Bottom of the Barrel: A Closer Look at Sake Lees
Joshua Willem van den Berg - February 24th, 2014
Visit the produce section of many Japanese grocery stores in the winter months and you will find conspicuous plastic bags full of an off-white semisolid mass. Although it may appear highly illegal, the cakes are sold as a pickling agent and culinary ingredient. After 18 to 32 days of fermentation in large vats, sake is extracted and the residual yeast, or lees, is left behind. A complex, fruity aroma belies its drab, wet clay-like appearance. “It has that rice alcohol flavor, so there is a sweetness to it, and a lovely yeasty note,” says chef Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 and Alder in New York City.
Sake lees, or sake kasu translates to “sake waste,” which couldn’t be farther from the truth. It has been used in Japanese kitchens for hundreds of years. As a marinade, it tenderizes and imparts flavor to meat and fish. The ubiquitous miso-marinated black cod is reborn when sake lees replaces the miso. In colder months, it’s traditionally used in amazake, a warm beverage made from steeping sake lees with water, sugar, and ginger.
Stateside, Tyson Cole, of Uchi and Uchiko in Austin, Texas, marinates Chilean sea bass in sake lees for two days before searing and finishing it in a 475˚F oven. On the West Coast, David Myers, of the David Myers Group marinates his Kasuzuke duck for two hours before searing, roasting, and pairing with purple yams, cardamom, and veal tongue.
Sake lees also boasts the nutritional benefits of countless other fermented foods. It has notable quantities of B1, B2, B6, amino acids, and peptides. Japanese studies have found sake lees to reduce LDL cholesterol, aid weight loss, and even combat diabetes.
So it seems, sometimes byproducts are worth a second look.