You can make sushi at home. I will say it again because very few Americans do it. YOU can make sushi at home. To many, it seems pretty inaccessible, but consider this fact: sushi is a genre of food that is guided by a single, simple mantra. Take a small handful of very simple tasks and do them perfectly. Of all the foods from restaurants that you might try to replicate, sushi is the one that you can guarantee will be exactly the same flavors as the restaurant. If you take a picture of a listing on the menu at your favorite sushi spot and a picture of the roll you want to replicate, you will have everything you need to copy it. Every ingredient is listed. Proportions are visually obvious. There are no cooking techniques or spices to guess at. You simply have to cut the ingredients into roughly the same shapes as in your picture and assemble them.
…but sushi masters study for decades to learn to make all of these rolls. How can I hope to do it as well as them?
Chances are, you can’t. You (probably) aren’t trying to be a sushi master. If you are, carve out a few years to study under a veteran and learn the tremendous array of knife skills that are required. If not, accept the fact that your first roll will probably be ugly and it will probably fall apart, but it will probably taste exactly like the roll you are trying to copy. With practice, you’ll make prettier rolls, but you’ll nail the flavors right away. Or make hand rolls. If you can put ice cream in a cone, you can make a decent looking hand roll.
So, before I go any further, it would be irresponsible for me to not talk about food safety. You know that little asterisk on every menu that says something about safety risk associated with consuming under cooked meats, fish, and shellfish? That’s there for a reason. Every time you eat anything, you take on a small risk of getting sick. You should assess the risks and the available preventative measures and determine where to draw your own personal line for risk. Consider this, though: In Japan, there are about 1000 documented cases per year of roundworm infection and about 2000 cases per year of tapeworm infection. But Japan is a country with more than 130 Million people who eat sushi regularly. That is a vanishingly small likelihood of getting sick. It is difficult to come up with any apples to apples comparison of risk because of differing consumption rates and varying likelihood of reporting of illnesses, but I can confidently say that you are more likely to get sick from raw cookie dough (which I always eat), unwashed spinach, or mishandled chicken (which my wife insists I admit, I occasionally eat). The real risk is a lot more hype than actual risk.
There are two ways that you can get sick from food; bacterial contaminants and parasites. With raw fish, the primary concern is parasites like tape worms which can be present in freshwater fish and anadromous fish (fish that travel between fresh and salt water like salmon). Freshwater trout are the number one source of tapeworms for humans in America, which is why I never eat them raw. Trout should always be cooked fully. Saltwater fish can carry parasites and bacteria. Often, foods acquire bacteria from external sources during processing and transportation. For this reason, I buy only whole fish because the skin and scales act as a physical barrier to contamination. Bacterial problems come from the initial bacteria load in the live animal, and then every contact it has with bacteria as it makes its way to your belly. The less exposure the better.
Here’s where I draw my personal risk line. I eat fresh tuna raw without reservation. Tuna is anecdotally demonstrated to be a very clean and safe meat with almost no documented instances of parasites affecting humans. I eat salmon only after it has been properly treated because of the potential for tapeworms. More on that later. I eat only cooked shrimp and crab. I don’t eat any raw freshwater fish. For anything else, I buy only whole fish and I ask the person at the seafood counter to advise on the origin, freshness, and whether it has ever been frozen or not. While I will bargain shop for fish that I intend to cook, I buy my sashimi fish from only a select few seafood markets.
Temperature extremes are a good way to remove both bacterial contaminants and parasites, either by high heat or extreme cold. According to the FDA, most fish can be rendered safe from tapeworms by freezing it to -4 degrees Fahrenheit for 7 days. This is a legal requirement for all sushi restaurants in New York state. Tuna is exempt from this rule, but all other fish must be frozen. Other states are not as aggressive about enforcing this rule. In most states, it is a recommendation and not a law. Some sushi places will serve fish other than tuna that have not been freeze treated, but almost all of them freeze their salmon for safety. I highly recommend you do this. You may or may not be able to do it at home. I have a large deep freeze chest freezer and I’ve measured the minimum temperature. I can get down to -8 degrees and I use the 7 days guideline. Your regular freezer probably will not get cold enough, but a good electronic thermometer can confirm the minimum temperature for you. Sushi restaurants have super freezers that take the fish down to as low as -60 degrees Fahrenheit for a shorter time period to meet the requirement. If you don’t have the means to do it at home, buy seafood that has been commercially frozen for you. Seafood markets that specialize in sashimi will do this already. Most commercial providers have some deep-frozen options.
So, hopefully I haven’t grossed you out with all this parasite talk. Let’s get on to the fun part…making and eating sushi at home. There are some challenges, but they are not that tough. The first challenge is acquiring the components. This can be a little frustrating for newbies. I spent an hour fumbling around my local Asian grocery to try to cobble together all the parts. What I learned from that adventure is that knowing the names of the things you are looking for can be helpful and the internet is your friend. Here’s what you need:
· Sushi rice – Not just any rice will do. I used Kokuho Rose premium new crop sushi rice. I picked it because it was one of the few choices that were clearly labeled as sushi rice on the bag. Sushi rice is also called glutinous rice, but it does not contain gluten. It is named for the sticky glue-like consistency that makes it suitable for sushi. Follow the instructions on the bag when you make it.
· Rice Vinegar – This is important for keeping the rice from being too sticky. It should be sticky enough, but shouldn’t become paste. The vinegar helps keep it from getting too sticky and adds a small amount of authentic sushi rice flavor. Add about ¼ cup for a batch of rice that uses 2 cups of raw rice. Don’t overdo it.
· Nori – This is the seaweed that holds it all together. They look like small sheets of green paper. I bought seaweed nori at my local Asian market and I ordered soy nori online. I prefer the soy, but my family prefers traditional nori. The soy ones are a little prone to tearing especially if you get them wet. This is common when you dip your fingers in water to keep the rice from sticking to them. A drop of water creates a weak spot. It’s not a huge problem unless you want it to be pretty at the end.
· Sushi mat – This is the little mat of woven sticks and string that allows you to make a tight sushi roll. You could probably do without this, but for as little as $2 each, I don’t see why you would. You might want to buy a couple. You can find them online or in the kitchen tools section of some supermarkets.
· Wasabi – This is a critical condiment for anything you make and not everyone keeps it in their kitchen. It is probably available in the international section of most supermarkets.
· Pickled Ginger – This one was surprisingly tough for me to find, but I love it. I eat it between every different type of roll. I can’t have sushi without it. Visually, it adds the authenticity of your sushi at home. It was hiding in the canned vegetable section of my local Asian grocery, in a jar. It was not obvious. I’m sure you could get it online or find a way to pickle your own.
· Soy sauce – you probably already have this, but make sure you don’t forget it on sushi night. Chances are, you need more than you normally use for other meals.
· Mayonnaise and Sriracha – These two components make up the spicy mayo that is found on many types of rolls. If you like a little heat, make sure to have this one on hand. You can also use sriracha to make a pretty good approximation of spicy tuna. Spicy tuna is a great use of all the odd shaped bits that don’t look great. If you plan to make spicy tuna with your trimmings, you can trim up your sashimi to look perfect without worrying about wasting the rest. Just mince that up and mix with some sriracha, then put it into a roll for a little kick.
Once you have all of the above sushi staples that you probably don’t keep in your regular pantry, you need to decide what rolls you want to make and buy the appropriate other items. Here are some typical options:
· Salmon – This is probably the most common fish for sushi. I buy mine about 8 days in advance and trim it to a perfect single meal portion with no skin or bones. I rinse it and pat it dry, then air dry it in the refrigerator for about 2 hours to make it perfectly dry. Then I food saver it and put it in the deep freeze to make sure it will be safe in a week when I need it. You don’t have to do all those extra steps. If you have confirmed you can get it frozen to -4 Fahrenheit, you can toss it directly into the freezer in the package from the store and it will taste fine. The extra steps just improve the texture and appearance when you thaw it later.
· Tuna – It can be hard to find good tuna for sashimi. Ideally, you should buy it and use it the same day. Look for a place that has a large chunk and buy a slab from the bigger end of it. The tail end is usually more chewy, with connective tissues that are not very appetizing raw. The terms “sushi grade” or “sashimi grade” mean absolutely nothing without context. It is not regulated and is totally at the discretion of the fishmonger. As a relative term, if you see two options in one fish market, the “sashimi grade” is likely to be better, but more expensive. From dealer to dealer, it does not help you know which one is better. Just choose the best dealer you can. Then get to know them and ask questions. Barring that option, you can just try to pick the one that looks the most like what you see in sushi restaurants.
· Surimi, AKA imitation crab – The Japanese are real sticklers about freshness and perfection. They treat sushi as more of an art than a cuisine, except in the case of imitation crab. This odd product is usually made of white fish with natural flavoring and coloring, then mixed with soy flour to make a dough that is cooked into a shape slightly like that of crab parts. It seems to be the opposite of everything sushi stands for, but it is in tons of different rolls. You see it all the time. Real crab is rarely if ever served raw and cooked crab is pretty uncommon. You can find this product at just about any grocery store. It has a long shelf life. As weird as it is, you should give it a try by itself. It tastes great and is an easy high protein snack to keep around.
· Tobiko – These are the little orange fish eggs that are found on top of many rolls. They come from flying fish and are the most sustainable fish eggs you can eat. They are generally mild in flavor and small enough for even the most fearful sushi novice. I found these in my local Asian market. They may be tough to come by, and they are optional on just about any roll. If you can, you should get them. In a pinch, a sushi restaurant might be able to sell you some or if your grocery store sells boxed sushi, you might be able to sweet talk them out of a few tablespoons worth. They have a short shelf life, so don’t try to save them.
· Other sashimi – There are too many to list, so you’ll just have to do some research on these. Just figure out what you like and look for a source. I’m happy to help if you want to reach out and ask me any specific questions. email@example.com
· Shrimp – I like to have a few tempura shrimp in my sushi. I mix up a thick tempura batter and fry a small handful before I get started. These should be easy to procure. They don’t have to be huge, just fresh.
· Cucumber – Peel and cut up a cucumber into sticks about as long as your seaweed paper and ¼” x ¼”. These go into most rolls.
· Avocado – This goes into almost every roll you can imagine. Get a few slightly firm avocadoes. They shouldn’t be too green, but you want them to hold together when handled.
· Jalapeno – This is common in some of the spicy rolls. Cut it as thin as possible.
Once you have collected all of your ingredients, you can either freestyle something that contains the things you like, or you can try to duplicate any of the rolls that you have had prepared for you. If you have frozen some salmon, you will need to thaw it out properly. To accomplish that, you need to move it from the freezer to a refrigerator for 12-24 hours, depending on how thick it is. About 4 hours prior to preparing your meal, see if the salmon is thawed completely. If not, cut it in half to speed the process. About 30 minutes prior to preparing your meal, take it out and allow it to start coming up to temperature. It shouldn’t be room temperature, but it shouldn’t be ice cold. This is probably the most challenging part to manage. Don't try to rush it by applying heat or the quality will suffer.
Start by preparing the rice. This can take 20-30 minutes and you can do most of your cutting while that is cooking. It will need time to cool after it is cooked, so there is no need to rush the other steps. Next, decide what to put into your rolls. You probably want to do all of your cutting before you start to assemble. Be careful about your cutting and make sure you have an extremely sharp knife. Sushi is very much centered around knife skills. You can mimic what you have seen in sushi restaurants pretty accurately with minimal practice. Just lower your aesthetic standards a bit. You will potentially have some sloppy looking sashimi and your vegetables might not be a perfect shape, but that will not affect the flavor as long as you can recreate the general proportions.
Once you have cut up all the components, set your sushi mat down on a clean surface such as a cutting board. You can wrap your sushi mat with plastic wrap or put it in a ziplock bag. This is a good idea when you are doing inside out rolls, where the rice goes on the outside. Start it with a sheet of nori. Wet your finger so that the rice does not stick and then spread a thin even layer over the entire sheet of nori. The video below gives a nice demonstration of the technique for spreading rice. The idea is to fold it out to cover the sheet of nori, rather than smash it into a flat layer. Many rolls have the rice on the outside and the other ingredients inside the seaweed. For these, once the rice is properly spread, flip it over. Place your ingredients in the center of the roll. If you want to make a California roll, that would be a stick of cucumber, some avocado, and some surimi. Once your components are in, roll it up, taking care to get a reasonably tight roll. There is a little technique involved, but it is pretty intuitive and you’ll get it after a few tries. Here is a great you tube video that gives a basic lesson.
Now gently place the roll on a clean cutting board. At this point, you can top it with any sashimi that you want, or you can add some tobiko or sauces. If you are happy with your product, it is time to cut it. Use a super sharp knife and support the sides as you cut it, taking care not to cut yourself or unravel your roll. Dampen your knife before each cut. Now enjoy your final product however you like it. I like mine with low sodium soy sauce and a blisteringly sinus-clearing dose of wasabi.
Of course, if you just like nigiri, all you have to do is make a slightly elongated rice ball and top it with a slab of fish. If you like, you can add a little dab of wasabi under the fish. Just be aware that a little goes a long way. If you want to have a little fun, set up a nigiri Russian roulette. Make one for each person. Load one with a malicious amount of wasabi and leave the others plain. Then mix them all up so nobody knows where the hot one is. Then have everyone pick up their nigiri. Count it down and eat them all at the same time.
When I attempted making sushi for the first time (just last week) I learned a few lessons the hard way. Even with these minor missteps, I had a great time. My kids had a great time, and they both remarked that we had captured the taste of their chosen rolls exactly. My wife thought it was the most memorable meal we’ve had in the last year. It was a fun and interesting adventure, at a fraction of the cost of restaurant sushi. The four of us can easily spend $100 for a sushi dinner out. We made an obscene amount of sushi at home for around $45. It will be even less next time as we have many of the basics still left over. If all we have to buy is fish and tobiko, it could be as little as $25. Even though our mistakes did not affect our enjoyment of the meal, here they are, to save you a bit of hassle.
· Those little rolls take way more rice than you think. I made a single batch of rice, which was 2 cups of rice and 2 ½ cups of water. The package claimed that it produced 6 cups of finished rice. For four people, we made 3 huge hand rolls, 6 nigiri, and 3 standard rolls and we ran short on rice. We could have doubled it.
· Human nature is to try to put everything you like into the first roll you make. Try to have a little restraint here. You know how big the average roll is. The ingredients inside make up about half of that. You aren’t making a super burrito here. We made one that was big enough that we could barely get the ends of the nori to touch. That is too full. If you do that, just know that you’ll be eating it with a fork from your cutting board after it falls apart. It will still taste pretty good.
· Don’t forget to wet your fingers before you start picking up rice. It is tougher than you think to get your hands clean after covering your fingers in ultra sticky sushi rice. It won’t seem necessary until you forget once.
· Edit yourself. I bought 4 kinds of fish and shrimp and I imagined making everything I’ve seen at a sushi restaurant. Here’s the problem with that strategy. Salmon sashimi should be consumed the day you thaw it. Other sashimi deteriorates quickly, so you don’t really want to have leftovers. So, you have to choose one of two evils. You can either waste fish, which is a cardinal sin in my home, or you can eat an ungodly amount of fish and be uncomfortable all night. That’s the choice we made. At least it was healthy food.
· Put some extra care into trying to roll tight rolls. If you don’t they can fall apart and once they unravel, there is no saving them. You just have to eat the pile after that. You can apply quite a bit of pressure with the little mat. We didn’t tear any of the seaweed nori. We did tear one of the soy nori.
· Don’t feel constrained by the rolls you have seen. Sushi is more art than science. Make a roll that has the things you want to eat. Make it as pretty as possible. Enjoy. Repeat.