Making vegetarian sushi at home is easier than you think, and is a fun and delicious activity to do with friends. Read on for my tips for making great sushi at home, or jump straight to the recipe HERE.
I’m pretty sure sushi is one of the greatest foods ever invented. If you were to ask me at any time what I’m in the mood for, the chances of me saying “sushi” are close to 100%.
Learning how to make sushi at home has been well worth the investment (a bit of time and patience, and a few useful tools). I actually make sushi from scratch about once a month, which helps subsidize my pesky habit of going out for it every chance I get. (Stupid delicious sushi.)
I’m a huge fan of all kinds of sushi, including ones with raw fish, but I’m often too lazy to bother with all that when I make it at home. Finding and buying sashimi grade fish (the stuff that’s safe to eat raw) can be a hassle, not to mention pricey, especially when I only need a small amount and have to buy a big chunk of fish anyway. All that aside, one of the best parts of going to a sushi restaurant is being able to try many different kinds of fish, and doing that at home just isn’t economically feasible.
(Unless you guys all want to come over for a giant sushi making party, in which case, let’s do this!)
Veggie-only sushi is a great compromise, because it’s easy and inexpensive to prepare, but still scratches that sushi itch.
The only problem is, it’s really easy to fall into an ingredient rut. For a long time I’d make my sushi with the same few things: cucumber, avocado, bell pepper, carrots. Those are all great ingredients, but on their own they can get a little… boring. Wa-wa-waaaa.
Lately, I’ve started branching out and playing with new ingredients, and I’ve come up with some tips for keeping your veggie sushi interesting and delicious, roll after roll.
5 Tips For Great Vegetarian Sushi At Home
- Use vegetables of all colors, textures, and flavors. Sushi is a fantastic medium for most vegetables, even ones you wouldn’t normally think of, or are intimidated to try. I recently used burdock root in a batch of sushi (peeled and thinly sliced) and it gave a mild sweetness and lots of crunch. I’ve also used purple cabbage, daikon raddish, sprouts, hot peppers (thin strips, in moderation), beets or beet stems, green onion, green beans (halved lengthwise). When you think of a vegetable, ask if you could pare it down to fit in a sushi roll, and if the answer is yes – go for it!
- Add cooked ingredients. A favorite of mine are sauted mushrooms. Thinly slice, saute in a bit of oil, and add a small splash of soy sauce. Adding these to sushi rolls gives a welcome change of texture from all the crunchy vegetables, and helps mimic some of the umami flavor you would get from fish. You can also add cooked tempeh or tofu, which can be marinated in flavorful sauces to add even more variety, or sweet ingredients like strips of roasted butternut squash or, one of my all time favorites, sweet potato. Using these ingredients warm adds lots of contrast to the cold ingredients, and the mild sweetness is really delicious.
- Use sauces to make your rolls distinctive. Restaurant sushi often come with various sauces inside or drizzled on top, like spicy mayo, unagiri eel sauce, or other restaurant specialties. A favorite of mine to add a little tang and heat is the spicy mayo, and it’s also the easiest thing to prepare – just a mix of mayonnaise and sriracha (or hot chili oil, if you prefer) to taste. If you want your sushi to be vegan, use a vegan mayonnaise, and avoid hot sauces that contain fish sauce. You can also add things like plum sauce, hoisin, black bean paste, or other pre-made sauces (or their homemade counterpart) that you might find in the Asian section of the grocery store. A rule of thumb: always start with a little sauce, because that bold flavor can easily overpower the other ingredients. To use sauces IN your rolls, and not just ON them, use the tip of your finger or a spoon to smooth a little bit of sauce down the middle of your roll before you add the veggies and other ingredients. (You can also do this with a little wasabi for some hidden kick – just try to remember which rolls have it before you add more wasabi on top!)
- Pickled ingredients. Some of the best sushi I’ve had has contained bright pops of flavor from acidic / sweet pickled vegetables. You can get as creative as you want with your pickles (like making homemade kimchi, for instance) or you can just do a quick pickle, by splashing some vinegar, sugar, and salt over some matchstick-cut veggies, and letting it sit for a few hours or overnight. For this batch, I thinly sliced some raw beets and pickled them in Japanese rice vinegar (plus a splash o water, a spoonful of sugar and half a spoonful of salt) overnight. The beet juice stained the rice on some of my rolls, but I didn’t mind. For more nuanced flavors, try adding herbs or spices to the pickling liquid.
- Use aromatic herbs for a burst of freshness. Cilantro leaves and stems can add a ton of flavor, as can fresh basil, or small amounts of stronger herbs, like mint, tarragon, or dill. Use these in moderation to punch up the flavor of your rolls. (If you have access to fresh shiso leaves, those would be a great addition, too.)
Bonus tip: a reader on Instagram asked if I could share some info about using brown rice in your sushi rolls, so this tip is a little bonus. You can absolutely make sushi using brown rice in place of white. Brown rice is a great healthy alternative, but there are a few things to know. If you can find brown “sushi rice” at the store, follow the directions on the package for preparation. Otherwise, you can use any kind of very short grain brown rice you can find. These kinds of rice will not need to be rinsed as thoroughly as traditional white sushi rice, and can be cooked as you would normally cook brown rice. (You can find my tutorial for making regular white and brown rice, HERE, or you can use your own method, or a rice cooker.) After cooking the brown rice, be sure to season it with the vinegar mixture as you would regular sushi rice so that it’s sticky enough to hold the rolls together. See the recipe for details on seasoning the rice.
For more tips, check out my in-depth Sushi 101 post, HERE.
Whatever ingredients you choose, mix and match them from roll to roll to keep things interesting, and find combinations you like. The soft texture of avocado next to the crunch of bean sprouts, or sweet, warm butternut squash with lots of spicy mayo to offset it.
I tend to go crazy with mixing up my ingredients in every possible combination in each roll, but you could also play around with grouping them by type or color, just for fun. I’ve seen people do red rolls, yellow rolls, etc., to create a rainbow of sushi, which I must admit is pretty satisfying to look at.
- 2 cups dry sushi rice (this recipe is written for white rice, but you can also use brown rice if you wish. See recipe notes.)
- 2 cups + 2 TBSP water, plus more for rinsing
- ½ cup rice vinegar
- 2 TBSP sugar (this amount can vary based on taste)
- ½ tsp. salt
- 1 cup water + 1 TBSP rice vinegar
- small amount of as many different types of veggies as you like (for instance, ½ red bell pepper cut into thin slices, 1 carrot cut into matchsticks, half an avocado, etc.) Other suggestions: english cucumber, bean sprouts, burdock root, green beans, raw beets, leafy greens, radishes, etc.
- small amount of pickled veggies like beets, chard stems, or carrots
- small amount of cooked ingredients like sweet potato, tofu, or sauted mushrooms
- a little bit of fresh herbs like cilantro, if you like
- sauces like spicy mayo (mayo or vegan mayo, mixed with chili oil or sriracha, to taste)
- sheets of nori seaweed, for rolling
- sesame seeds, for garnish, optional
- soy sauce (or gluten-free tamari)
- pickled ginger
- wasabi paste
- You will need a bamboo mat for rolling
- A large, non-metalic bowl, like this one
- A flexible rubber spatula, or a rice paddle
- A long sharp knife -- you can use a chef's knife, or a specilaized sushi knife. This is the one I use
- You will also want some plastic wrap for wrapping your bamboo mat, and a clean damp washcloth nearby for wiping your hands or the blade of your knife if they get sticky from the rice
- Place the dry rice in a large bowl and cover with cool water. Run your hands through the rice, swishing the grains around between your fingers. The water will become very milky. Tip the bowl to one side to drain off the water, then scrunch the rice around with your hands. You don't need to squeeze hard, just rub the grains together a bit. Fill the bowl with water again, and repeat the swishing, draining, scrunching 2-3 more times, or until the water you drain off the grains is mostly clear. (Washing away the powdery starches on the outside of the grain is an important step that will keep the rice (once cooked) from turning into a gluey mess, so don't skip it!) When you're done, drain the rice completely.
- Transfer the washed rice to a medium saucepan, and add 2 cups plus 2 TBSP fresh water. Set over high heat, and bring to a boil, uncovered. As soon as the water begins to boil, cover the pot tightly and reduce the heat to it’s lowest possible setting. Set a timer and let the rice cook for 15 minutes. No peaking! Do not remove the lid during this time! When the timer goes off, turn off the heat completely and let the rice stand for another 10 minutes, again, without removing the lid.
- While the rice cooks, stir together the vinegar, sugar, and salt. Warm the mixture in a small saucepan, or the microwave. If possible, try not to let the mixture boil -- you just want it warm enough to dissolve the sugar and salt.
- When the rice is finished cooking, transfer it to the largest bowl you have (preferably non-metallic, like glass or wood). Grab a rubber spatula, or a rice paddle if you have one. Pour about ¾ of the vinegar mixture over the rice, and use the edge of the spatula to cut down into the rice in slashing motions. The idea is to mix the vinegar into the rice without crushing the grains and mashing them together too much, so use the edge of the spatula as much as you can. If you want to get really technical, you can fan the rice with one hand (I just grab the package of nori and use it as a fan) while cutting/folding the rice with the other. This fanning will help the rice cool faster, and give it a slightly better texture for working with. Once the vinegar is evenly coating the rice, give it a taste, and if you feel it needs more flavor, add the remaining vinegar mixture and continue cutting/folding until it is evenly mixed in, and the rice is warm but no longer hot.
- Sushi rice is best used fresh, as it can dry out easily. However, you can put a warm, damp tea towel over the bowl and set it aside for up to an hour or so, while you prep your other ingredients.
- Slice and prepare as many ingredients as you would like. You will only need a small amount of each, as it doesn't take much to fill each roll. When I have leftover ingredients at the end of making sushi, I store them in a small tupperware in the fridge, and put them over (regular) rice another day as a kind of "sushi salad." You can use as many or as few ingredients as you like, but I suggest mixing it up with different kinds to keep your rolls interesting.
- Before rolling your sushi, I recommend wrapping your bamboo rolling mat in plastic wrap to keep rice from sticking to it. You should also have a small bowl of water plus a splash of vinegar nearby (this is called hand vinegar, or te-zu) and a clean, damp washcloth for wiping your hands, or the blade of your knife, when they get sticky.
- Cut or tear a full sheet of nori in half, and place one half onto your prepared rolling mat, at the edge of the mat closest to you. The nori should be rough-side up, shiny-side down.
- Dip your fingers in the te-zu, and rub your hands together so they are damp but not dripping. Grab a small handful of sushi rice, and begin spreading it into a thin, even layer over the nori.
- If you want to make rolls with the nori on the outside, rice on the inside: leave about a ½ inch gap (no rice) at the top and bottom edge of the rectangle of nori. Begin adding your ingredients -- I suggest sticking to just a few, so the roll isn't too full to close. Dampen a finger, and run it along the exposed edge of nori furthest from you (this will work like sealing an envelope). Hold the roll with your fingers on the ingredients to keep them in place, and your thumbs under the edge of the mat. Using your thumbs, begin rolling, holding the ingredients in place and keeping the roll tight as you go. Once one side of the roll meats the other, give the roll a gentle but firm squeeze to make sure it's sealed. If necessary, dampen your fingers and use them to tap the ends of the roll to keep anything from spilling out the sides. Unwrap the rolling mat, and ta-da! (If the roll doesn't seal properly, it's usually due to too many ingredients. I say gobble this one up and try again -- mm, tasty mistakes!)
- To make rolls with the nori on the inside, rice on the outside: spread the rice all the way to the edges of the nori, leaving no gaps. Before adding your ingredients, gently flip the sheet of nori, rice and all, over, so the rice is on the bottom and the nori is on the top. Now add your ingredients, and roll as before. (With this method, there is no need to wet the edge of the nori -- just roll it up, and the rice will stick to itself and seal the roll shut.)
- To cut the rolls: use a long, very sharp, not serrated knife. Dip the tip of the knife into the te-zu, and let the water roll down the blade -- this will help keep the knife from snagging on the sticky rice and nori. Gently cut the roll in half, using as little downward pressure as possible. Then line up the two halves of the roll so you are cutting through both at once, and slice the halves into thirds. You should now have six equal, bite-sized pieces.
- Optional: before slicing, rolls can be rolled around in a shallow plate of sesame seeds / sprinkled with sesame seeds, or otherwise garnished (I've seen people use fried cilantro leaves, crushed up and sprinkled over the rolls for a pop of color). You can also sprinkle with sesame seeds or other garnishes after slicing -- it's totally up to you.
- Repeat until all the rice is gone. I typically get about 7-10 rolls out of a batch of rice. You'll get more if you make rolls with the nori on the outside, less if you make rolls with the rice on the outside.
- Serve rolls with a small dish of soy sauce or tamari, and pickled ginger and wasabi on the side. Devour immediately, and revel in how awesome it is that you just made some badass sushi at home!
You can also find my super in-depth tutorial on making sushi at home (with photos, which are helpful because it's hard to explain with just words) here: http://www.willcookforfriends.com/2013/01/sushi-101-ready-set-roll-fak-friday.html
Sushi can be made with brown rice in place of the rice. If you can find brown rice labeled as sushi rice, follow the directions on the package for preparation. Otherwise, you can use other short-grain varieties of brown rice. These will not need to be rinsed as thoroughly, and can be cooked following your preferred method, or following THESE DIRECTIONS. Once cooked, be sure to season the rice with the vinegar mixture as you would regular sushi rice, so that it becomes sticky enough to hold the rolls together.
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