What Is Sushi Vinegar?

Angie Bates

Also called sushi-zu, sushi vinegar is a type of vinegar used to make sushi rice. Created by combining one or more rice-based liquids with other seasonings, sushi vinegar is often made from scratch by professional and amateur sushi chefs alike. Also available pre-made in specialty stores or online, sushi-zu is an essential ingredient in any type of sushi.

Sushi vinegar is used to make sushi rice.
Sushi vinegar is used to make sushi rice.

The main ingredient of sushi vinegar is rice vinegar. Although mild cider vinegar can be used as a substitute, white vinegar is not recommended because it is too strong and will overpower the other sushi flavors. Rice vinegar has a more subtle flavor which allows the rice to be seasoned without dominating the taste of the sushi dish in which the rice is used.

Two futomaki rolls.
Two futomaki rolls.

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Salt, either simple table salt or sea salt, is always included in sushi vinegar. Sugar is often added to sweeten the liquid, but more authentic vinegars use a sweet rice wine, such as mirin, as the sweetening agent. If sugar is added, it should be used sparingly since the finished sushi-zu should not taste of sugar. Sake, another type of rice wine, is also frequently included. Kelp might be added for additional flavoring as well.

Nigiri sushi assortment.
Nigiri sushi assortment.

If kelp is included, it is simmered in the rice vinegar briefly before being removed. Then, the rest of the ingredients are added. When kelp is not used, all the ingredients are mixed at once and heated. The mixture is then simmered while being stirred frequently, but not allowed to boil.

Some sushi has crab in it.
Some sushi has crab in it.

As it simmers, the mixture is reduced, allowing any alcohol to evaporate. Therefore, the finished sushi vinegar should have no alcoholic content. Once reduced, the sushi-zu is removed from the heat and allowed to cool. Like all vinegars, sushi vinegar tends to have a better taste if allowed to sit for a few days before use. When the vinegar is ready to use, it is combined with cooked white rice to make sushi rice.

To create sushi rice, the sushi vinegar is sprinkled over the cooked rice while the rice is still hot. Then, it is mixed into the rice by a process of clumping the rice together and spreading it out again several times, which helps prevent the rice from being mashed when mixing. Usually this is done while the rice is being fanned to ensure quick evaporation, which prevents soggy rice. The sushi rice is then used to create sushi rolls or bowls.

Salt is typically used in sushi vinegar.
Salt is typically used in sushi vinegar.

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Discussion Comments


@SarahGen-- I agree with you. I just want to point out that sushi vinegar can be used in dishes aside from sushi. It's a very mild vinegar, so it works with almost anything.


@ZipLine-- I don't blame you, there really are many different varieties on the market. The true sushi vinegar however is made from pure rice vinegar and red yeast rice (rice koji). This vinegar has a light color to it. The color is between clear and yellow. I think only the Japanese brands make sushi vinegar.

If you're going to be using raw fish in your sushi, you need to get the real vinegar to cure it properly. The other varieties of rice vinegar, especially the red, black and seasoned varieties are mostly used in Chinese cooking. They're not suitable for sushi making.


Who would have thought that there could be so many different types of rice vinegar?! I must have seen twenty different types at the Asian grocery. I went to buy vinegar for sushi and came back home empty-handed because I couldn't figure out which one to get.

There were red, white and black versions of rice vinegar. Some of these were seasoned, some were unseasoned. It's so confusing.

I definitely don't want to use regular cider vinegar, because I know that the sushi will not taste the same. Can someone please tell me which exact product I should get?

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