Sushi literally means vinegar rice, but this does not mean that rice vinegar is the only option when flavoring the cooked grain.
Can you flavor sushi rice with other vinegar? As a matter of fact, yes, you can. While the Japanese do use rice vinegar to flavor the sushi rice, this is more a matter of preference than anything. You can also use vinegar made from other sources such as sugar cane, coconut water, wine, and even apple cider.
On that note, flavoring sushi with vinegar or anything else is not as simple as you might think, and any missteps can result in disaster for your dish.
Flavoring Sushi Rice, The Basics
Sushi is flavored by a lot of things, but sushi rice itself is typically only mixed with vinegar to give it its distinctively mild, yet sharp taste and smell. However, this doesn’t mean that every chef follows the same practice. As a matter of fact, there are those who play around with the traditional taste in one way or another.
For some context on how sushi can be flavored based on your preference, take a look at the table below
|Flavored with rice vinegar immediately after cooking and fluffing.||Flavored with rice vinegar, sugar, and salt immediately after cooking and fluffing.||Flavored with other types of vinegar, sugar, salt, and other seasonings after cooking and fluffing.||Flavored with other types of vinegar, spices, oils, cooked products, and plants.|
Strictly speaking, you are free to do whatever you want with the rice that you are going to use for the sushi that you are going to make. It only really needs to be a few things in order for it to be qualified for use in the dish, which includes:
· Cooked properly
· Room temperature
With regard to the cooking aspect, it is very important that the rice is both full and firm so that you can make sushi with it. Rice that is too tough or too mushy will result in a messy affair that will neither fully absorb the flavors or be fit for molding. As such, you are going to want to master this part before you start flavoring the rice.
Once the rice is cooked, you will want to flavor it right away. You start by transferring the grains to another container, fluffing them with a fork, and then adding the flavors that you see fit. It is important that you do this while the rice is still steaming hot because this is the optimum stage for absorbing the flavors.
From there, you wait until the rice gets to room temperature. You should do this because trying to work with rice that is too hot will make it too difficult to mold and even if you try, it will result in an off taste later. There is also the fact that hot rice is not suitable for toppings or rolling since the other ingredients would wilt.
As for the molding aspect, this is where the fullness and firmness come into play, as well. The grains need to retain their form without breaking apart. This results in rolls or blocks that are compact, light, and will have a pleasant texture.
Coming to the part where you are flavoring the rice, you can do it in the different methods that were indicated in the table above. Starting with the traditional route, all you really need to do is add vinegar as you mix the rice.
If you are following a recipe, it would normally be fine to just dump all of the vinegar that you measured. However, it is advised that you do it incrementally and to taste accordingly. This will allow you to make sure that the flavor is suitable for your taste. It is always better to be lacking since you can just add more vinegar than to go overboard since you will have to start over again.
The same goes for the modified version of the traditional method since all you really need to do is to include sugar and salt. It is worth noting, however, that those two added flavorings must come in small amounts.
The sushi rice must not be too sweet or too salty since the main attracting is still the vinegar. Sugar and salt are just playing supporting roles to enhance the sharpness of the vinegar. They basically add an extra layer to the mix that stimulates your taste buds.
As for the more modern way of flavoring sushi rice, this is where your preference can start coming into play. Using regular sugar cane vinegar as a substitute if you don’t have rice vinegar is the typical choice that most people make. The taste is the closest to that of the original ingredient and many sushi enthusiasts would rather not deviate from the traditional formula.
However, you can also use other types of vinegar if you prefer such as red wine vinegar. Depending on the brand that you use, this can impart sweetness and bitterness to the rice that can take it to another level. On that note, it hardly lends to the traditional flavor that many are looking for.
You should also remember that if the vinegar you are going to use already has a bit of sweetness to it, you should refrain from adding sugar. This will only make the flavor unbalanced and you still need to keep your toppings or fillings, as well as the condiments in mind.
Finally, we come to the non-traditional method of flavoring sushi and this is the part where you can basically go nuts. As long as the vinegar flavor is still there, you can throw in other spices, seasonings, additives, and food items that you want.
There are even times when creative cooks will include shredded nori in their rice mix if they are only planning on making nigiri. Since this type of sushi does not typically require the dried seaweed wrap, this is a nice way to incorporate the food item’s flavor into the sushi without overwhelming the toppings.
If you plan to go in this direction, there is no limit as to how far you can push the envelope. Just make sure that you don’t end up making something that you would not want to eat. This is why you will want to keep tasting the rice mix as you add flavors so that you can control the outcome.
Why Sushi Rice is Normally Flavored with Rice Vinegar
There are several reasons why rice vinegar is most often used to flavor sushi instead of any other types of vinegar, but it should be stressed that this is not a concrete rule. The sourness is the only critical component of the rice mix in order for it to be considered sushi rice. With that out of the way, the reasons why rice vinegar is the favored choice is as follows:
· It’s what most sushi chefs use
· It contains a richer, deep flavor than regular vinegar
· It comes with a less unpleasant aftertaste
· It complements rice best
Before getting into those items, it is best to understand how rice vinegar is made so that you can better appreciate just why it is typically used in sushi. To start with, the process begins by fermenting rice grains so that they turn into alcohol. This is where the solution begins to develop the sour taste.
From there, the liquid is processed again so that the alcohol is removed and only the acidity remains. This results in a substance that has a mild sharpness and a bit of sweetness, making it perfect for mixing with starchy items, which includes rice.
With that out of the way, sushi chefs favor rice vinegar because it is what most diners are used to. Even in the west, this practice is still followed because sushi enthusiasts can easily tell if any other type of vinegar is used.
Thanks to the mild acidity of rice vinegar, it isn’t too sharp when added to the rice. In addition to its more complex flavor, the use of this liquid lends the sushi with added layers for diners to appreciate. What’s more, it doesn’t have an unpleasant after taste that is commonly associated with other vinegar.
Finally, rice vinegar complement rice best simply because it is made from the grains. While not exactly the most compelling reason for using rice vinegar over other types of vinegar, it does help with the perception aspect of dining.
Other Types of Vinegar to Use
If you are curious as to other types of vinegar you can use as a substitute for rice vinegar if you don’t have it, the answer is that anything sour can be a potential candidate. As already mentioned before, the rice only really needs to have an acidic flavor in order for it to be considered usable for sushi. Then again, there are other considerations like the odor, color, and texture.
As such, among the most acceptable alternatives to rice vinegar for making sushi are the following:
· White vinegar
· White wine
· White wine vinegar
· Apple cider vinegar
· Lemon juice
It might already be obvious from just looking at that list, but every single item there is acidic without having any pronounced color. This is important because when you are making sushi, preserving the pristine white color of the rice is extremely important.
This is one of its most distinct characteristics other than the fact that it is made of a clump of grains. As such, if you use something like balsamic vinegar for making sushi rice, you are going to turn it red. This makes it completely unacceptable as a sushi ingredient unless you are going for some special effects.
Creating sushi specifically for Halloween parties, for example, might actually benefit from this substitute to rice vinegar. If it is an adult party where alcohol is involved, though, you might be better off using red wine instead. If you want, you can even go with the sweetened red wine so that it will have some added flavor.
As a final note in this section, it is worth pointing out that rice vinegar and sushi vinegar are not the same things. Basically, rice vinegar is what you get from processing rice wine. Sushi vinegar is what you get when you mix rice vinegar with salt and sugar. It is basically seasoned rice vinegar.
You can find this type of liquid in stores where the sugar and the salt have already been mixed in. However, you can also make your own by just getting the rice vinegar and dissolving the sugar and the salt in the mixture. If you do this, however, you lose some of the control you may want with regards to just how sugary or salty the rice should be.
As such, you can add these three ingredients separately when mixing the rice. Do make sure that you are using white sugar and fine-grain salt, though. If possible, try using kosher salt since it makes for a more pleasant outcome compared to regular sea salt.
Is Sushi Still Sushi Even Without Rice Vinegar?
As long as the sushi is sour when you are done with it, then it can be considered sushi rice. This is the essence of the mix, in the first place, where you are adding acid to the starch. It doesn’t have to be rice vinegar but it does have to be something with a similar flavor.
Should You Add Rice Vinegar to Cooking Water of the Rice?
Generally speaking, it is never a good idea to add vinegar to the water that you are going to use to cook the rice. This will make the outcome rather unpredictable and can warp the taste of the vinegar since you just exposed it to heat for a long period of time.
Other Flavors for Sushi Rice to Use
It was already discussed above, but it is still worth repeating that you can add any kind of flavor you want to sushi if you want. From the traditional vinegar to the crazier versions that include wasabi and dried fish, the choice is really up to you.
On that note, if you are simply looking for some references as to the best options with regards to less traditional flavorings that you can add to the rice, this is easily addressed. Before that, though, you should remember that less is more. As such, you might want to stick with using just one of the items in the list below:
· White Pepper
· Sesame oil
· Sesame seeds
Remember that these are the safe options when it comes to flavorings that are not exactly traditional. They will not completely change the flavor of the resulting sushi and they will not ruin the experience either. They will simply add an extra layer of depth to the enjoyment that you can potentially have with the dish.
With regards to nori, it’s a great way to make the sushi rice more interesting, especially if you shred it. It will add interesting color contrasts for the rice without completely deviating from what makes sushi what it is. Nori is already part of the sushi formula, anyway. Changing how it is used will not be that big of a leap.
If you are looking to add a little more spiciness to your sushi, you can always turn to white ground pepper. Do try to make it white, though, so as to maintain the color of the rice itself. If you use black ground pepper, it will make the rice look dirty and unpalatable. Just go easy on the amount that you put so that the rice does not become too peppery.
For those who like their daily dose of wasabi, mixing the smallest amount of the paste in the rice is a great way to dilute its flavor and make it easier to eat. The condiment is spread out evenly, so you won’t have to deal with clumps of the paste.
Minced mushrooms can add texture and character to the sushi rice, as well. As with most of the items on this list, though, try to choose the mushrooms with lighter colors. Even just the canned button mushrooms will do since they have a relatively neutral taste to them.
Sesame oil and sesame seeds are excellent for elevating the flavor of the rice in different ways. The oil does so through aroma while the seeds focus more on texture and crunch factor. They just make eating sushi more fun.
Finally, there is sake. You can use this to add some punch to your sushi rice by making it more alcoholic. If you are going to do this, though, make sure that there are no leftovers. Eating sushi rice with sake in it that has been chilled is not exactly that great of an experience.
Playing with Sushi Flavors and Forms
There seems to be this notion among foodies that sushi is some sacred dish that deserves to be preserved in its purest form, but this really does not have to be the case. As is with any dish ever created, you can play around with sushi to your heart’s content.
Why do you think such things as the spam nigiri even came about? With new types of food comes new opportunities to mix and match as you need. The only thing that you have to keep in mind is to never claim that any of your creations is traditional in any sense.
As long as you make sure that anyone who tries the weird sushi that you made understands that it is not what they will find at an authentic sushi restaurant, you are free to do whatever you want. Make an entirely vegan selection of sushi or fill it up with sweets. You can use processed food or preserved items.
If you are fond of pastries, even making sushi bits out of chocolate, cake, or cookie recipes is not out of your reach. The only real limit is your imagination. If chocolate chip cookies with bacon bits are possible, why not with sushi?