Let's start at the beginning. The word sushi is actually a combination of two Japanese words: su, which is the Japanese word for "vinegar", and shi, which is a word (suffix) meaning "rice".
From this it follows fairly obviously that, contrary to popular belief, sushi does not mean raw fish. It also doesn't mean seaweed, nor does it even refer to the typical combination of those things together in rolls or bite-sized pieces. When you get right down to it, the sushi is the rice (more specifically, the special "vinegared rice" used for these purposes), and the rice is what determines whether anything really is "sushi" or "not sushi". Unlike in the west, where rice is often considered (at best) a side-dish, rice is truly the most fundamental element of Japanese cuisine, on which everything else is built. In fact, rice (gohan) is so fundamental to the way Japanese people view food and eating that the Japanese words for "breakfast", "lunch", and "dinner" actually literally translate to "morning rice" (asagohan), "midday rice" (hirugohan), and "evening rice" (bangohan). Everything else is incidental, but the rice is essential. It's no great surprise, therefore, that the fundamental element of what makes sushi what it is is also the rice.
This also gives us some immediate insight into one of the critical factors which makes for good sushi, which is often completely overlooked by those new to making it: Good sushi is about good rice. It doesn't matter what you put on top of it, if your rice isn't up to snuff, neither will your sushi be.
The good news is making good rice is not hard.
First, know your rice.
Rice is rice, right? Well, yes and no. Many people assume that there's only one or two types of rice, but in fact there is a remarkable variety of rice out there in the world to choose from, and choosing the right rice for the right application can make a tremendous difference in the outcome. For those who aren't already familiar with the wide range of rices to be found in the world at large, the first step is to learn some basics. Time for a quick crash-course in rice...
There are five main forms of rice
To start with, pretty much all rice comes in one of five forms:
- Brown Rice
- Brown rice contains the whole rice grain as it is harvested off the plant, minus the inedible husk, but including the outer bran and germ. For this reason, it posesses a much stronger, nuttier flavor than white rice, and also contains a lot more nutrients and fiber. It also takes about twice as long to cook, and has a somewhat rougher texture than white rice. It should also be noted that brown rice contains oils which can go rancid over time, and thus must be stored more carefully and has a shorter shelf-life than white rice.
- Milled or White Rice
- Milled rice, also known as "white rice", or sometimes as "polished rice", has had the outer (bran and germ) layers of the rice grains removed after harvesting, leaving only the inner (endosperm) portion of the grain. This is the form of rice which is most commonly used, posessing a lighter flavor and a much wider range of textures and applications than brown rice.
- Parboiled Rice
- "Parboiled" rice is an attempt at a compromise between white and brown rice. After harvesting, the brown rice is lightly boiled and then dried again. After this process the outer portions of the rice grains are removed, similar to white rice. The initial boiling process, however, causes some of the nutrients of the outer bran and germ to be absorbed by the inner endosperm of the rice, and thus preserved. Parboiled rice can be used similarly to white rice but still retains some of the nutritional advantages of brown rice. It typically appears slightly darker in color than white rice, often with speckles.
- Broken Rice
- During the drying and milling process of white rice, not all of the rice grains survive the process intact, and some degree of broken grains are produced. Most rice producers make an effort to separate out excess broken grains and reduce the amount of broken rice in the final product (to under 4% or so), in order to ensure a high-quality white rice product for the consumer. The excess broken grains are then sorted into a couple of different categories (depending on their size) and sold as "broken rice". Broken rice is typically sold at a lower price to rice flour manufacturers, pet food producers, and other companies whose products do not require whole rice grains. It is also used occasionally by consumers in some specialty dishes, such as some types of rice porridge.
- Rice Flour
- Finally, having undergone the most processing, rice flour actually consists of rice grains which have been ground to a consistency similar to that of wheat or corn flour. A variety of different forms of rice flour are used in many asian baked goods and other recipes (it is also increasingly being used in western products as a replacement for wheat flour (for those who are allergic to wheat)).
Obviously, for the purposes of sushi we are not as interested in broken rice and rice flour. How the other types of rice stack up will be covered a bit later...
There are three main styles of rice
Pretty much all rice also falls into one of three general categories, based on its shape and size:
- Long-grain rice
- The grains of long-grain rice are typically 4 or more times as long as they are wide, with a fairly cylindrical shape. This sort of rice generally stays separated when cooked and is not sticky at all. Traditional American, Mexican, European, and Indian rices fall into this category, and for many westerners this is the only style of rice they've ever been exposed to.
- Medium-grain rice
- Medium-grain rice grains are usually 3-4 times as long as they are wide, and often have a slightly football-shaped appearance before they are cooked. This sort of rice generally cooks up to be distinct but slightly sticky, and will typically hold together enough that it can be eaten in clumps (which is particularly handy, for example, when using chopsticks). Most asian-style rices fall into this category, in particular the traditional general-purpose Japanese and Chinese rices.
- Short-grain rice
- The grains of short-grain rice are (obviously) shorter than medium-grain, and are often distinctly football-shaped, or even nearly round. This sort of rice usually cooks up to be quite sticky, even approaching the consistency of cold oatmeal in some cases. Some asian rices (such as mochigome) fall into this category, and it is usually only used for certain specialized applications, due mainly to its stickiness.
In general, the shorter the grain of the rice, the softer and stickier it will be when cooked. There are always exceptions, however.
It should be noted here that there is, unfortunately, often quite a bit of confusion in labelling these different styles of rice. In particular, medium-grain rices are sometimes identified as "short-grain" instead. Unless you're in an asian market or a specialty rice shop, odds are none of the rice you're looking at is actually going to be short-grain rice, so this mistake is often easy to recognize. In some cases medium-grain rice can also be misidentified as long-grain rice, in which case the best way to determine this is simply by looking at the rice to see what it looks like. As there is no real standard for these categories, many people out there also have varying ideas of where the lines should be drawn, and some simply identify anything that isn't "long-grain" as being "short-grain" instead. The distinctions listed here, however, are not uncommon and do seem to be used by many rice manufacturers and others. I also personally find them to be the most useful way to categorize the different sorts of rice available for different purposes.
Some rices posess additional traits
In addition to the above distinctions, many forms of rice can have additional characteristics which affect their appearance, texture, or flavor:
- Glutinous or Sweet Rice
- Contrary to what one might assume, "glutinous rice" actually does not have any gluten in it (the word "glutinous" in this case is derived from the latin word for "sticky"). Glutinous rice is simply sticky rice. It contains a larger amount of amylopectin than other forms of rice, which causes it to become quite sticky (in some cases almost glue-like) when cooked. Most true short-grain rice is also glutinous rice, though it is also possible to find medium-grain glutinous rice (this is usually identified as Thai rice when sold in western markets). Glutinous rice is also sometimes called "sweet rice" (although it is not inherently more sweet-tasting than other forms of rice).
- Fragrant and Flavored Rice
- Several varieties of rice have very distinct flavors, and even aromatic qualities, most notably Basmati and Jasmine rice, both of which posess unique, fragrant flavors for which they are often prized. In many cases one must be careful when cooking these rices not to inadvertently lose the delicate flavors they posess by rinsing them away or covering them with other strong flavors.
- Colored Rice
- There are also several varieties of rice which have other colors than simply brown or white, ranging from orange to red to dark black. Despite the differences in color, all of these varieties are still technically either "brown" (whole) rice or "white" (processed) rice, simply with cosmetic differences. In most cases, different colors are the result of different pigments in the outer bran of the rice, and thus most colored rices are actually variants of brown rice. There are, however, a few colored "white" rices out there (though the color distinctions are usually much more subtle).
Rices come with different coatings
Finally, it's also important to note that white rice has traditionally always been coated with some substance (generally known as an "anti-caking agent") to help keep it dry, preserve it, and prevent it from sticking together during storage. Which form of coating is used can also significantly affect the taste and cooking procedures of the rice, however, so it's important to know what you're dealing with. Anti-caking agents generally fall into one of the following categories:
- Yes, that's right, basically the same stuff that goes on baby's bottoms, and it's just about as tasty too. This is the traditional anti-caking agent used for many decades for pretty much all white rice, and is a large part of the reason that rice is traditionally washed thoroughly before cooking, to get rid of the bad-tasting talc coating. However, with the development of several more modern anti-caking agents which are both better tasting and better for you, the use of talc for this purpose has sharply declined, and it's my understanding that it's now even illegal for rice sold in the US, so you probably won't have to worry about this one unless you're getting your rice from non-US sources.
- This is by far the most common form of anti-caking agent currently. Usually made from corn starch, these coatings are completely edible and end up tasting more or less like the rice itself. For this reason, it is generally not necessary to wash such rice before cooking and eating, although in my opinion it is still advisable to do so as the coating, while edible, can subtly change the consistency of the cooked rice, resulting in more gummy results or inconsistent cooking.
- Musenmai or "no-rinse" rice technically has no anti-caking agent at all. This fairly new method of processing rice involves quickly running the rice through a hot bath of tapioca during processing, which effectively removes all microscopic remnants of the bran and other particles, and leaves the rice polished to a smooth shine. Because of its high polish and complete lack of even bran residue, this rice generally does not need additional agents to keep it separate and fresh during storage, and thus also do not require any sort of rinsing before cooking, making them marginally more convenient. All of this sounds like a really good thing, but unfortunately musenmai rice is generally looked down upon by those who are really serious about rice as being comparatively bland and unappetizing, and I personally have also found that this form of processing leaves much to be desired in the area of flavor. It is my general recommendation to steer clear of any rice which labels itself as "no-rinse" or "musenmai" rice. A little bit of rinsing is a very small price to pay for actually having flavor.
For Japanese cuisine, there really only are two forms of rice that matter. One is mochigome, a short, very sticky rice, used largely for producing mochi, a gummy dough used in some foods we won't get into here. For almost everything else, there is koshihikari rice (also sometimes called "japonica rice" after its species name ("oryza sativa japonica")). For Japanese people, this is what rice is. Grown and bred for thousands of years exclusively in Japan, this is the staple of the Japanese diet and the foundation of all Japanese cuisine. Unfortunately, as Japan does not export any of its local rice, it is nigh impossible to get genuine Japanese koshihikari rice outside of Japan itself, so most westerners must settle for an alternative. Fortunately, in the 1950s a reasonable approximation to this rice was developed and cultivated in California, known as "Calrose" rice. Since its inception, Calrose has become increasingly easy to find many places, and is now used quite frequently where asian-style rice is required by western cooks, and has proven itself really not a bad rice in its own right. More recently, several enhanced versions of the original Calrose grain have been developed under various brand names. These newer versions are often referred to on their packaging by terms such as "new variety rice", and do offer some additional advantages in texture and consistency, particularly when cool, which can be a particular benefit for sushi.
In my opinion, outside of specialized applications, Calrose and the various "new variety" derivatives (which from here on I will just refer to all together as "Calrose" rice) are The One True Rice. I don't mean to imply that there aren't other varieties out there which are quite good (there are quite a number of other rices which are extremely tasty, in fact), or even that Calrose rice is the ideal rice for every situation (actually, in many cases (including sushi) there are better rices in existence for the particular purpose). Calrose rice earns this distinction primarily for two reasons. First, it is a very good, robust, and flexible medium-grain rice with a well-balanced flavor and texture which works in a wide variety of applications (including many asian applications which most other rices just do not work very well for). Secondly, it is increasingly easy to come by in most western markets, and makes a reasonably convenient and effective second-choice for some of the more specialized and hard-to-find varieties. For these reasons, Calrose rice, and in particular new variety rice, has come to be my general standard by which most other rice is measured, and my default choice for many applications (plus, I personally just think it tastes good).
Unless you can find some genuine Japanese koshihikari rice, Calrose (or ideally "new variety" Calrose-style rice) is without a doubt the rice you should be using for sushi. If you can't find these kinds of rice? Well, here's a few guidelines to keep in mind when looking for an alternative:
- Only use white rice. Brown rice might be very tasty in many dishes, but for sushi it just doesn't work. Taste and nutrition issues aside, some of the physical properties critical to making good sushi simply require white rice to work properly.
- Avoid parboiled rice. The initial boiling process of parboiled rice tends to make it less sticky than it would be otherwise, which is a drawback in sushi making.
- You're looking for a middle-of-the-road medium-grain rice. It should be slightly sticky when cooked, but not so much that it's really gummy or hard to get apart.
- Never, ever use "instant" rice. Aside from the fact that it just tastes horrible, its pre-cooking process also renders it not sticky enough to make good sushi rice (and it's generally made from long-grain rice anyway).
- Avoid rice which claims to stay separate when cooked. This is almost always a sign that you're dealing with a long-grain rice, often parboiled. For sushi, despite the fact that the vinegar will make the rice stickier, it is important that the rice have some stickiness to be able to hold together to some degree on its own when cooked, so western-style rices will not yield the sort of texture we're really looking for.
- Avoid "glutinous" or "sweet" rice. For sushi, a bit of stickiness is desired, but you do not want really sticky rice. This will just make the resulting sushi taste gummy, which is not what you're looking for. Avoid rice which is labelled as "glutinous", "sticky", or "sweet", as it will generally be too sticky to make good sushi.
- Try to find "asian style" rice. Japanese or Chinese characters on the bag are usually a plus too, just be careful you're not getting really glutinous rice, which a lot of the asian rice which makes its way to western markets will be (remember, a little sticky, but not really sticky, is what you want).
It should also be noted here that even within the realm of Calrose-style rices, different brands of rice can vary in quality and flavor. There are, in fact, long discussions on the subject of the best brands of rice between those who are really into such things. The following are some of the high points, and low points, of my personal experience with rice. These are by no means definitive, and I'm sure there are plenty who will disagree with my assessment, but this may serve as a useful basis for your own exploration of the options available to you:
- If you can find it, the "Kokuho Rose" brand of rice is generally very well regarded, and I personally have found it to be extremely good. This is actually a "new variety" rice, and features a very well balanced texture and good flavor. I often use this in my own sushi making. It is important to note that there are actually a couple of different kinds of Kokuho Rose rice sold with slightly different packaging, commonly referred to as "pink label" and "blue label". The pink label rice is of somewhat higher quality, and is, in my opinion, worth the slight extra expense if you can find it, but the blue label rice is still quite good as well. Unfortunately, I've only really been able to find this rice reliably at asian markets, so if you don't have one of those handy it may be harder to obtain.
- "Tamaki Gold" is another well-respected brand of new-variety rice, which I have found to be roughly equivalent to (pink-label) Kokuho Rose in quality. One nice quality of this brand is that every bag is nitrogen-packed and sealed in an airtight bag, which means it retains its freshness much better than others. The downside is that I've found this rice to cost as much as 20% more than comparable brands. Personally, where I buy my rice I haven't had much of an issue with freshness, which is why I usually use the Kokuho Rose instead, but if your rice supply is more unpredictable, and you can find the Tamaki Gold, it might be worth the bit of extra money for the consistently fresh, good-quality product it provides. (on a side note, you can tell this rice is really fresh, because when it's cooking up it smells absolutely wonderful. I'm almost tempted to say that the extra cost is worth it just for the smell alone, even though it's not a huge factor in the taste of the resulting rice). Again, however, I've only ever found this rice at asian markets.
- Alternately, if you can't find some of the others but have the "Safeway" supermarket chain in your area, I actually highly recommend the Safeway store brand of Calrose rice as well, as it is actually one of the better Calrose brands I've tried. This is a traditional Calrose rice, and thus doesn't posess some of the subtle texture advantages of the new varieties, but despite this the texture of most of the Safeway Calrose I've tried has been much better than a lot of the other Calrose rice I've come across, in some cases arguably rivalling some of the more expensive new-variety rices available for both texture and flavor. You could definitely do far worse than this.
- Contrary to the above examples, "Botan" brand Calrose rice is quite popular, but unfortunately is, in my opinion, one of the worst I've tried from a flavor standpoint. I've noticed this rice is also becoming hard to find in the non-musenmai variety, although admittedly the flavor drawbacks of musenmai in this case aren't as big a deal due to the fact it never had really good flavor to begin with.
Please note that there are some sources out there which claim that short-grain, glutinous rice (such as mochigome) is "sushi rice". This is just plain wrong. Mochigome is never used for sushi in Japan, and should not be used for it elsewhere either, as it will result in an icky, gummy consistency to your sushi which really isn't what sushi should be.
Second, know how to cook it.
Ask anybody how to cook rice and odds are you'll get a different answer than the previous five people you asked. For something which is really at its core a simple process, there is a remarkable variety of opinions on the "right" way to cook rice. I could get into a long diatribe about exactly how much water to put in what size pot over what amount of heat to cook for how long on a stove to get the perfect rice, but, well, to be honest, I don't know.
Personally, I use a rice cooker.
I don't care what Alton says, a rice cooker is one single-tasker which belongs in anyone's kitchen who cooks some sort of rice more than a couple of times per month (and in my opinion anybody who cooks should cook rice more than a couple of times a month). Anyway, considering the fundamental part various forms of rice play in so many dishes (from nearly any culture you can name), calling a rice cooker a "single-tasker" seems almost tantamount to calling your kitchen faucet a "single-tasker" (it only dispenses water, after all. What's up with that?), but I digress. In any case, if you're going to make sushi regularly, a rice cooker is worth the (relatively small) expense and counter space, in my opinion, not so much because they make rice better than doing it the old fashioned way, but for two main reasons: First, the simple start-it-and-forget-it nature of rice cookers really does make the logistics of cooking significantly easier (for sushi and for many other dishes). Secondly, and more importantly, however, is that provided you're careful about your measuring, rice cookers are really good at producing consistent rice. Every time you start it up, you know what you'll get out of it. If you're looking to make good sushi, it helps a lot if you can start with good, consistent rice.
That having been said, it's my opinion that how you cook your rice (provided it involves some mechanism of boiling, or possibly steaming, in water) really isn't that important. What's really important is knowing when it's done cooking.
First of all, it's important to note that different kinds of rice have different textures and appearances when they're properly cooked (this is part of the reason why using the right rice for sushi is so important). There are some basic principles which should apply to pretty much any form of rice, however:
The grains should be intact
Look carefully at your cooked rice, and at the individual grains. Many forms of rice are somewhat sticky when done, but even if the grains stick together, you should still be able to easily identify each individual grain, and they should appear reasonably intact, not split apart or dissolved into mush. If your grains are not distinct and intact, it means you've cooked the rice too long. Throw it out and start again.
The rice should not be gummy
Properly cooked rice of any sort should yield to the tooth and not feel "gummy" or "starchy" when you try to chew it. If your rice is gummy it generally means you haven't cooked it long enough. Throw it out and start again. (Note that glutinous rice will cook up to be sticky, even sometimes downright gooey, but we're talking about the inside of the grains here. Even with sticky rice, the grains should not feel gummy or starchy inside)
The rice should feel light in your mouth
When you eat your rice, it should move easily about your mouth, and when you swallow it your mouth should feel clean and empty. If your rice is heavy or leaves a lingering, clinging presence in your mouth it either means you need to use better water, or you just plain overcooked it. Either way, (you guessed it) throw it out and start again.
The rice should have flavor
The flavor of rice can vary dramatically with the variety, but all forms of (good) rice do have a flavor which you should be able to taste. Many people discount rice as not having a flavor either because they've always had bad rice, or they've just never really paid a lot of attention to it, but most people can taste it if they look for it. If your rice just tastes like the water you cooked it in, then it's probably overcooked. If you're sure your rice isn't overcooked (it passes all the other tests) but it still doesn't taste like anything, then your rice is either old or just not of very good quality. Try other brands of rice (there are some brands out there which just aren't very good). While rice does have a much longer shelf life than most foods, it does also decline with age, particularly after the package is opened, so try not to leave it around open for months on end either.
As noted earlier, different kinds of rice can vary significantly in how sticky they come out when they're properly cooked. Westerners are typically used to rice which does not stick together at all, and thus sometimes mistakenly assume stickiness is a sign of overcooking, but in fact many forms of rice (in particular asian rice) are supposed to stick together to some degree when properly cooked. In particular, being a medium-grain rice, Calrose-type rice should be slightly sticky when cooked, and should hold together of its own accord, but as mentioned above, you should still have distinct, intact grains that provide some resistance when you eat them. If you're familiar with the term "al dente", as typically used with pasta, it applies equally well to most rice, so use that as a guide.
A Note on Water
Finally, there is one additional factor in cooking rice which is all-too-often overlooked: the water. The quality of the water used to cook the rice can actually contribute as much to the final outcome as the rice itself, and should not be ignored. How do you know if your water is good enough? Well, here's a suggestion: Try drinking it.
There's an age-old rule in a great many French kitchens that you should never use any wine in cooking which you wouldn't drink on its own. Whether this is true for wine is a discussion for a very different place, but in my opinion there should be no doubt that this is certainly even more true for water, which, when you get right down to it, forms the fundamental basis and carries much of the flavor of most dishes. Many people go to great lengths to get good-tasting drinking water in their homes (water filters, bottled water, etc), and then happily just go and throw ordinary tapwater into whatever they're cooking. The result is that even the best recipes prepared with great skill can come out tasting dull, or flat, or just "off" in some way. In addition to flavor concerns, particularly when cooking things like rice, impurities in the water can significantly change the cooking process as well, making it much more difficult to get a good result.
So look carefully at your water (or more specifically, taste carefully your water) before putting it in your rice pot. If it tastes good, like water, like something you'd drink and enjoy doing so, you're probably good to go, but if it tastes like other things, or tastes dull, or doesn't taste like anything at all (not even water), well, it's time to consider alternatives, ranging from water filters to cooking with bottled water. In the end you will be rewarded with a much lighter, brighter, tastier rice, and all of that will show through in your sushi.
One other thing should be pointed out: If you're going to cook with bottled water, look for basic, ordinary bottled water, or possibly even "spring water", but do not cook with distilled water. Ironically, distilled water is too pure to work well for cooking, and will usually just leave things tasting empty and flat. Water needs just a few of the right kind of impurities in it to make it really taste like water, and that's really what you want for cooking as well. Again, if you find really good-tasting drinking water, and use that for your cooking, you won't go far wrong.