Yaki Onigiri (焼きおにぎり)
Yaki Onigiri (焼きおにぎり) is traditionally made by grilling rice balls over charcoal until the rice starts to brown and crisp. Then they’re brushed with either miso or soy sauce and then roasted until the seasoning forms a toasty caramelized glaze on the outside of the onigiri. The flavor that the charcoal imparts is undeniably good, but the texture usually ends up being somewhere in between crunchy and chewy, and not in a good way.
These days, most people don’t have grills at home in Japan, so they are commonly made in a frying pan, but the oil can cause them to fall apart more readily, and it’s challenging to get enough glaze onto them to season them properly.
For my version, I’ve changed a few things to create a grilled rice ball that’s flavorful to the core and has an exterior that’s as crisp as a rice cracker.
Table of contents
Why This Recipe Works?
- By pan-frying it rather than grilling, it’s possible to get a crisp, evenly browned rice layer.
- A thin coating of potato starch helps make the onigiri crispy and binds the rice on the onigiri’s surface together so it doesn’t fall apart when it hits the oil.
- Mixing the soy sauce directly into the rice rather than brushing it on top ensures the onigiri is evenly seasoned to the core.
- Butter adds a wonderful complimentary flavor to the grilled rice balls, but the milk solids in butter burn easily. That’s why it’s essential to add it at the very end.
Ingredients for Yaki Onigiri
- Rice – To make onigiri, it is imperative that you use Asian short-grain rice (Sativa Japonica). These cultivars have a higher ratio of amylopectin to amylose, which gives them a stickier texture. This enables the cooked rice to bind together into a rice ball. If you try and do this with other varieties of rice, your onigiri will most likely fall apart.
- Soy sauce – I used Japanese soy sauce to season my onigiri, but this will work with any seasoning, such as miso (you may need to thin it out a bit first with a little water), ketchup, oyster sauce, etc.
- Potato starch – Oil lubricates the grains of rice, which can make it fall apart, but a thin coating of potato starch creates a crust that binds the surface of the onigiri together. It also helps make it extra crispy.
- Vegetable oil – It takes a while to get the surface of the rice browned and crisp. If you start with butter, the milk solids burn and get bitter, which is why I fry my onigiri with vegetable oil first.
- Butter – Butter and soy sauce is a classic combo that is incredibly delicious on everything from pasta to stir-fries. It’s also really tasty on yaki onigiri. I like using cultured butter (a.k.a. European butter) because the fermentation of the cream creates more diacetyl, which is the compound responsible for giving butter its flavor.
How to Make Yaki Onigiri
The first thing you need to do is cook a batch of rice. This recipe is written for one rice cooker cup of rice (about 3/4 US cup), which will make 3 rice balls. If you need more, just increase the amount of each ingredient proportionally (though you won’t need to increase the amount of oil as much).
When the rice is cooked, drizzle the soy sauce evenly over the hot rice and then use a wet spatula or rice paddle to evenly distribute the soy sauce. You want to use a folding and cutting motion to coat each grain of rice with the soy sauce, but use a light touch, so you don’t mash the grains.
Once the rice is uniform in color, flatten off the top and then divide it into thirds with the spatula (if you double the recipe, you’ll need to divide it into 1/6ths).
Shape each segment of rice into a rice ball. Click the link for instructions on shaping them by hand. Or you can wet an onigiri mold and use that. Unlike regular onigiri, you want to compact the rice well for Yaki Onigiri, so it holds its shape in the pan.
Place the formed onigiri onto a parchment paper (or plastic wrap) lined sheet and repeat until you’ve used all of the rice.
Put the potato starch in a tea strainer or other fine-mesh sieve, and then give the two large faces of the onigiri a light dusting of starch. It should look like your rice balls got hit with a light frost, not a heavy snowfall. Also, try to limit the amount of starch that gets onto the sides of the onigiri.
Heat a frying pan over medium-low heat until it’s moderately hot, and then drizzle in about half of the oil. Add the onigiri to the pan and then move them around a bit to make sure each one has some oil on it. Be careful not to allow the riceballs to touch each other, or they will stick together.
Let these fry until they’re crisp and golden brown. This will take anywhere from 7-10 minutes. The idea is to brown them slowly, so you get a nice thick crust of crispy rice, not just a layer of browning.
Once they’ve crisped on one side, flip them over. Add a bit more oil to the pan and move the Yaki Onigiri around to make sure you have some oil between the rice and the pan. You may not need all of the oil.
When the second side has browned, melt some butter on top of each rice ball and then flip them over and melt some more butter on the second side (you may not need it all).
To finish them off, flip the grilled rice balls up on their sides and roll them around on each side to cook any stray starch that may have gotten onto the sides (white powder).
Serve the onigiri while hot, wrapped in perilla leaves (shiso or kkaennip) or nori.
Japanese Rice Recipes
Yaki onigiri roughly translates to “grilled rice ball” (the literal translation is more like “grilled squeezed thing”). Traditionally it’s made by making a rice ball (which is really more like a rice triangle), and then grilling it on a screen over charcoal. These days, most people pan-fry them. This creates a crisp browned crust on the outside, which gives the onigiri a toasty flavor that’s a bit like rice crackers.
Yaki Onigiri has 6 syllables and is pronounced as follows:
ya like yacht
ki like key
o like order
ni like knee
gi like gear
ri the “ri” sound does not exist in the English language and is like if you tried to pronounce “ream” with the tip of your tongue at the front of your mouth.
Although it’s best to eat yaki onigiri right away, the crisp crust on this version will last for a few hours as long as you don’t cover it while it is still warm.
If you end up making more grilled rice balls than you can eat in one sitting, they are delicious in ochazuke, or Japanese “tea rice”. Just make some tea(I recommend houjicha) or dashi, heat the onigiri up in a microwave, and then pour the tea or dashi on top of the onigiri. It will lose it’s crispness, but the flavor of the caramelized rice and soy sauce gets released into the liquid, and it makes for a delicious breakfast.
Although this Yaki Onigiri is vegetarian, you can make it vegan-friendly by eliminating the butter or by using a plant-based butter instead.
- 160 grams Japanese short-grain rice (1 rice cooker cup or 3/4 US cup)
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon potato starch
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
Use the measuring cup and water lines on the cooker bowl to cook 1 rice cooker cup of rice.
If you're doing it on the stove, wash the rice in a few changes of water until it runs mostly clear. Drain it in a sieve. Add the rice to a tall pot along with 1 US cup of water. Cover the pot with a lid, and then bring the water to a boil over high heat. As soon as it's boiling, turn the heat down as low as it will go. Set a timer for 13 minutes. After the timer goes off, turn the heat off and let the rice continue steaming for another 10-15 minutes. Do not open the lid at any point during the cooking or steaming process.
Once it's done steaming, pour the soy sauce evenly over the rice and use a folding and cutting motion with a spatula or rice paddle to evenly distribute the soy sauce until the rice is uniform in color.
Level off the top of the rice and then divide it into thirds like a pizza.
If you're shaping the onigiri by hand, click this link for specific instructions. If you're using an onigiri press, just get it wet and stuff each mold with a segment of rice. Press the onigiri together more than you normally would for onigiri so that it holds its shape.
- Put the onigiri on a parchment-lined tray. Dust each onigiri with a thin layer of potato starch by passing it through a fine-mesh sieve like a tea strainer. Flip the onigiri over and dust the other side. Try not to get starch onto the sides of the onigiri.
- Put a non-stick frying pan over medium-low heat and when it is moderately hot, add about half of the oil and arrange the onigiri, so they’re sitting on a small pool of oil.
- Fry undisturbed until they’re golden brown and crisp on one side (about 7-10 minutes).
- Flip them over, and then add a bit more oil to fry the second side until crisp and browned.
- Finish the Yaki Onigiri off by melting some butter directly onto each browned surface of the onigiri and then roll them on their 3 sides to cook any stray starch.
- Serve the grilled rice balls wrapped in shiso or nori.