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I'm experimenting with Japanese cooking, and I can't seem to get the hang of making rice shapes.

I want to make an onigiri rice triangle with a filling. The theory is simple enough: make rice and let cool, take rice in hand, dig a small crater, place filling in crater, fold around the filling and shape in to a triangle. In practice, I must be missing something, because it simply falls apart. I'm not sure if this is the technique of folding, shaping, or even cooking the rice.

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How are you preparing your rice, and what rice are you using? – ElendilTheTall Oct 1 '11 at 10:36
I'm using what is sold here as "rice for sushi", which is short grain, and comes out quite sticky. I use it sucessfully for sushi, so I thought it would work, though I'm not adding vinegar or mirin for the onigiri. – Carmi Oct 1 '11 at 16:03
I was going to ask the same question as ElendilTheTall. If you're using short-grain Japanese rice, it should be sticky and you shouldn't have any trouble making onigiri... – user1570 Oct 1 '11 at 20:18
Agreed with the other commenters... If you have Japanese sticky rice then you should be having the opposite problem... It's so glutenous that I have to keep a finger bowl of water nearby to keep it from sticking to me. – Rikon Oct 2 '11 at 3:14
Why are you letting it cool? I've never seen anyone start with cooled rice. – JasonTrue Oct 20 '11 at 4:20

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Things to try

  • Rice should still be warm
  • Handle rice gently, don't squeeze it

Does it fall apart because it is sticking to your hands? If so:

  • Use warm salt water on your hands (not dripping wet hands though)
  • Rinse the rice more before cooking to remove excess surface starches. The process is: Rinse in bowl of water, gently tumble, let stand 20 minutes, change water. Repeat until rinse water runs clear

If this still fails to solve this sticky issue, you can use cling film (plastic wrap) as a guide and release agent on your hands. Peel the plastic off as you wrap the nori on

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Don't let the rice cool, it should still be quite hot.

There are some ideas at Just Bento on ways to make it using plastic wrap or a baggie so you don't have to handle the hot rice directly; there was also discussion of plopping rice into a jar and shaking based on a video, but it was decided the rice cools too quickly for it to work for more than 1-2 onigiri per batch. The cooler the rice, the less it'll stick together.

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There are two main reasons that may cause your onigiri to fall apart:

  1. For Onigiri, You must be use either medium grain rice or short grain rice. Both types of rice are sticky enough for the rice to stick to each other. Japanese rice and certain italian rices such as arborio works well. If you are using long grain rice (such as jasmine rice), the onigiri will simply fall apart because they are not sticky enough. You can overcook the long grain rice so it will be soft and mushy to form a shape, but it certainly will not taste very good.

  2. If the fillings are too oily or watery, it will cause the rice to lose it's "stickiness" and result the rice ball not be able to hold its shape.

Other reasons may include: Rice is not hot enough or not properly cooked.

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Rice Cooking Reminder:

  • Rinse 1 ½ cups of sushi rice in water. Rinse your rice well, ensure that the rice water rinses clear. If you leave too much starch on the surface of the rice, you are asking for poor inconsistent results.

  • Drain, bring the rice to a simmer in a saucepan with 2 cups of water, cover and lower the heat to medium-low for 15 minutes.

  • Turn off the heat and keep the saucepan covered for another 10 minutes.

3 Methods to make and form your Onigiri

  1. Hand Method Have a bowl of salted water set up and moisten your palms with it. This will prevent the rice from sticking and the salt will season the rice. Spread a palmful of warm sushi rice into one hand. If you are using a filling, place it in the middle. Fold up the rice around the filling. Pack the rice tightly with both hands.

  2. Mold Method With a mold, cookie cutters are best. Salt the rice directly, since you're not using salted water on your hands. Moisten the mold and place it over a non-stick surface such as parchment paper. Press rice into the mold, filling it halfway. Form a small hole in the middle and place your filling in it. Fill the rest of the mold with rice and pack it in well, with your fingers or the bottom of a cup.

  3. Tea Towel Method Place the lightly salted rice into the towel or plastic wrap. Tuck the filling in the center and gather the towel up so that the rice surrounds the filling. Twist and squeeze the towel. When you unwrap it, the rice ball should be well-packed, like a good snowball.

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