It would be hugely, grossly remiss to claim that sushi-making can be taught in one (skimmed) article, let alone by me. But I do have a history with the stuff: Before writing about food on the Interwebs, I was a sushi chef, and before that, I was a Californian transplanted to the Midwest, shocked by snow, dealing with that shock by watching copious amounts of TV. In particular, I loved watching inspiring documentaries like Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It was powerful to see someone not only so devoted to one thing, but also so sure of that devotion.
My search for this kind of devotion, along with many other little things, pushed me to move to N.Y.C.—not to make or taste the perfect piece of sushi, but to find that one thing I could live, breathe, eat, and dream of for the rest of my life. I followed a Chikalicious marshmallow into a tiny kitchen, then freakishly perfect pickles into an even tinier one. There, I learned how to cut saku (a deboned filet that's been squared off), and from there, I followed warm, seasoned sushi rice to my last kitchen job: a sushi spot.
And now, here I am writing about it. Whether you’re a devotee or, like I was, just another lost soul in search of devotion, really beautiful, life-affirming sushi can be had in your own kitchen.
Unless you plan to buy a super freezer, stick to sashimi-grade fish. “Sashimi-grade” or “sushi-grade” means that the fish had been frozen very cold and very quickly to ensure a) the swift and thorough death of parasites and b) that large ice crystals don’t form and ruin the texture of your fish. While tuna and salmon are common, they’re often farmed or poorly stored, and thus, meh-tasting. Go beyond! Look into what’s local, sustainable, and in season.
Some things to keep in mind: Look for filets that are bright (not dull), firm (not mushy), and not at all stinky.
Now that you’ve bought your fish, think twice before you take your yanagi to it! Using fresh fish for sushi (as opposed to preserved) is actually a relatively new development in the history of sushi, and just one of six types of sushi out there. You might also consider:
Wrap filets in sheets of konbu wetted with sake, or if you’re pressed for time, layer thin slices of fish between dry konbu sheets. Leave to cure for at least 1 hour, and up to … well, it’s up to you. After an hour, the fish will be slightly firm, and will have taken on a faint aroma of the sea. After 3 days, the fish will be very firm, bouncy even, and more aggressively seasoned. This works best on delicate-tasting and textured fish, like porgy.
Oilier, darker-fleshed fish—like mackerels—take well to pickling. Marinate boned filets in a 1:1 mixture of mirin and sake, and let hang out for at least 10 minutes. The longer you pickle, the firmer and more thoroughly opaque the flesh.
Read about how to make a perfect pot of rice here. If you have one, I’d highly recommend using a rice cooker for sushi. (You can even select the “sushi” function! It definitely doesn’t do anything different, but hey—when else do you get to use it?)
OK!—welcome back. Now that your rice grains are perfectly steamed and fluffed, it’s time to season them with rice vinegar, which has itself been seasoned. I like a ratio of 3 parts unseasoned rice vinegar to 2 parts sugar to 1 part salt (all by weight). Bring it to a boil—under a hood or with a window cracked, please, to spare your eyeballs—and cook, stirring until all of the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, and for a little something special, float in wide swatches of orange peel to infuse while it cools.
So, ideally, you’d now transfer a portion of your perfect rice into a hangiri, a shallow-sided wooden tub. This is so that you can “cut in” the seasoned vinegar with a rice paddle, as the hangiri wicks away excess moisture and cools the rice. But those things aren’t cheap! So if you don’t have one, a large mixing bowl will work just fine.
The big event—let’s go! Sharpen your longest knife (no, a serrated bread knife will not work here). You want to “pull” your knife back and through, working from the heel of the blade to the tip, as you slice the saku block against the grain. Keep your slicing-hand wrist totally still and straight, and drive your elbow back as you slice. Don’t saw through the flesh; if you feel stuck, just pull the knife up and out, and restart. Wipe your knife clean, frequently, to prevent dragging and tearing the flesh.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably not surprised to find that there are also many, many different ways to form sushi: nigirizushi, makizushi, temakizushi, and hakozushi, to name a few.
A single slice of seasoned (usually a dab of wasabi, or a thin wash of soy sauce) fish sits atop a mound of seasoned rice. The fish is gently molded around the rice by pressing with your index and middle fingers (like how you would grip a long vertical door handle).
Rice is spread atop a sheet of nori (or nori atop rice), and topped with fish and/or veg in a thin, single line. The nori, rice, and fillings get rolled into a tight cylinder—a bamboo mat helps to tighten and even out the roll—then gets sliced into thick coins.
Half-sheets of toasted nori are spread with a bit of seasoned rice, a thin line of fish and/or veg, and rolled tightly—either into a straight cigar shape, or into a cone. Swipe a grain of rice on the edge of your nori sheet to keep the hand roll sealed.
Fish, nori, and seasoned rice are laid into a box, pressed until compacted, then unmolded and sliced.
There is a world out there beyond Kikkoman! Try seeking out smaller-batch producers (this one is great). Tamari soy sauce—yes, the gluten-free one—is thicker in texture, and tastes amazing brushed on as a light coat. Try grating your own fresh wasabi—or, my favorite, dab on a tiny nub of yuzu kosho, a fermented yuzu and pepper paste.