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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.