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.
For the Sushi Vinegar: In a stainless-steel bowl, whisk together the rice vinegar, salt, and sugar. Pour the solution into a nonreactive, airtight container and add kombu, making sure it is fully submerged. Allow kombu to infuse at room temperature for 24 hours.
For the Rice: The next day, place rice in a large bowl and add enough cold water to cover. Using your fingers, gently massage and swish the grains in a circular motion until the water turns cloudy, about 30 seconds. Drain through a fine-mesh strainer, then refill the bowl with fresh water and repeat rinsing and draining until the water runs clear.
Transfer rice to the fine-mesh strainer and set it atop the bowl used to rinse the rice. Run the rice under cold water for 2 to 3 minutes, allowing the bowl to overflow and spill over. Lightly agitate the rice as the water continues to run, which should help to filter out any small shards of broken rice grains (these can make sushi rice sticky/gummy if not removed, even if the rice is otherwise correctly cooked).
Turn off the water and empty the bowl. Allow the rice to drain and air dry in the strainer for 10 minutes with the empty bowl beneath to catch any excess water.
If using a rice cooker, add the rice and filtered water to the pot of a rice cooker and, using your fingers, evenly disperse the grains. If your cooker has a “sushi rice” setting, set it to that and cook. Otherwise use the standard white rice setting.
If cooking rice on the stove-top, place the rice and filtered water in a 2- to 3-quart heavy-bottomed pot and give the pot a good shake to level the rice. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, lower to a gentle simmer, then cover and cook until water is fully absorbed, about 12 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow the rice to steam, covered, for an additional 10 minutes.
Measure 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (50ml) sushi vinegar. Transfer hot rice into a wide, non-reactive container, such as a traditional wooden sushi oke/hangiri or 9-by 13-inch glass or ceramic baking dish; make sure not to transfer any crusty rice from the cooking pot (you can save this rice to be eaten separately, but it will ruin the sushi rice if not removed).
Hold a rice paddle or wooden spoon at a 45º angle above the rice. Slowly add the measured amount of sushi vinegar directly onto the paddle while waving the paddle back and forth to scatter and evenly distribute the vinegar onto the hot rice. Using long, sweeping strokes, smooth the rice into a flat even layer, gently breaking up any clumps as you go.
Once the rice is flat and all of the large clumps have been separated, push the rice into a pile on the side of the container nearest to you. Scoop the rice in small clusters, about the size of your paddle, and flip them towards the empty side of the container. Using swift cutting motions, gently break up the flipped clusters with your paddle as you go, specifically looking for small rice clumps. (These smaller clumps are unseasoned; separating and flipping the rice ensures each grain gets seasoned.) Continue this process until all of the grains have been separated and the rice is once again in a flat, even layer.
Rest the rice for 4 minutes. Using the paddle, flip the rice from top to bottom in small portions until all the rice has been flipped. Let rest an additional 2 minutes. This step ensures the seasoned vinegar is evenly distributed at all depths of the rice.
The rice is now ready to use. If you used a rice cooker, clean the pot, line it with a clean damp towel, transfer the rice back into it, and set the rice cooker to the “warm” setting. Otherwise, cover the rice in the pot with a damp towel to prevent it from cooling too quickly and drying out. Use sushi rice as desired, preferably while still slightly warm.
Rice cooker or heavy-bottomed pot with lid, sushi oke or hangiri or a non-reactive container (such as a 9- by 13-inch baking dish), wooden spoon or plastic rice paddle
- Be gentle when mixing the rice. Overmixing will result in extra sticky rice and smashed grains.
- If your rice cools too much before serving, you can warm it in the microwave for a few seconds; slightly warm is preferable to serving the rice at room temperature. The temperature difference between the warm rice and cold fish adds to the eating experience. With overly cooled rice, the flavors are a bit muted and the texture of the rice is too firm.
- If using a sushi oke or hangiri, make sure the bowl and paddle are moist before adding cooked rice to avoid grains sticking to the surface. To do this, fill the sushi oke or hangiri with warm water, discard it, then wipe up excess water with a clean towel before adding rice.
- Using the crusty bits of rice on the bottom of the pot will result in unwanted clumps of rice. Discard them or set them aside for a crunchy snack.