Prepare any sauces you will be making to use on your rolls ahead of time, so they will be ready. (I make the spicy mayo and then serve the sushi with wasabi, pickled ginger and soy or tamari sauce. Coconut aminos is a good soy-free alternative.)
Cut any vegetables you will be using in long thin strips about 1/4″ or julienne them. (I like using seeded and peeled cucumbers, carrots, avocados and green onions. Shredded beets, red pepper, radishes, sprouts and roasted sweet potato are good options, too).
Prepare the protein: If using sushi fish, cut into in similar long strips (more details in “How to cut fish for sushi rolls,” above). If using cooked shrimp or crab sticks, you’ll need two per roll. Smoked salmon and canned (well drained) tuna are easy, ready-to-use, cooked alternatives. Roe (fish eggs) offers a fancy extra for those who enjoy. (I recently purchased a small container for $2.00. It was $24.00 per pound, but it’s very light, and a little bit makes a lovely garnish or filling.)
Ready your mat: For easy cleanup, cover your mat with plastic wrap, and make sure the mat is positioned so that the bamboo slats are lying horizontal to you. (If you don’t have a sushi mat, a flexible placemat or kitchen towel topped with a sheet of plastic wrap can serve as a substitute.)
Position the nori: Place the nori on the mat with the shiny/smooth side facing down. Use the full sheet for larger rolls, or cut the sheet in half horizontally for two standard-size rolls.
Spread the rice: Keep a bowl of clean water next to your work area to wet your fingers. This prevents the rice from sticking to them. Scoop about 1 cup (6 ounces) of rice for a full sheet of nori and ½ cup (3 ounces) for a half sheet, and place it in the center of the sheet. Pat the rice down gently until it’s evenly distributed over the surface of the nori.
For rice on the outside (an “inside out” roll): I think these are easier to make because there is less risk of overfilling, which makes the roll harder to close. Spread the stated amount of rice evenly over the nori and right up to all the edges. When finished, flip the nori so that it is on the mat with the rice side facing down. (Don’t worry, the rice sticks!)
For nori on the outside: Use slightly less rice and leave about 1 inch (2.5 cm) of empty space at the top of the nori sheet. This is necessary for this type of roll to seal once it’s been rolled. (Helpful hint: you must be especially careful not to overfill this type of roll, especially when using a half sheet of nori, or the roll will not close.)
Place the filling ingredients: Place your chosen ingredients in a line that extends the width of the nori sheet. For a half sheet of nori, start closer to the near edge. If using a full sheet of nori, you can place the filling about a third of the way from the edge that’s closer to you. Each ingredient should be in its own line, and the lines should be sandwiched close together. Use about ⅓ of a cup, give or take, of the prepared veggies, fish and other ingredients of choice. After one or two rolls, you’ll get a good feel for the right amount.
Rolling the sushi: You want to roll from the bottom (edge closer to you) using your mat as a guide. Start by sliding your thumbs under the edge of the mat and lift it up and over to fold the nori over on itself. Then continue to pull the mat forward, rolling and applying even pressure to help mold the roll until it closes. At this point, I pull back the mat and look at the roll and then gently squeeze again with the mat if the roll looks like it needs some evening out. (Also, I end up rinsing my fingers often when I make sushi, as they tend to get messy!)
Slicing the rolls: A sharp knife is critical to make clean cuts and not squish the rolls. I prefer a sharp chef’s knife over a serrated blade. Wetting the knife with cool water, as you did with your fingers, helps, too. (A dry blade tends to stick to and mangle the sushi.) You can dip the blade of your knife into a container of water, or run it under the tap from tip to handle. I do this after every few slices and rinse off any sticky rice residue at the same time. I find it easiest to slice the rolls in half first, and then slice each half in half again until you have a total of eight pieces. (It’s easier to create uniform pieces this way as opposed to slicing down the line from left to right.) If you prefer larger pieces, you can slice the rolls into six pieces.