Read any Japanese cookery book and you will soon realise that sake is an essential part of many Japanese recipes, whether listed as sake or mirin (sweet cooking sake).

It’s actually used a lot more than wine in European cooking, though most people don’t seem to be aware of it because the flavours it helps to create are often subtle and don’t stand out, yet help to create the distinctive tastes we associate with Japanese cuisine.

With the continuing interest in sake and fusion cooking, Gekkeikan, one of Japan’s largest and most successful sake breweries, launched a cooking competition earlier this year to get people thinking outside of the box, using sake as an ingredient. Contestants had to come up with both a sweet and savoury dish using sake, with one strict rule applied, the cuisine could be from anywhere, except Japan! The recipes entered highlighted how well sake can work in a range of dishes.

So what is the secret to using sake in cooking? I talked to some of the contestants to find out.

Avoid Overheating

To maintain the delicate flavour of sake, the key is not to heat it too much. This is really useful to understand as it contrasts to the way in which wine is often used in meat casseroles and sauces left to slow cook, bubbling away for hours.

Second prize winner, Mutsumi Kramer explained: “…it should not be boiled too much. Add the sake towards the end or add it when the temperature goes down a little”. Overall winner, Natasha Cohen agreed: “I made sure I simmered the chicken on the lowest possible heat with the pan covered, to stop too much of the sake from being cooked off. I also added just a splash to my pickles for a tiny extra kick on the side – although not too much, as I didn’t want drunken pickles!”.

The entrants maintained the fresh, delicate sake flavours in their desserts by avoiding applying any heat at all. Instead adding them to jellies or whipping them into various takes on creamy puddings such as syllabubs, trifles, semi-freddos and cheesecakes. Natasha found she needed to use much less sake when making dessert: “since I wouldn’t be heating the sake at any point in the process. In general, I’d say be gentle if heating, and be sparing if not.”

Enhance Umami

Sake can be used to subtly enhance the flavours in foods, working particularly well to boost umami flavours as a result of its high levels of amino acids. These bring out the umami in dishes containing umami-rich ingredients such as mushrooms, stock, mature cheese and meats. When used in this way sake often adds a subtle depth of flavour without the taste of sake coming to the fore.

To add more distinct sake flavours to savoury dishes, sake can be used not just as an ingredient in the dish itself, but also as part of a marinade or dipping sauce.

Keep It Simple and Match Flavours

It’s important not to mask the flavour of the sake with strong flavours. Mutsumi explained “Sake has a very delicate, fragrant flavour and subtle sweetness. So if it’s used with strong spices you cannot bring out much of its flavour”.  Natasha found “sake works best with simple flavours that allow it to hold its own”. Fruit usually pairs beautifully with it, along with herbs and seasonings like garlic and ginger”.

For desserts, sakes with fruity notes match up well to complimentary flavours in dishes containing fresh fruit like pineapple, strawberry, plum, peach, mango, apple and melon. Sweet, fruit-infused liqueur sakes such as umeshu (plum), and those infused with yuzu or peach also work particularly well. For those less keen to cook, these are delicious simply drizzled over ice-cream, cheesecakes and creamy puddings.

Where To Buy Sake for Cooking

The Japan Centre stocks one of the widest selections of sake in London, including Gekkeikan’s range, much of which is affordable and available in small sized bottles, perfect for experimenting! More basic mirin (cooking sake) is also widely available from most major supermarkets Japanese food sections, Asian supermarkets, online grocers and The Japan Centre.

Enter the Gekkeikan Masters Cooking Competition 2017: 

You can find 2016 Competition winner, Natasha Cohen’s  winning recipes here and Mutsumi Kramer‘s winning recipes here: and here.