipe that can be applied to other types of rich, strong-flavored fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and swordfish. It can be served in a variety of ways, including “as is,” rolled into sushi, or on top of warmed rice or cold pasta.

  • Cut anywhere from 250 to 400 grams of sashimi-grade tuna into medium-thin slices or dice into 1 cm cubes.

  • In a bowl, mix 1 tablespoon of sake, 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of mirin, and 1 tablespoon of dashi stock (for this you can use 1 tablespoon of water and 2 pinches of dashi powder). Add tuna and marinate for at least 2 hours in the refrigerator; it will become more mellow and tastier if marinated overnight.

Options: You can add any and all of the following to the marinade: 1/2 tablespoon of toasted sesame oil, 1 tablespoon of whole toasted sesame seeds, 1 tablespoon of chopped scallions, 1 clove of minced garlic. Just before serving, you can add 1 tablespoon of sriracha sauce or sriracha mayonnaise or a touch of wasabi to taste. You can also combine the tuna with slices or chunks of avocado.

Ohitashi (Soaked Greens)

This dish is commonly made with spinach, but is also a way to preserve, enrich, and balance the flavor of all kinds of bitter greens—beet, radish, turnip—and spring vegetables like nanohana, a type of rapeseed, which is shown here served alongside a puree of Jerusalem artichokes and sautéed slices of wild boar.

  • Blanch about 250 grams (1/2 lb.) of greens or vegetables in salted water for one minute. Quickly drain and cool in ice water. Squeeze and pat dry.

  • Splash with 1 tablespoon of sake and 1 tablespoon of soy sauce and toss.

  • Let rest for one minute, then squeeze out the liquid, cut into desired-sized pieces, and serve as an appetizer or side dish. For extra flavor when serving, top with a few drops of soy sauce, a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds, and/or a handful of dried katsuobushi flakes.

Greens and vegetables mildly preserved this way will keep for up to three days if refrigerated. It is a nice way to have some greens on hand to add to a salad or on top of a ramen soup, or to simply eat as a healthy snack.

Asari Sakamushi (Steamed Clams)

Seafood, like clams, is loaded with a type of umami that when combined with the umami in sake exponentially increases the total umami flavor in a dish. It is why just a drop or two of sake in a dashi stock is all that is needed to give the soup significantly more richness and depth. Asari Sakamushi is made with only two ingredients—clams and sake—and is an umami flavor bomb.

  • Soak 15-20 clams in salt water for about 30 minutes, then scrub them clean of any grit.

  • Place clams in a pan and add 50 ml (1/4 cup) of sake. Cover and heat on medium to high heat until all the clams are opened.

  • Serve the clams in their sauce topped with a garnish of some chopped bright greens like Japanese mitsuba, Italian parsley, or scallions to accent the rich, fresh flavor of the clams and sauce.

Next time you make a seafood soup or stew like chowder, bouillabaisse, or cioppino, try adding a tablespoon or two of sake to create a similar umami flavor bomb.

Cooking With Sake - II
Sake comes in a range of types and a diversity of styles. While one bottle of sake can meet all of your cooking needs, it is good to have at least two to three different types in the kitchen to make the best use of it. In addition, sake brewers are making entirely new qualities of sake, which not only enhances sake’s versatility but inspires creativity in the kitchen. In our next article about cooking with sake, which we will post in the coming months, we will tell you which types of sake are good for different types of cooking methods, foods, and dishes as well as explore some of the possibilities of the new styles of sake.

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