Is Shaoxing wine gluten free?

Is Shaoxing wine gluten free?

Shaoxing wine (绍兴黄酒), also called shaohsing, hsiaohsing, or shao shing, is a type of rice wine that’s ubiquitous in Chinese cooking. In fact, Chinese recipes use it about as frequently as soy sauce. Unfortunately for those of us with celiac disease, Shaoxing wine is not gluten free. We’ll get into why this is the case below, and at the bottom of this article you’ll find gf substitutes for Shaoxing wine.

Shaoxing wine is a variety of huangjiu (黄酒), meaning yellow wine, although Shaoxing ranges in color from a light yellow to a dark amber. It’s one of the oldest types of rice wines in China. It’s made from glutinous rice (which is gluten free!), but wheat is used in the fermentation process, which is why the wine isn’t gluten free. Wheat is a common ingredient for the base of jiǔqū (曲/麹), the dried fermentation starter culture that’s added to the glutinous rice when making huangjiu. The base grain used to make jiǔqū varies and could also include barley, millet, sorghum, or peas. Theoretically, some Shaoxing wine is made with a starter culture that is entirely gluten free, but we haven’t ever found one that confirms this. Labels for Shaoxing wine rarely include detailed information about culture substrates.

shaoxing wine

Image from Culinary Backstreets

So what does Shaoxing wine taste like? And why is it so important in Chinese cooking? The flavor of Shaoxing wine is much more complex and savory than many other rice wines. It doesn’t have much of an alcohol smell, and the flavor has been described as earthy, nutty, slightly spicy and caramely, with a hint of sourness and bitterness. Shaoxing wine is added to dishes to balance greasy fish and meat smells, to tenderize meats, and add a freshness and balanced aroma to otherwise heavy foods. The wine itself also contains a wide variety of amino acids and flavors that add umami and depth.

Gluten Free Shaoxing Wine Substitutes:

Both dry sherry and dry marsala are great substitutes for Shaoxing wine, with a similar alcohol content and complex flavor profile. Cooking wines sold in the US include added salt to get around liquor laws, so if you use those make sure you reduce the salt in your recipe. Sake and mirin can be used in a pinch, but they don’t offer the same depth of flavor. The list below is ordered from best to least favorable subs, with sherry and marsala tied as the top picks. If a large amount is going into the recipe you’re making, it’s more important to use something you’d be happy to drink. Otherwise, cheaper varieties work well here.

shaoxing wine

Guide to dry sherry from Wine Folly

  • Dry sherry

    • The most recommended 1:1 substitute for Shaoxing wine is dry sherry, particularly manzanilla or amontillado.
  • Dry marsala

    • Another 1:1 sub for Shaoxing wine. Look for secco (dry) varieties that use white grapes if you’re worried about a deeper red color affecting the look of your dish.
  • Dry cooking sherry

    • Cooking sherry has added salt, so reduce salt in the recipe if you use this.
  • Dry white or orange wine

    • Look for earthy-tasting wine that’s pretty dry.
  • Sake

    • A dry sake is preferable to mirin because it has less sugar.
  • Cooking sake

    • Reduce salt in your recipe if you use cooking sake rather than drinking sake.
  • Whiskey

    • A less common sub, but hits some of the same flavor notes. Use a cheaper whiskey and dilute with water or stock until it’s about 15% alcohol before using as a sub.
  • Mirin

    • Mirin can be used, but it’s quite sweet, so cut down on sugar in the recipe.
  • Mirin-style condiment

    • Cut down on both sugar and salt in your recipe if you use this.

* Title image courtesy of Mala Food.

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