Most countries have some dishes that will remind most of their people of mom's home cooking. In Japan, Salmon Onigiri (鮭おにぎり) comes near the top of that list. With tender flakes of salt-cured salmon enveloped in a layer of rice, this self-contained meal offers the perfect blend of deliciousness and portability, making it a staple for busy families on the go. Although onigiri is often translated as "rice ball," it's based on the verb "nigiru," which means "to clasp." Although it's super simple to make, using good technique and ingredients can take it to the next level, and here are all my tricks to make the best Salmon Onigiri.
Why This Recipe Works?
- Using generously marbled salmon ensures the salted salmon flakes stay moist and tender.
- Steaming the salmon cooks it evenly, giving it a uniformly tender and fluffy texture without any tough or dry bits.
- Moderately salting the salmon and lightly salting the exterior of the onigiri ensures each rice ball is evenly seasoned.
- The trick to a light and fluffy salmon onigiri is to squeeze it together just enough to allow it to hold its shape without compressing the rice and making it dense.
- Salmon - I like using salmon fillet with fat marbled into the fish to get moist and tender flakes. The area around the belly tends to have the most fat. I also like using salmon with a deep orange or pink hue because it gives the filling a nice color. I used Coho Salmon because it's in season, but other types of salmon, such as Atlantic, King, or Sockeye, will work.
- Salt - The salt cures the salmon by drawing out excess moisture from the fish through osmosis. This not only helps to preserve the salmon, but it also seasons it while concentrating its flavors. I like using a traditional Japanese sea salt called mojio (or moshio) because it's infused with seaweed, which adds umami to the salt. I don't recommend curing the salmon with soy sauce because it will turn the salmon brown.
- Sake - I like to steam the salmon with sake because it imparts a subtle, fragrant flavor while amplifying the umami in the fish. If you can't find sake, water will work, but it won't be as flavorful.
- Japanese Short-Grain Rice - Japanese short-grain rice (sometimes labelled "sushi rice") has a high ratio of amylopectin (relative to amylose), which gives it a sticky texture that allows your onigiri to hold its shape. Long-grain rice will not work as it is not sticky enough to hold together. You can read more about this, as well as how to cook it, in my tutorial on how to make Japanese rice.
- Nori - Sheets of nori seaweed add a crisp texture and briny flavor that balances out the rich salmon and sweet white rice while preventing the salmon onigiri from sticking to your hands. They're not paying me to say this, but my favorite brand currently is Numata Nori.
How to Make Salmon Onigiri
The day before you want to make your onigiri, cure the salmon by setting it on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. The paper towels will help drain off any liquid the salmon releases. Sprinkle about a teaspoon of salt evenly over the surface of the fish. The salted salmon can be kept in the fridge for up to 3 days.
When you're ready to cook the salmon, place it skin-side down in a non-stick frying pan. Add two tablespoons of sake, cover the pan with a lid, and turn the heat on to medium-high. Once the sake reaches a rolling boil, lower the heat to sustain a gentle simmer. Set a timer for three minutes. Steaming the salmon ensures a uniformly tender and fluffy texture while the sake infuses the fish with umami.
When the timer is up, transfer the salmon to a clean surface. When it's cool enough to handle, peel off the skin and remove any pin bones. Now, use your fingers to gently flake the salmon apart. If you want finer flakes, you can rub the flakes between your fingertips to crumble them up even more.
To make the salmon onigiri, cut a sheet of plastic wrap in front of you and sprinkle on a pinch of salt. This will lightly salt the exterior of the onigiri. Heap a mound of cooked rice into the center of the wrap and make a small well in the center. Add a generous helping of your salmon flakes into the hole, and cover it with another layer of rice.
To form the onigiri, lift the bottom edge of the plastic wrap and fold it over the rice. Bring the top corners down over the rice to make a triangular bundle. Shape one hand like a "U" and place the bundle of rice in it. Shape the other hand like a "V" and press your hands together to lightly compress the rice. The hallmark of a great onigiri is in the delicate balance of pressure that's enough to hold its shape but not so much that it becomes dense and heavy. Another option is to use a plastic onigiri mold which will make these easier to shape.
As for the nori strips, I'd recommend wrapping your salmon rice balls when you plan to eat it. This ensures the seaweed remains crisp, creating a delightful textural contrast with the soft rice and moist salmon. Just drape the nori strip, shiny side out, around the back of the onigiri like you're putting a blanket over its shoulders and fold the edges over, pressing them gently into the rice.
Variations on Salmon Onigiri
In addition to using the salted salmon flakes to stuff onigiri, they can be folded into cooked rice to make salmon mazégohan (mixed rice). This can then be used to make onigiri. It's a more colorful alternative to filling these Japanese rice balls because you can see the pink flakes of salmon mixed into the rice. If you go this route, try sprinkling some toasted white or black sesame seeds on the outside of the onigiri. These are also delicious covered with some homemade ikura.
Serve it With
In Japan, onigiri can be served for a quick breakfast, packed into a bento box for lunch on the go, or eaten as an afternoon snack. I like to have these with pickled veggies like my Asazuke or Cucumber Wasabi Pickles. If I'm packing them into a bento, I might add some Tamagoyaki, a rolled omelet that's both sweet and savory. Karaage, or Japanese fried chicken, is another great addition to an onigiri bento. If you're having this at home, a soul-soothing bowl of miso soup is a great way to up the comfort food vibes, and in winter, I might serve it with some Tonjiru.
Other Onigiri Recipes
200 grams of salmon makes about 160 grams of cooked salted salmon flakes after removing the skin and pin bones. This is enough to fill 6 onigiri.
Once cured, the salted salmon can be kept in the fridge for 3-4 days, or you can wrap them individually before putting them in a freezer bag to freeze for up to 3-4 months.
- Line a tray with a few layers of paper towels and set 200 grams salmon filets on top. Apply 5 grams salt to every surface of the salmon in an even layer. Cover and refrigerate overnight to cure.
- To cook the salmon, place it in a non-stick frying pan with the skin side down and add 2 tablespoons sake.
- Cover the pan with a lid and turn on the heat to medium-high. Bring the sake to a rolling boil and lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Set a timer for 3 minutes.
- When the timer is up, remove the lid, transfer the salmon to a clean prep surface, and let it cool enough to handle.
- Remove the skin and any pin bones from the salmon and break it up into flakes using your fingers.
- Once all of the salmon is flaked, you can rub the flakes with your fingertips to make the flakes even smaller.
- To make the salmon onigiri you'll need 2 rice cooker cups cooked Japanese short-grain rice. Place a sheet of plastic wrap in front of you and sprinkle it with a pinch of salt. Add a mound of rice to the center of the wrap and make a well in the center using a spoon. Fill the well with a generous amount of salmon.
- Mound some more rice onto the salmon to cover it up.
- Fold the bottom edge of the wrap over the rice and then fold the top corners down to make a triangular bundle to give the salmon rice balls a rough shape.
- Now, shape one hand into a valley and place the onigiri in it. Use your other hand to make a mountain and gently press it against the onigiri to compress the rice. Flip the onigiri onto a different side and repeat the process so the rice sticks together, but do not over-squeeze it, or the onigiri will become dense and heavy.
- For the nori, I recommend wrapping the onigiri just before eating it so the nori stays crisp. Place a strip of nori with the shiny side facing outwards along the back of the rice.
- Fold the edges of the nori over the sides of the onigiri until they meet in front of the rice. Gently press the edges into the rice to make them stick together.