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Finding the Best Sushi Rice

By Lauren Savoie Published

We tasted eight versions of this global food staple in search of a product that balances fluffiness with chewiness and a hint of stickiness.

While we most often call for long-grain rice in our recipes, there’s another rice variety that’s a beloved pantry staple in many home kitchens: sushi (or japonica) rice. Often sold in the United States as Calrose rice, this rice variety features short, squat grains and has a distinct stickiness when cooked. It gets this stickiness from a relatively high amount of a starch called amylopectin, which gelatinizes during cooking and results in a tender, creamy texture with a subtle starchiness.

Sushi rice traces its origins back to northeast Asia (particularly Japan), but it is now grown extensively in the United States. California, where 95 percent of the rice grown is sushi‑style rice, ranks second to Arkansas (which grows mostly long-grain rice) in U.S. rice production. Even if you’ve never cooked this type of rice, you’ve most likely eaten it: According to the California Rice Commission, nearly every piece of sushi eaten in the United States is made with California-grown rice. But it’s not used only in sushi—this type of rice is a staple in many Asian and Asian American homes and is featured in dishes such as bibimbap, onigiri, and gimbap.

Members of the tastings and testings team portion samples of different brands of sushi rice in preparation for a blind taste test.

For this tasting, we looked specifically for rice labeled sushi, Calrose, or Japanese-style (these terms are often used interchangeably). We found eight nationally available products, ranging in price from about $0.05 per ounce to about $0.25 per ounce. We cooked the rice two ways—in rice cookers using a standardized rice-to-water ratio and on the stovetop according to their package instructions—and sampled them all plain.

Japanese Roots, American Grown

How did sushi rice start being grown in America? It began with a quest for gold. The 19th-century gold rush saw a huge influx of Asian immigrants to California. According to the California Rice Commission, rice farming started as a way to meet the needs of this new population of Asian-born immigrants, for whom rice was a dietary staple. Eventually, many gold rush prospectors who didn’t find their fortune in gold took up farming instead. The mild climate of northern California offered the perfect conditions for growing rice, and at the time, farming was heavily promoted by the Department of Agriculture to address the demand for food in California. Agricultural research led to the production of a variety of medium-grain japonica rice (Oryza sativa ssp. japonica) called Calrose that was best suited to grow in California’s unique climate. Its popularity eventually went international: California-grown sushi-style rice was once so prized overseas that in the 1970s and 1980s it was smuggled out of U.S. army bases and into Korea and sold on the black market. It’s still extremely popular abroad; according to the California Department of Agriculture, California exported $637 million worth of rice in 2017, with the top destinations being Japan, Jordan, and Korea. California is second only to Thailand in exports of premium rice.

No Bad Rice, Just Bad Instructions

Ultimately, we liked all the rice we cooked in the rice cookers. They were perfectly chewy and tender with a pleasant hint of stickiness. That said, some products fared poorly when cooked on the stovetop according to their package instructions. Some packages called for soaking the rice before cooking (a traditional method for preparing Japanese sushi rice), but we generally preferred the slightly firmer texture of unsoaked rice. Other packages called for too much water in proportion to the amount of uncooked rice, so the cooked rice emerged from the pot wet and bland. Since we wanted to truly home in on the quality of the rice and not the instructions, we decided not to factor the results from the stovetop rice tasting into our final rankings. Instead, we based our ratings solely on the results of the rice cooker tasting. We therefore strongly recommend that you ignore the package instructions when cooking sushi rice and instead use either a rice cooker or the recipe we developed for cooking this type of rice on the stovetop.

Are Arborio Rice and Sushi Rice Interchangeable?

Arborio rice and sushi rice are similar in shape and size, and both have a relatively high amount of the starch amylopectin, but Arborio rice isn’t a great choice for Asian dishes because of a defect called “chalk.” During maturation, the starch structures at the core of an Arborio grain deform, making for a firm, toothy center when cooked. While this trait is great for risotto—it gives the dish its signature al dente texture—it’s less than ideal for sushi or for a rice to accompany Asian dishes. Conversely, we’ve tried making risotto with sushi rice. Tasters reported that the resulting risotto was creamy, but “it wasn’t risotto” because the grains lacked the quintessential al dente bite of Arborio rice. The bottom line? Arborio rice and sushi rice are not interchangeable in recipes.

 

A Millimeter Makes a Difference

Like Arborio rice, which is used to make risotto, sushi rice has confusingly been classified as both a short- and medium-grain rice by different sources (see “Are Arborio Rice and Sushi Rice Interchangeable?”). We did notice that grain size varied a lot: Some products were oval, almost round, while others didn’t look that different from long-grain rice. The Federal Grain Inspection Service classifies raw rice with a length-to-width ratio from 2:1 to 2.9:1 as medium-grain and rice with a length‑to‑width ratio of 1.9:1 or less as short‑grain. To zoom in on length-to-width ratio, we used calipers to measure 20 grains from multiple packages of each rice and averaged the results. The length-to-width ratios of the products in our lineup ranged from 1.6:1 to 2.2:1, meaning they were a mix of short- and medium‑grain rices. Our tasters had a slight preference for products that featured shorter grains when cooked, since they had a distinct round shape that set them apart from long-grain rice. Our favorite rice had the shortest grains in the lineup, with a length-to-width ratio of 1.6:1.

Both short- and medium-grain rice can be sold as sushi rice in the United States. While the two may look similar to the naked eye, short-grain rice is actually a few millimeters shorter than medium-grain rice.

Ya-Jane Wang, professor of carbohydrate chemistry at the University of Arkansas, told us that the differences in grain length and shape can be attributed to farmers growing different genetic strains of japonica rice (Oryza sativa ssp. japonica). Manufacturers don’t specify this kind of information on their packaging, and they wouldn’t give us any specifics when we contacted them. Wang said that both Calrose, a medium-grain variety of japonica rice, and some short-grain japonica rice varieties are sold as sushi rice, which is why we saw different textures and sizes of grains among products. Kent McKenzie, director of the California Rice Experiment Station, also confirmed that the term Calrose now encompasses many California-grown medium-grain varieties that are descendants of the original Calrose variety released in 1948. “These great-grandchildren have very similar starch, cooking, processing, and chemical properties to Calrose, but some subtle differences exist,” McKenzie said.

How Rice Is Grown in California

All the rices we tried are grown and milled in California, where the growing season follows a specific format. In March, farmers start preparing their fields for planting. A key step in this process is leveling the fields using GPS or laser-guided grading equipment; the fields will eventually be flooded with water, so the ground has to be even to keep the water level consistent. California rice is grown in clay soil, which is very dense and doesn’t allow water to drain. Once the fields are properly prepped, they’re flooded with about 5 inches of water. The actual planting happens from the air: Planes are loaded with seeds, which are dropped into the fields from above. The seeds sink through the water and into the soil. The seeds sprout and grow in the flooded fields over the course of four to five months. In the fall, the water is drained from the fields and the rice is harvested and sent for milling.

Younger Rice Is More Fragrant and Cooks Up Soft and Tender

Our tasters also noted differences in stickiness among the products, preferring rices that were sticky and starchy to those that were dry. Diane Beckles, associate professor at the University of California, Davis, told us that there are other key variables that can influence the cooked texture of rice. While genetics do play a big role in the amount and type of starch in rice, Beckles said that growing conditions and storage can also change the percentage of amylopectin, the starch responsible for stickiness in rice. Newly harvested rice is soft and tender and stickier when cooked because it has higher amounts of amylopectin. By contrast, older rice is drier when cooked because rice loses moisture and its starch breaks down during long storage. Storage time can also impact the perceived aromas in rice, Beckles said. While aroma isn’t as prominent in sushi rice varieties as it is in other rice varieties such as basmati or jasmine, our tasters still noticed pleasant “floral,” “buttery,” and “toasted” notes in our top-rated rices. Experts told us that the primary compound responsible for these aromas in rice—2-acetyl-1-pyrroline—is at its peak when the rice is first harvested and wanes as the rice is stored unless the conditions are strictly controlled (such techniques are used to enhance 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline levels in rices such as basmati).

Buy “New Crop” Rice When You Can Find It

  • Newly harvested rice is prized for its soft, fluffy texture. According to Kent McKenzie, director of the California Rice Experiment Station, rice connoisseurs eagerly await the arrival of “new crop” rice every fall. “New crop” refers to rice that has been packaged and sold in the same year it was harvested, appearing in stores from October through December. Manufacturers will often label their new crop rice with special stickers or labels and roll out marketing campaigns at specialty food stores and Japanese markets to announce its arrival. That said, there isn’t a clear way to tell if a rice is truly new crop by looking on its package; milling dates are hard to decipher, and stickers can stay on packages long after new crop season is over (as we saw with one of the products we tried, which still had a “new crop” sticker on it even though we purchased it in January). Your best bet for nabbing real-deal new crop rice is in the fall at your local Japanese grocery store or online.

The Best Sushi Rice: Lundberg Family Farms Organic California Sushi Rice

In the end, our tasters named Lundberg Family Farms Organic California Sushi Rice our favorite sushi rice. This company also makes our favorite long-grain rice. Tasters loved this product’s “small,” “sticky” grains as well as its “floral aroma.” One note of caution: The package instructions call for soaking the rice and cooking it in a large amount of water. We found the rice produced by this cooking method to be not as tender and sticky as we liked. Instead, we recommend cooking it in a rice cooker or according to our stovetop recipe.

Taste Test Sushi Rice

We tasted eight versions of this global food staple in search of a product that balances fluffiness with chewiness and a hint of stickiness.