What Is Sushi Rice?
Sushi rice, or sushimeshi (鮨飯) in Japanese, is steamed short-grain rice seasoned with rice vinegar, sugar and salt. It's the common component that all sushi recipes share; you could even say it defines the dish.
Here in Japan, good fish is a given, so the best sushi restaurants differentiate themselves based on the quality of their sushi rice recipe. The best sushi rice teeters the line between tender and firm, and the individual grains of rice stick together without being gluey or gummy. The seasoning gives the rice a balance of tangy, sweet, and savory tastes without distracting from the other ingredients in the sushi. Most importantly, each grain of sushi rice should sport a lustrous shine that would make a shampoo model jealous.
Why This Recipe Works
- Good sushi rice starts with the right type of rice, which is why it's important to use Japanese short-grain rice, known as uruchimai in Japanese.
- How you wash and cook the rice affects its texture, and this authentic sushi rice recipe will teach you the techniques you need to make rice that's not mushy or hard.
- Properly seasoned sushi rice will elevate your homemade sushi, and it's not just about the ratio of ingredients. How you mix the seasoning into the rice is just as important.
Sushi Rice Ingredients
- Japanese short-grain rice: This type of rice has a high ratio of amylopectin to amylose, giving it a sticky texture essential for getting the rice to hold its shape when shaped into sushi. Although stickier than long-grain rice, it is not as sticky as glutinous rice (a.k.a. "sticky rice"). Read my post about Japanese short-grain rice for everything you need to know about selecting the right kind for sushi. It's also important to use white rice, as the bran that covers each grain of brown rice prevents the grains from sticking to each other. To give your sushi rice extra umami, you can cook it with a small piece of kombu (kelp).
- Water: Washing and soaking your rice in cold water is important. This allows it to absorb the water gradually and evenly, resulting in perfectly cooked rice with a consistent texture throughout.
- Rice vinegar: Rice vinegar has a mild acidity and sweet, nutty flavor, making it the perfect base for sushi seasoning, without overwhelming the other ingredients. When selecting rice vinegar, buy unseasoned rice vinegar (it should not contain any salt or sugar). If you can't find it, other mild vinegar or citrus juice, like apple cider vinegar or lemon juice, will work, but keep in mind that this will alter the flavor of your sushi rice.
- Sugar: Sugar balances out the rice vinegar's tartness and is an essential component of the seasoned vinegar for sushi. I like evaporated cane sugar because it has a caramel flavor, but white sugar or other relatively neutral sweeteners will work.
- Salt: Salt enhances the natural umami in sushi rice while balancing out the sweet and tangy notes of the seasoning. I like to use an umami rich sea salt any type of salt will work. Be sure to keep in mind that the 1 teaspoon measurement is for sea salt, so you will need to adjust the amount for flakier varieties like kosher salt.
How to Make Sushi Rice
Cook Japanese Short-Grain Rice
Place the rice in a sieve over a bowl and rinse it under cold tap water. This initial rinse removes any remaining bran left over from when the grain was milled. Gentle rubbing of the grains during rinsing helps this process while removing any powdered starch from the surface. When the water runs mostly clear, drain the rice.
To cook it, you can opt for a rice cooker or the stove-top method. If using a rice cooker, transfer the washed rice to the cooker bowl and add cold water just under the 2-cup line. Reducing the amount of water prevents the grains from getting mushy after adding the seasoning vinegar. Let it soak for 30 minutes before turning the rice cooker on. This soaking time allows the grains to absorb water, leading to shinier and better-textured rice upon cooking.
If you are cooking your short-grain rice on the stove, add the washed rice and 1 ½ cups of cold water to a heavy-bottomed non-stick pot with high sides and cover with a lid. Before cooking, let it soak in the water for at least 30 minutes. When it's done soaking, bring the pot to a boil over high heat. Then reduce the heat to low and cook until there's no water left in the pan (this will take 12-15 minutes). Turn off the heat and continue steaming for ten minutes. This controlled cooking method ensures each grain is cooked evenly, resulting in firm yet tender rice, where each grain retains its shape and has a glossy appearance.
Make Sushi Seasoning
While the rice cooks, prepare the seasoned vinegar by whisking the rice vinegar, sugar, and salt together until the solids are dissolved. If you're having trouble getting the salt and sugar to dissolve, you can heat the mixture until it's warm (I usually do this in the microwave oven), but don't let it boil.
How to Season Sushi Rice
Once the rice is cooked and steamed, transfer it to a large bowl or sushi oke. Gently break it up to fluff it, and then pour the seasoned vinegar over the hot rice and fold it in with a rice paddle or spatula. You want to use a gentle cutting motion with the side of your rice paddle, followed by a folding motion to distribute the vinegar mixture evenly without crushing the grains. Once the vinegar is evenly distributed, use a fan or clean hairdryer (set to cool) while mixing to rapidly cool the sushimeshi while evaporating any excess vinegar. This will enhance the sheen of your sushi rice while preventing it from getting mushy.
The rice is ready when it's no longer wet or slippery and has a fluffy, sticky texture with a shiny glow. Cover your perfect sushi rice with a damp towel to keep it from drying out until you're ready to use it.
Ways to Use Sushi Rice
With its tangy, sweet, savory taste and chewy texture, sushi rice is a versatile foundation on which you can build a variety of dishes. One popular option is to craft homemade sushi rolls, like California Rolls, Cucumber Rolls, or Caterpillar Rolls. If rolling sushi seems too daunting, temaki sushi or hand rolls are fun ways to make a cone of sushi rice and nori with your hands and stuff them with your favorite fillings such as avocado, tempura shrimp, or ikura.
A more traditional use is to make nigiri sushi, small balls of sushimeshi topped with a slice of sashimi or other seafood. Gunkan maki is another popular style of sushi with a small ball of sushi rice surrounded by a cup of nori that holds another filling, like spicy tuna. For a more casual presentation, consider chirashi sushi, a sushi bowl with a bed of sushi rice artfully topped with a mix of sashimi, vegetables, and garnishes. Sushi rice also makes an excellent base for poke bowls, a Hawaiian-inspired dish topped with marinated ahi tuna.
The best types of rice suitable for making sushi are Japanese short-grain rice cultivars such as Koshihikari, Akitakomachi, Sasanishiki, or Hitomebore. Japonica rice is highly prized for its stickiness, mellow sweetness, and slight chewiness, which makes it an ideal choice for making sushi rice.
Long-grain rice, such as Basmati rice or Jasmine rice, has a dry, fluffy texture, and the grains don't stick together due to a higher ratio of Amylose to Amylopectin. This also causes long-grain rice to get hard as it cools. These traits make long-grain rice unsuitable for making sushi rice.
Calrose rice and Kokuho Rose are a medium-grain rice cultivars that were originally hybridized to grow in the dry climate of California. Although they're commonly labeled as "sushi rice," they are not used in Japan to make sushi because they contain a lower ratio of amylopectin when compared to Japonica rice.
That being said, these medium grain cultivars are widely available in many parts of the world, making it a more convenient option for sushi making if you cannot get Japanese rice where you live.
By some accounts, the word sushi is a contraction of the words su, which means "vinegar," and meshi, which means "rice." One of sushi's earliest iterations in Japan is what's known as narezushi (馴れ寿司). Fish was salted and then buried in cooked rice and allowed to ferment. The ensuing lacto-fermentation would break down the rice, lowering the pH and preserving the fish. Eventually, someone figured out that adding vinegar to the mixture would shorten the fermentation time, making the fish taste better.
The next step in the evolution of sushi happened near Osaka, where the fish was salted, vinegared, and pressed onto a bed of sushi rice using a wooden mold. The bar of sushi would then be cut into bite-size pieces. This style of sushi is known as oshizushi (押し寿司), or pressed sushi, and is still popular in the region, especially for bento since the vinegar helps preserve the fish. The style of sushi we enjoy today wasn't developed until the Edo Period. Edo, the former name of Tokyo, was situated next to a bay teaming with seafood.
Around 200 years ago, an enterprising chef started topping small balls of sushi rice with fresh fish from Edo Bay without curing it first. Never before had sushi preparation been so easy or fast, so nigiri sushi was brought into this world as an early form of fast food, sold out of stalls near the bay.
Cooling the sushimeshi as the seasoning is folded in is a part of the process of making sushi rice. That said, it does not need to be cooled to room temperature, and some sushi chefs like lukewarm rice.
This recipe makes about 700 grams (25 ounces) of sushi rice. It depends on the type of rolls you make and how thick you lay the sushimeshi, but it should make anywhere from 9 hosomaki (thin rolls with the nori on the outside), 8 uramaki, or 4-5 thicker rolls (full-sheet of nori).
I usually make a large batch of sushi vinegar and store it in a bottle. As long as the sugar and salt are fully dissolved, this will keep in the refrigerator for months. Then, if you want to make sushi rice, you can use ⅓ US cup of sushi vinegar for every two rice cooker cups of uncooked rice after you've cooked it according to the directions in this recipe.
- 310 grams Japanese short-grain rice (2 cooker cups, see note)
- 1 ½ cups cold water
- 4 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Put 310 grams Japanese short-grain rice in a sieve over a bowl and rinse it with cold tap water.
- Use your hands to remove the excess starch from each grain by using a gentle rubbing motion.
- When the water that runs off is mostly clear, drain the rice.
- If you're using a rice cooker, add the washed rice to the cooker's bowl and add cold water to just under the 2-cup line. If you're using the stove, add the washed rice to a small heavy-bottomed non-stick pot, then add 1 ½ cups cold water and cover it with a lid.
- Let this soak for at least 30 minutes before you start cooking it. This allows the grains to soak up water before cooking, resulting in shinier rice with a better texture.
- If you use a rice cooker, turn it on and let it do its thing. If you are doing this on the stovetop, turn the heat to high and bring the water to a boil (be careful not to let it boil over). Turn down the heat to low and set a timer for 15 minutes. Once no liquid remains in the pot, turn off the heat and let the rice steam for 10 minutes.
- While you wait, combine 4 tablespoons rice vinegar, 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, and 1 teaspoon salt in a small bowl. You can microwave it for a bit to help dissolve the sugar.
- When the rice is done, dump it into a large bowl or sushi oke (the wooden bowl in the photo). The key is that you want a container with a lot of surface area to spread the rice out to cool it rapidly. Gently break up any clumps, then pour the vinegar mixture evenly over the hot rice.
- Use a shamoji (rice paddle), spatula, or a flat wooden spoon to gently combine the rice and vinegar using a side-to-side cutting motion followed by a folding motion. You want to separate each grain so seasoned vinegar coats every surface, but you don't want to break the rice grains or mash them together.
- While mixing, use a fan or a clean hairdryer set to cool and blow air on the rice. This cools the sushimeshi and helps the excess liquid evaporate quickly, giving it a nice sheen while keeping it from getting mushy. It's a bit tricky mixing and fanning simultaneously, so a second set of hands can be helpful here.
- The sushi rice is done when the surface is no longer wet and slippery, and each grain is shiny. It will still be lukewarm, but it should not be hot.
- Mound up the sushimeshi and cover it with a damp towel until you're ready to use it.