Chefs share their sushi-making secrets

Chef Thomas Casey of For the Love of Food shared a recipe for a spicy tuna sushi roll. He is pictured at the Fretz Sub-Zero and Wolf showroom.
Chef Thomas Casey of For the Love of Food shared a recipe for a spicy tuna sushi roll. He is pictured at the Fretz Sub-Zero and Wolf showroom. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Nicholas Cuttonaro relishes the chance to grab a spicy tuna roll at his favorite sushi restaurants, Sushi Ya in Owings Mills and Sushi Sono in Columbia.

But a couple of months ago, he decided to make his sushi-eating experience more interactive by signing up for a class in which he honed his knife skills and learned how to make sticky rice to place inside a sushi roll. The instructor at Pikesville's For the Love of Food offered students the chance to experiment with tuna, salmon, lobster and shrimp.


"There are a lot of different combinations that can be made with the ingredients," says Cuttonaro, vice president of Owings Mills brand management company The Link Builders LLC.

Cuttonaro and his fiancée, Rose Krause, came away from the class with a lot more respect for sushi chefs.


"There truly is an art to it," Cuttonaro says. "It's quite tricky to make rolls. It's a process that can't be rushed."

Sushi classes at For the Love of Food, Waterfront Kitchen and RA Sushi typically fill up quickly, chefs say. It's no surprise that people would want to make the food that they're eating more of at restaurants. Americans are expected to spend $2.1 billion at sushi restaurants this year, according to research firm IBISWorld. Spending at sushi eateries is projected to grow 2.2 percent each year over the next five years.

"It's a trendy food, and people are interested in getting their hands in there and making the sushi," says For the Love of Food chef and owner Thomas Casey.

Sushi classes offer all the ingredients you need to assemble the rolls, and some even offer goodies like chopsticks and a rolling mat you can use to get started at home.


Learning how to make sushi is not difficult. But getting good at it requires patience, especially if sushi lovers want to mimic the experienced restaurant chefs who dazzle them with their knife skills.

"It's going to take time to get good at it," says RA Sushi General Manager Scott Bernas. "You're going to have to practice once you learn the basics."

For instance, you have to learn to squeeze the rice tightly in the palm of your hand so it doesn't fall out. But if you squeeze too tight, the roll is too dense, says former RA Sushi student Nelle Somerville, catering sales manager at the Hotel Monaco.

"It's a labor-intensive process," says Waterfront Kitchen Chef Jerry Pellegrino, who teaches the Baltimore restaurant's cooking classes. "For a novice, it takes a while to get the motion right. Everyone starts by making something simple, [and soon] they have 32 things in it. It's very funny."

Though Cuttonaro says he enjoyed the class, he'll stick to eating sushi outside the home.

"We prefer going out for sushi. We're busy people."

Yield: 6 rolls
Chef Jerry Pellegrino
Waterfront Kitchen

For the rolls:
6 pieces of nori (seaweed)
2 cups sushi rice (see recipe)
6 slices, thick-cut applewood smoked bacon, cooked until just crispy
Asian tomato compote (see recipe)
1 cup micro radish greens or 12 baby lettuce leaves
Spicy mayo to taste (see recipe)

1 Place a piece of nori on a sushi mat, shiny side down. Evenly spread a layer of sushi rice on 3/4 of the nori.

2 Place a piece of bacon in the center of the rice. Add a liberal dollop of tomato compote and spread it along the bacon.

3 Place the micro greens or two lettuce leaves on top of the tomato compote, leaving a little hanging past the nori on each side.

4 Roll and slice. Serve with a dollop of spicy mayo.

For the Asian tomato compote:
3 large, ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced
1/4 cup green onion tops, chopped
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon white sesame seeds
Sriracha to taste (optional)

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl and refrigerate.

For the sushi rice:
2 cups sushi or short-grain rice
3 cups water, plus extra for rinsing rice
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 Place the rice into a mixing bowl and cover with cool water. Swirl the rice in the water, pour off and repeat 2 to 3 times or until the water is clear.

2 Place the rice and 2 cups of water into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil, uncovered. Once it begins to boil, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cover. Cook for 15 minutes.

3 Remove from the heat and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes.

4 Combine the rice vinegar, sugar and salt in a small bowl and heat in the microwave on high for 30 to 45 seconds.

Transfer the rice into a large mixing bowl, and add the vinegar mixture. Fold thoroughly to combine and coat each grain of rice with the mixture.

Allow to cool to room temperature before using to make sushi.

For the spicy mayo:
Kewpie Asian mayonnaise
Sriracha sauce
Mix mayonnaise and Sriracha together. The more Sriracha you use, the spicier the mayo.

Waterfront Kitchen
1417 Thames St., Baltimore
Frequency: About twice a quarter
Length: Three hours
Cost: $70.80, which includes wine and the sushi rolls. Students can take any leftover rolls home.

Yield: 4 to 5 rolls
Chef Thomas Casey
For The Love Of Food

For the rolls:
2 tbsp. mayonnaise
2 tsp. Sriracha
1 cucumber
8 oz. sashimi-grade tuna
1 sheet of nori (seaweed)
2 cups sushi rice
1/4 tsp. sesame oil

1 Combine mayo and Sriracha sauce in a bowl and set aside.

2 Remove the seeds from the cucumber. Cut cucumber into 3-inch-long strips or with a mandoline.

3 Cut the tuna into 1/4-inch cubes or mince the tuna.

4 Cover the bamboo rolling mat (makisu) with a sheet of plastic wrap.

5 Place nori (seaweed) on the mat with the long side facing you. Spread about 3/4 cup of rice on the nori, leaving 3/4-inch of bare nori at the far side. (Tip: Wet your hands to keep rice from sticking to them).

In a medium bowl, combine the tuna, Sriracha sauce and sesame oil.

7 Place a tablespoon of the tuna mixture at the bottom end of the nori sheet followed by strips of cucumber, on top.

8 Roll mat over once, pressing ingredients in to keep roll firm, leaving the 3/4-inch strip of nori rice-free. Hold mat in position, and press all around to make roll firm. Lift mat and roll so the strip of nori joins the other edge of the nori to seal the roll.

9 Remove the mat and plastic wrap, and roll the log once more using your fingers to shape the roll into an oval, square, etc.

10 Cut the roll into eight pieces using a sharp knife, dipped in water. Serve with wasabi, soy sauce and pickled ginger.

For the Love of Food
1002 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville
 About once a month
Length: Two-and-a-half to three hours
Cost: $80. Students make six rolls and leave with a goody bag of sushi-making essentials: sushi rice, rice wine vinegar, wasabi, a rolling mat, seaweed and chopsticks.

Yield: 8 rolls
Provided By General Manager Scott Bernas
Prepared by Chef Don Ha Lee

Ra Sushi

For the rolls:
1 sheet nori (seaweed)
4 oz. seasoned sushi rice
1/4 cup crab mix (see recipe)
1/2 cup thinly sliced cucumber
2 pieces of shrimp, butterflied
Pinch of tempura bits
2 tbsp. eel sauce

1 Place nori on rolling mat (makisu).


2 Add seasoned sushi rice and spread evenly from edge to edge. Turn it over so nori is facing up.


3 Place crab mix, cucumber and shrimp on top of the nori. Roll tightly with makisu.

Slice the roll into 8 pieces and sprinkle with tempura bits.

5 Drizzle eel sauce over the sliced roll and serve.

For the crab mix:
2 pieces of kanikama (imitation crab)
1 tbsp. shredded crab
1 tbsp. mayonnaise
1 tbsp. fish roe (eggs)
Mix all ingredients together in a bowl and set aside.

RA Sushi
1390 Lancaster St., Baltimore
Frequency: About once a month
Length: Two hours
Cost: $32 per person or $60 per couple. Cost includes miso soup, edamame, non-alcoholic beverages, two types of rolls and rolling mat students can take home.


Tip #1: Look beyond the grocery store.
These days, making sushi at home is easier than ever; many critical sushi ingredients can be found in your local grocery store. But if there’s something you can’t find, make the trek to an Asian grocery store, such as H Mart in Catonsville, Wheaton or Gaithersburg, or Lotte Plaza in Catonsville, Ellicott City, Silver Spring or Germantown.

Tip #2: Not just any fish will do.
If you plan to add raw fish, select a good fish market, and put the fish immediately on ice so it stays fresh. Stick with fillets, rather than thick pieces of fish, because they’re easier to slice. Also choose fish that doesn’t smell.

Finding a reputable fish vendor is key.

"It's best to find a place that's always very busy," says Waterfront Kitchen Chef Jerry Pellegrino. "If it's always busy, they always have fresh fish."

And remember that you don't have to put raw fish or anything else you don't like in your sushi roll. You can add crab or shrimp, or make it vegetarian with carrots, cucumbers and avocado.

Tip #3: Focus on the rice.
The most crucial element to making good sushi is the rice, experts say.

"Sushi chefs in Japan spend five years in training before they can touch rice," says RA Sushi General Manager Scott Bernas.

High-end grocery stores carry sushi rice, but you'll get a broader selection at Asian markets. Buy the stuff that says "sushi rice" on the label.

Adding rice wine vinegar and salt to the rice draws the moisture out and makes it fluffy, Pellegrino says. And For the Love of Food chef Thomas Casey recommends keeping a small bowl of water nearby during the preparation process to keep your fingers moist—that'll keep the rice from sticking to them. And remember to dry your fingers before touching the nori.