Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Do I Need a Rice Cooker to Make Sushi Rice?

This is one of the top questions I get about making sushi.

Answer: You don't have to, but you really should.

I wish I could say something more supportive about cooking rice on a stove top, but I can't. And last
month I finally found myself in a situation where it really was all that I had.

The scene was the kitchen of a Washington island home where my uncle and his hungry friends (all twenty-five of whom had just finished two hours of lap swimming) gathered to celebrate his birthday and eat sushi. I stood before five pounds of fish, twenty cups of (dry) rice and no rice cooker.

In the spirit of full-disclosure, let me state that prior to this event, I had never, in over twelve years of making sushi professionally, made sushi rice on a stove top. 

So I grabbed the largest pot I could find, filled it accordingly and covered it with a lid. From there all I could do was light the stove, take a deep breath and hope for the best. Well I didn't get the best. In fact, it was awful. The minute I tasted the rice I cringed. I quickly felt a slightly nauseating twinge in my stomach and my cheeks began to burn. 

SIDE NOTE: I have a certain perfectionist disorder that reveals itself in matters related to sushi rice. There is a certain way that I want my sushi rice to taste (only one way) and if it doesn't taste like that in texture, flavor and temperature, then I go a little nuts, internally. I realized this ten years ago on a job where I was so upset by the way the rice tasted that I worried I might faint. And while I served this rice in shame, (and in the midst of a well-hidden panic attack), I continued to receive compliment after compliment on specifically how good the rice was. So was the problem with the rice or was the problem with me? To this day I am still trying to answer that question.

Back to the island. I tried to calm myself with the "it's not bad, it just isn't exactly how you want it to taste" mantra but it was difficult because I pride myself on my sushi rice. As far as I am concerned, I make the best sushi rice around and that is the sushi rice that I want all of my clients to experience as well. I had no other choice but to sit back and wait for the responses. I anxiously scanned the expressions of the guests as they took bite and after bite of the sushi I made. Could they tell how bad the rice was? Did they notice the inconsistency in the texture which consequently was affecting the flavor? Am I insane? If they were on to my calamity, then they did a great job of masking it. Once again, I heard only compliments and watched the guests eat serving after serving of sushi until nothing was left.

So I thought it was awful but the guests thought it was delicious. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Well, I was correct and the rice wasn't good, was the actual problem with the stove top method or was the real problem due to the fact that I had never before made sushi rice in anything other than a rice cooker and therefore did not do a very good job of making the rice? Looking back, the rice could have been much better had I done some things differently. These are the things I learned:

TIP #1: Use the widest pot you can find.
I learned this the hard way. I made the mistake of choosing the biggest (by capacity) pot I could find. Now while that seemed like a good idea at the time, the largest pot also happened to be the tallest and narrowest pot (think large boiler) and that was the source of the problem. As rice cooks, it expands and usually doubles in size. If you have a narrow pot and a lot of rice, the cooking rice is going to keep pushing up and up and up. This creates a longer path (of extremely tightly packed rice) for the boiling water/steam to travel through, making even cooking nearly impossible. You will most likely end up with overly cooked rice (mushy) on the bottom and undercooked rice (hard) on the top.

Your ideal scenario will be a pan that is wider than it is tall (see photo).

TIP #2: Smaller batches work best.
Since I had twenty cups to cook, in hindsight I should've cooked no more than ten at a time. Ten cups of rice is much more manageable than twenty and makes finding an appropriate sized pan more likely as well.

Now even if I had chosen a better pot and also worked with a smaller batch, I still would have preferred to use a rice cooker for my sushi rice. The stove top method may be adequate but it certainly isn't better, let alone ideal. Rice cookers are pretty much as fool-proof as cooking equipment comes and they will help you make the best sushi rice that you are capable of making (and we know how important the rice is).

So the moral of this blog post is:
A rice cooker is the single most important item a sushi maker should have in the kitchen.

Of course you don't have to, but you really should.