Rice wine plays a major role in Chinese cuisine, possibly coming second only to soy sauce in importance. Made from fermented glutinous rice or millet, rice wine is used to tenderize meat and seafood in marinades, and to impart flavor to food. Rice wine even forms the basis of an herbal soup meant to help new mothers recover quickly after giving birth.
Unfortunately, while rice wine is readily available at Chinese/Asian groceries, it is one of the few must-have Chinese ingredients that is not easy to find at regular local supermarkets. And drinking quality rice wine is still hard to find in many parts of North America.
Here are some suggested substitutes for rice wine:
Pale Dry Sherry – available at liquor stores, this is the most commonly recommended substitute for rice wine. It comes closest in flavor to Shaoxing rice wine (also spelled Shao-hsing or Shaohsing), an amber colored wine made with glutinous rice, wheat yeast and spring water. Since rice wine can be hard to find, many recipes will only have dry sherry in the ingredients list, not even giving rice wine as an option.
Gin – While Shaoxing rice wine is commonly recommended because of its consistent high quality, there are many types of rice wines in China. Gin comes closer in flavor to the white rice wines than dry sherry. Feel free to give it a try if you like.
- Dry White Wine – While the flavor is not the same, it makes an acceptable substitute for Chinese rice wine in marinades.
- Apple juice or white grape juice – The acid in the juice acts as a tenderizer, making it an acceptable substitute for rice wine in stir-fry marinades. Again, the flavor won’t be quite the same.
What to Avoid
- Cooking wine – Sold in local supermarkets, cooking wines are overly salted and have a different flavor than Chinese rice wine.
- Chinese Rice Wine Vinegars – these are vinegars, not wines.
What About Sake?
Commonly referred to as the Japanese version of rice wine (although it actually has more in common with brewing beer), Sake has a very different flavor than Chinese rice wine. However, some cooks prefer it. It really comes down to personal preference – feel free to give it a try if you like.