Roots Teriyaki

Yesterday was serendipitous, in teriyaki terms. First off, I received a message noting that someone poking about here couldn’t find a recipe for teriyaki marinade. I was sure there was one, right up until when I poked around and couldn’t find one either. 692 posts over 13 years, and I never wrote about teriyaki? Wow – time to fix that.

Teriyaki is Japanese in origin, and its roots stretch back hundreds of years. At heart, it’s a blend of  sake or mirin, soy sauce, and a sugar. Done right, it’s a perfect tangy balance of sour, salty and sweet – and that balance is the key.

Nowadays, there are myriad variations on the theme, but it’s those roots I’m most interested in. Teriyaki can be done very well with just three ingredients. If you’re diving in to making your own, you should start there. Oh, and come to think of it, it’s grilling season again, too – serendipity redux.

Starting simple doesn’t mean you’ll stay there – in fact I encourage you not to. I’m sure you’ll find a three ingredient version that you really dig and do again and again – there’s a soul satisfying quality to teriyaki made this way. That said, there are lots of other things you should experiment with – Lemon, lime, pineapple, yuzu, sudachi, mandarin orange, ginger, garlic, and chiles come to mind. So long as you keep the ratio of ingredients properly balanced, you’ll love the results.

Ratios lie at the heart of cooking, and teriyaki is no exception. Starting with the three ingredient version, you’ll want 4:2:1 for acid, soy sauce, and sweetener. If you’re looking to marinate a couple pounds of protein, (chicken, beef, pork, fish, extra firm tofu, or veggies), you might go with this

Roots Teriyaki

1 Cup Sake or Rice Vinegar 

1/2 Cup Soy Sauce 

1/4 Cup Agave Nectar 

Thoroughly whisk all three ingredients with a fork, and let them sit for about 15 minutes to get acquainted, then marinate for at least an hour, and as long as 3 hours – Note that fish and tofu should marinate for 15 to 20 minutes, tops. Yes, I know some folks swear by overnight, etc, but – there’s a lot of acid in this sauce, and if you go too long, it’s going to alter the texture of your protein in unpleasant ways.

Seen recipes out there that call for cooking the sauce? That’s done because granulated sugars simply will not dissolve in room temperature acid/soy mixes. If you want to use granulated sugars, you’ll need to simmer your sauce over medium low heat for about 5-7 minutes to dissolve the sugar completely. Cool to room temp before deploying. 

If you’re adding ginger, garlic, chiles, etc – start small. For the base recipe above, a half teaspoon of minced, fresh will deliver the flavor notes without overwhelming the balance of the sauce.

Now, variety – change the acid, see what you think. Sake versus mirin or rice vinegar, and different varieties of same. Switch to citrus or pineapple and you’re in a whole other ballpark. Go way out in left field and try Chinese black vinegar, or balsamic, and you’re in another world altogether.

Change the soy sauce from koikuchi shoyu (dark) to usukuchi shoyu (light), shiro shoyu (white), tamari shoyu, or saishikomi shoyu (twice-brewed). Try Chinese, Thai or Korean soy sauces – whole nuther show there.

A note on Mirin – when you find and try the good stuff, it’s revelatory. Unfortunately, most of what you find in general grocery stores is crap – a pale shadow of the real thing with a bunch of preservatives added. If you have a good Asian grocery nearby, you can get the good stuff, and you should. Real mirin is slightly less alcoholic than sake, and subtly sweet/savory in flavor – it’s a vital ingredient in a lot of Japanese cooking, and it’s absolutely worth it.

Why Agave nectar for the sweetener? Because it‘s a light, neutral flavor and a decent coater/thickener, and makes teriyaki production super easy. For a more authentic option, ask for Mizuame (also known as Millet Jelly), or black sugar syrup (there’s a bunch of makers) at your local Asian grocery. You can use honey or maple syrup as well, with very intriguing results. 

Have some fun, come up with what you dig most, and then call it yours.