What is the Difference of Rice Vinegar and Sushi Vinegar

Sushi requires vinegar in order to be called sushi, but there are those who are confused with regard to the type of vinegar used for making sushi, whether it is rice vinegar or sushi vinegar.

Is there a difference between rice vinegar and sushi vinegar? The answer is yes and no since the issue is basically a question of what type of sushi vinegar you are using. All rice vinegar is basically sushi vinegar but not all sushi vinegar is rice vinegar. This means that you can use any kind of vinegar for sushi but not all of those will be made from rice.

It is important to get this point right since it will allow you to be more flexible when making sushi and will also help you avoid certain vinegar you might be allergic to.

What Qualifies as Sushi Vinegar?

When we strip it of all its exotic qualities, sushi is basically just a combination of things that you can easily find in the supermarket. It can be anything you want and you can use anything you want to make it. This applies to sushi vinegar, as well.

There are those who assert that only one kind of vinegar can be used for making sushi while others say that this is just not the case. Unless you are a purist who only wants to experience sushi in uncompromising authenticity, you might want to agree with the latter argument. Simply put, in order for the vinegar to be used in making sushi, it just needs to be:

·         Acidic

·         Liquid

·         Safe to consume

·         Doesn’t have a bad odor

·         Is colorless and clear

Those last two items on the list are particularly important in sushi since a big part of this dish has to do with the sense of smell. You basically inhale it as you eat it, especially where wasabi is involved. With that being the case, you can imagine how vinegar with an awful smell and pronounced color can be an issue. This is why the kinds of vinegar in the table below are a great options for making sushi.

Rice vinegarVinegar made from fermented rice with the process being similar to that of rice wine but with the alcohol being underdeveloped
Sugar cane vinegarVinegar made from sugar canes, with a distinctly sweet smell that is not overpowering
Coconut vinegarMade from coconut water, high-quality versions of this particular vinegar resemble the taste and odor of wine vinegar
Seasoned vinegarVinegar of any variety that has been seasoned with such things as ground pepper, salt, and sugar, while maintaining its colorless appearance

As you may have noticed, we left out quite a few examples on that list, including apple cider vinegar and wine vinegar. Suffice it to say, we don’t want those due to the strong smell, the distinct aftertaste, and the bitter notes that they tend to come with.

While vinegar can be quite sharp and there are cases where the odor is definitely sour, you don’t want any other scents that go beyond that. You basically want the folks who will eat it to know that they are eating something with vinegar in it and not be confused by other odors.

What is Rice Vinegar?

If we have to be super uptight about the whole sushi vinegar thing, yes, rice vinegar is the usual choice for chefs who specialize in this particular type of cuisine. It just makes sense though since a central part of sushi is the rice and what better kind of vinegar would complement rice than rice vinegar? Sushi literally means vinegar rice or rice with vinegar.

With this being the case, you might want to spend some time trying to understand it more and you can do that by knowing how rice vinegar is made. Simply put, it is produced through a similar process as rice wine, which is through fermentation. Rice is soaked in water and allowed to stew in the liquid. Naturally, this needs to be done under controlled conditions.

You are basically simulating spoilage without the nasty business of getting food poisoning. The only real difference between rice wine and rice vinegar is that the latter does not have alcohol. The step of removing that is also part of the process, which eventually leads to rice vinegar. In exchange for getting rid of the alcohol, you get a much more acidic solution.

Of course, quality is always a concern when it comes to things like this and there is actually something to be said about rice vinegar that is crystal clear. However, you don’t really need that since the rice will take care of pretty much everything else.

Why Use Rice Vinegar for Sushi?

Now that you know what rice vinegar is, you might already have a good idea as to why it is the preferred flavoring by a lot of chefs and by authentic makers of sushi. Simply put, it poses the least likelihood of clashing with the flavors of the rice itself. However, unless you have a particularly sensitive palate, you won’t likely be able to tell the difference in the first place.

Coming back to the main point, though, the biggest advantage that rice vinegar has over other types of vinegar is that it does not taste unpleasantly sharp. Do you know how some kinds of vinegar almost feel like they are burning your gums, tongue, and throat? This does not happen with rice vinegar and the finish is actually quite smooth.

You can’t really classify it as mild, either, since it does have an acidic tone to it. The best way to classify this type of vinegar is versatile and this is exactly why it is perfect for making sushi. You end up with a solution that will impart all of the necessary flavors and aroma to the rice so that you can make sushi in peace without the baggage.

Related Questions

What is Sushi Rice Called?

Sushi is made of rice but not just any rice will do. You want rice that is short grain, is round and has a high starch content. This is so that the rice will fluff up nicely, will stick together easily, and will be easy to mold. If you got dry, long-grain, and low starch rice, it will only come apart when molding.

Does Rice Vinegar Go Bad?

If stored properly, rice vinegar will last for years, but it will go bad much faster if it is exposed to undesirable elements. Harsh sunlight, humid environments, high or low temperatures, and not being sealed tightly enough are all good ways of making the vinegar go bad faster.

Does Sushi Need Vinegar?

Considering that sushi literally translates to sushi rice, the question of whether or not sushi needs vinegar might be a moot one. However, let’s just consider this for a moment and assume that we can go beyond what the name dictates. We just need to think about what the vinegar’s role is in this affair so that we can consider our options.

The biggest role that sushi vinegar plays in the dish is to flavor it. That subtle sharpness and aroma basically give sushi a distinct quality that makes it easy to identify. With this being the case, would it be acceptable for us to use other acidic substances to flavor sushi? What about the hundreds of citric fruits and vegetables that you can have access to?

The answer would depend on how flexible you are when it comes to eating sushi. If you don’t really get hung up on the whole authenticity issue, there are plenty of options that you can turn to. However, if you are a purist, your choices can be quite limited.

Can You Use Lemon Juice for Sushi?

Speaking of alternatives to vinegar for making sushi, you might have thought about the possibility of using lemon juice instead and the answer is that yes, you certainly can. However, as already pointed out before, you do have to have a certain level of flexibility in order for this to be the case.

You see, in order for sushi to be sushi, it needs to have certain qualities that make it distinguishable. The sharp taste of the vinegar can be covered by the lemon juice substitute, but the aroma will still stand out. With that being the case, you will have to learn to live with the fact that what you might be eating might not be entirely true to the authentic sushi tradition.

More than that, you also have to consider that lemon juice might actually offer something beyond what sushi vinegar can. It certainly has more a citrusy aroma and this basically complements many of the ingredients that you might use for your sushi.

Cucumber and mango, for example, are some of the most popular fillings for sushi and they go really well with lemon juice. Of course, this is not always the case and you might find that this acidic solution will not go that well when paired with raw fish. At least, not in the sushi capacity. 

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