Why It Works
- Preparing the rice vinegar solution the night before allows the umami from the kombu to come through and the salt and sugar to fully dissolve.
- Allowing the rice to sit under cold running water after rinsing is essential for sifting out broken grains, and prevents large, sticky clumps of rice from forming.
- Keeping your hands and tools moist will help prevent the rice from sticking to surfaces.
In Japanese, the word “sushi” literally translates to “sour rice” and refers to an ancient preservation technique used to store fish before refrigeration was available. Typically, when sushi is mentioned, sliced raw fish—be it a fatty piece of tuna or salmon—comes to mind. And the vehicle for that fish, the rice, is often overlooked. This is the exact opposite of how a skilled sushi chef thinks, for whom making great sushi is largely about the rice. Regardless of how fresh and delicious the seafood is, the sushi will ultimately suffer if the rice isn’t up to par. Consider the simplicity of a piece of nigiri sushi, where there are often only four components (the rice, fish, soy sauce, and wasabi). There simply is no way to mask bad sushi rice.
While the recipe I share here is intended for the home cook, it is informed by my own professional experience cooking in some of the best sushi restaurants in the world, including three and a half years at Masa in New York City, and now Joji, an omakase restaurant in midtown helmed by George Ruan, a Masa veteran and alum. Some of the details in this recipe may seem a bit nitpicky—certainly more fastidious than many sushi rice recipes you’re likely to see online—but they’re details that I promise will make a difference. There’s no question that it can take years of focused study and practice to become an expert in the art of sushi and rice, but even in novice hands, these rice-making techniques are worth applying for best results.
Choosing Rice for Sushi
For sumeshi, you’ll want to use Japanese short-grain rice, such as koshihikari, one of the most well-known and highly regarded varieties. There are many other artisanal varieties of short-grain sushi rice available, but koshihikari is widely available while still being a very high-quality product. It’s important to use short-grain rice because its higher levels of more glutinous amylopectin starch (as opposed to the dryer-cooking amylose found in fluffy varieties like jasmine and basmati) allow the rice to stick together, and its small, plump shape allows it to absorb liquid much better than thinner medium and long-grain rice varieties. (If you really want to do a deep dive into Japanese heirloom grains, check out The Rice Factory in upstate New York. They import and mill Japanese varieties that may be difficult to find elsewhere, like yumepirika, oboruzuki, and nanatsuboshi.)
The Importance Water
Though often overlooked, the water in which the rice is cooked is important. In rice cookery, there are only two ingredients—rice and water—and it’s worth taking the time to make sure both are good quality. In my own time as a cook in sushi restaurants, I know of at least one elite sushi chef in New York City who only uses Evian water to cook his rice, due to the water’s exacting nature of a 7.2 pH level and natural minerality. I’m not saying that you need to get all Bill Nye and measure the pH of your water to make sushi rice at home, but I do recommend that you cook with water that’s filtered, drinkable, and tastes good. When in doubt, just use your favorite brand of bottled water or filtered tap water.
Sushi Rice Seasoning Vinegar
Once the rice is cooked, it needs to be seasoned with seasoned vinegar—sushi, whether nigiri, maki, or hand rolls, is not made with plain rice. There are as many sushi vinegar recipes as there are sushi restaurants, and how it’s made ultimately depends on that particular chef’s preferences; it’s not uncommon for some sushi chefs to treat their seasoned vinegar recipe as a closely guarded secret. The essential ingredients of sushi vinegar are salt, sugar, and kombu, a dried kelp that contains natural salinity and minerality from the ocean. The salt and sugar are there to balance the sharpness and acidity of the vinegar while the kombu provides an umami undertone that adds an element of savory flavor. How each recipe tends to differ from the next lies in the specific ratios of those ingredients, and the exact type and brand of each.
Some sushi vinegar recipes call for traditional light rice vinegar, but there are other types of vinegar one can use, such as darker red ones called akazu. Made with sake lees, akazu carries a premium price tag and adds a different flavor profile and darker pigment for the rice. The recipe I’m sharing here uses light rice vinegar, which produces a versatile sushi rice that can be used in any application. Akazu, on the other hand, is more particular and especially useful when trying to accentuate certain types of fish. For example, if a restaurant serves a lot of hikarimono (silver-skinned fish like mackerel), akazu-seasoned rice may be used just for those types of fish. Of course, these are just generalizations and the specific choices will depend on the sushi chef, but for most home cooks, I think basic light rice vinegar is the way to go.
How to Season Sushi Rice
When mixing and seasoning sushi rice, it’s important to be as quick and efficient as possible. Time and temperature are key, as the rice is at peak absorption levels when it’s freshly out of the cooking vessel and still hot. As soon as the vinegar hits the rice, your work begins. The goal is to incorporate the seasoned vinegar into the rice as evenly as possible without overworking or damaging the rice. The specific technique relies on a rice paddle or wooden spoon to deftly cut through and turn the rice, not mash it into submission. Your grip should be firm, but the strokes gentle and intentional, and your eyes should be zeroing in on any clumps of rice that need to be broken up, while avoiding any already-mixed portions so as not to overwork them. This will result in rice that is evenly seasoned, has no clumps or broken grains, and is airy and light, versus starchy, damp, and heavy.
In the end, this is the same process I use to make sushi rice at work, just with more easily accessible, though still good-quality, ingredients. In time, you may might want to experiment with ingredients like akazu vinegar, johakuto (a fine, slightly moist white sugar), or yakishio (roasted sea salt), but you don’t necessarily need the most premium products as long as you’ve got the technique down.