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Photo by: Joseph De Leo
Sushi rice is called sumeshi (vinegar-flavored rice) or shari. Shari literally means “Buddha’s remains,” and it was so named because the very white appearance of the rice reminds people of Buddha’s mortal remains, to which the Japanese show great respect.
You can use your freshly made sushi rice right away, but it is better to let it rest for one hour or so (to allow the flavor and texture to settle), covered with a moist paper towel in a Tupperware-like container with a lid. Float the container in a bowl of warm water, changing the water as it gets cold. The best-tasting sushi rice should be around 98°F when it is used. Never store it in the refrigerator, or the texture of the rice will be too firm and unfit for sushi making.
Step 1: Rice and Water Proportions, Rinsing, and Cooking
The proper rinsing of the rice is important for its final flavor and appearance. Pour the rice into a fine-mesh strainer, large enough so you can freely toss and turn the grains. Have at hand a larger bowl into which the strainer can easily fit and fill it with cold tap water. Pour the rice into the strainer, then lower the strainer into the large bowl so that the water covers the rice. With both hands, gently rub, turn, and toss the rice. Do not press the grains too hard against the strainer or against one another, or the fragile grains may break, especially if you are using a lower grade of rice. The water will instantly turn milky white, so remove the strainer from the large bowl, discard the water, and refill the bowl with fresh cold water. Return the rice-filled strainer to the bowl and repeat. On the second rinsing, the water will look only slightly milky. Repeat once or twice more. When you have finished, the water will be almost clear, but do not expect 100 percent clarity. Drain the rice and let it sit in the strainer for 10 minutes.
Transfer the rice to a heavy-bottomed pot that is deeper than it is wide and has a heavy, tightly fitting lid (during cooking, rice swells to as much as two and a half times its original volume, so your pot should be at least three times deeper than the level of the rice and water), add the water, and let it sit for 20 minutes.
Set the rice over medium heat and cook, uncovered, until the water is nearly absorbed by the rice—about 10 minutes. Quickly reduce the heat to very low, cover the pot with the lid, and cook until the rice is plump and cooked through—another 10 minutes. The exact cooking time depends on the heaviness of the pot, the level of the heat, and the quantity and condition of your rice. After a total of 20 minutes’ cooking, take a quick look: the rice should be completely transparent. If you see any dry, very white-looking grains, sprinkle a little warm water over the dry spots and cook another couple of minutes or so over very low heat. During the cooking, never stir the rice.
After confirming that all the rice gains are transparent, immediately put the lid back on before the built-up steam can escape. Turn off the heat and let the rice stand for 5 minutes.
Cooking Rice Using a Rice Cooker
If you own a rice cooker, follow these guidelines. Use the cup that came with your rice cooker, which is about four-fifths the volume of a U.S. cup.
Omit the usual presoaking; it makes the rice too tender when you are using a rice cooker. Don’t follow the usual water line in the bowl of your rice cooker. Instead, use the guidelines above.
Today, some rice cookers have a special built-in sushi rice cooking function. If using, add water to the level designated for cooking sushi rice. Cook the rice according to the manufacturers instructions, usually for 50 minutes.
Step 2: Sushi Vinegar Dressing and Sushi Rice Preparation
While the rice is cooking, put the rice vinegar, salt, and sugar in a bowl and stir with a whisk until the sugar and salt are almost dissolved.
If you are using a Japanese sushi-oke (wooden sushi tub) and shamoji (flat wooden paddle), soak them in a bath of cold water for half an hour while the rice is cooking (dry wood will absorb a good portion of the sushi vinegar dressing, and the rice will stick to the wood). Grain the water and wipe the tub and paddle with a dry kitchen towel. If you are using a large unfinished wooden salad bowl, moisten it just before using (soaking for a long time might cause it to crack). Other bowls made of metal, glass, or porcelain can be substituted, but they tend to make the sushi rice watery, mushy, and lumpy.
Transfer the steaming hot cooked rice all at once to the sushi tub or salad bowl. Quickly and gently break up the rice, crisscrossing it with the side of your paddle. Pour the prepared vinegar dressing evenly over it and, with the paddle, break up the lumpy clumps and turn the rice over, working one area at a time. Repeat once or twice until you can tell by looking that the vinegar dressing is roughly distributed throughout the rice. Push the rice toward one side of the tub.
Now hold the paddle horizontally and insert the paddle into the rice in one area, then rapidly move it back and forth with many small stroked. By cutting into the rice this way, you are breaking up the clumps and pushing a portion of rice toward the opposite side of the tub. Now work on he remaining areas of the rice one at a time in the same way, until you have moved all of the rice to the other side of the tub. Rotate the tub or bowl 180 degrees and repeat the process. You can see at the end of the second “cutting” that each grain looks evenly plump, when all the vinegar dressing has been evenly absorbed. The whole procedure should take about 2 minutes. Whit a hand fan or with a magazine or folded newspaper, fan the rice for about 30 seconds. This quick fanning gelatinizes the surface of the rice to give it a glossy appearance and also cools it, helping the vinegar dressing to settle inside each grain. Sushi rice, if it is prepared in a large quantity, tends to remain rather hot, even after being fanned. If so, let it cool to a temperature of 104°F, covered with a moist kitchen cloth to prevent it from drying out.
*Approximate; lightly packed
Troubleshooting: Rice Cooking
1. If your rice has formed a crust on the bottom of the pan, do not try to scrape that up and incorporate it with the rest. Next time, check that your heat is not too high for the first 10 minutes of cooking. You can tell whether the water is boiling away too rapidly; if so, adjust the heat and sprinkle a little more water over the surface (although adding too much water makes your rice too tender). Also, be sure that the heat is very low for the last 10 minutes of cooking.
2. If you cooked rice still has some uncooked firm grains here and there, even after you have sprinkled it with water and cooking it an extra minute or so, probably your lid was not tight enough and steam was escaping during the cooking. Next time, cover your pot tightly with aluminum foil before placing the lid on. Also, watch the heat: it probably was too high, so that moisture evaporated too quickly and some of the grains weren’t cooked.
Troubleshooting: Tossing Rice
If there are clumps in the rice that are hard to break down when you are tossing it, break them up by hand. Next time, make sure that the vinegar dressing is distributed evenly throughout the rice and that you work speedily tossing and turning it. Slowly worked and overworked rice becomes clumpy and pasty.
Japanese sushi chefs take as much care in choosing and preparing rice as they do fish and shellfish. You, too, will want to choose your rice with care.
But shopping for rice in a Japanese market can be bewildering. How do all those bags differ? Whether in Japanese characters or Roman letters, the labels may mean nothing to you. Here I what you need to know.
Tice varieties differ in their proportion of two types of starch, amylose and amylopectin. All Japanese rice is of the short-grained “Japonica” type, which has a higher proportion of amylopectin than does long-grained “Indica” rice and so is more moist, tender, and sticky.
Japanese cooks use two basic varieties of Japonica rice, uruchi-mai and mochi-gome. The starch in mochi-gome, also known as sticky rice, sweet rice, or glutinous rice, is nearly entirely amylopectin. When cooked, mochi-gome is very sticky; this is the rice that is pounded into soft, gooey rice cakes, mochi. Mochi-gome is too sticky for use in sushi.
Rice for sushi is uruchi-mai, the very same type of rice that Japanese eat every day. All uruchi-mai varieties are descended from two parent seeds selected in the Meiji era (1868 to 1911) and so are closely related. But the differences among these varieties are sometimes quite noticeable. Today the Japanese rice family tree has two branches, koshihikari and sasanishiki. The principal difference, again, lies in the proportion of the two kinds of starch. Sasanishiki has less amylopectin and so is less sticky and more firm when cooked than koshihikari. Many chefs prefer sasanishiki for nigiri-zushi, but others like to use a blend of the two types. For oshi-zushi (pressed sushi), tender, moist koshihikari is indispensable. Most Japanese prefer koshihikari as a daily table rice, too, and so its production is much higher than that of sasanishiki.
If you’re shopping in an ordinary supermarket, you can still buy perfectly suitable rice for sushi, from California. Until recently, California produced only long-grain and medium-grain rice. The medium-grain varieties, such as Nishiki and Kokuho, and Indica-Japonica crosses, developed in the 1960s by a Japanese company. Medium-grain California rice has long been used by Japanese Americans for sushi rolls, and it is still a good choice for this purpose (although Italian or Spanish medium-grain rice is not). Better sill are the short-grain Japanese varieties, mostly koshihikari types, now grown in California by Japanese companies. In flavor, fragrance, and appearance, the short-grain varieties are all superior to the medium-grain varieties, especially for nigiri-zushi.
Rice sold soon after harvest, from October through February, is labeled shin-mai, new harvest. Exceptionally moist, tender, and fragrant, shin-mai is delicious as table rice, like fresh corn on the day it is picked. But in fall and early winter, shin-mai is too moist and tender for sushi. If not other rice is available during these months, spread the shin-mai in a broad, flat-bottomed colander and leave it in an airy, dry place for two or three days before using it for sushi. Shin-mai rice sold after the New Year should be dry enough to use immediately.
Nutritional information is based on 38 servings for the Sushi Rice Proportions for the Pro.
Nutrients per serving (% daily value)