How To Make a California Roll, the Perfect Roll for Sushi Newbies

published Aug 29, 2019
California Roll

A step-by-step recipe for California sushi rolls that are filled with crab, avocado, and cucumber.


Makes6 rolls (36 pieces)

Prep40 minutes

Cook15 minutes

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Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

Chances are probably pretty good that one of the first types of sushi you ever tried was the California roll. I like to think of it as the gateway sushi for children — and also for adults who aren’t quite ready to take the plunge with raw fish sushi right off the bat. With layers of rice and seaweed blanketing sweet crabmeat (or imitation crabsticks) and either avocado or cucumber for a pop of green color, its mild flavor makes it perfect for dunking in a little saucer of soy sauce with some wasabi stirred in.

If you think sushi is hard to make, think again: Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to make a California roll that anyone can make, even if you’ve never rolled sushi before.

The History of the California Roll

The origin of the California roll is highly debatable. Some say it was invented in Los Angeles, while others claim it was actually invented in Canada. What’s consistent is that this is an inside-out sushi roll, meaning the rice is on the outside and the seaweed and the filling are on the inside. Not only does an inside-out roll look impressive, but it’s actually easier to roll than its seaweed-on-the-outside counterpart since you don’t have to worry about stray bits of rice clinging to the dark seaweed on the outside. As for the filling, it’s always some kind of crabmeat and avocado or cucumber (or both!).

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

What’s in a California Roll?

Most of the ingredients for California rolls are easy to find, but here are a few things that you might need to go to a Japanese or Asian market for.

  • Imitation crabsticks: The easiest and most budget-friendly crab used in California rolls is actually not made of crab. Imitation crabsticks are white with a pink tint on the outside and are made out of fish. Look for them in the refrigerated aisle, usually near the tofu or miso. If you want to use real crab, use shredded crab meat, and you can use it as-is or stir in a bit of mayonnaise for creaminess if you like.
  • Sushi rice: Look for a short-grain white rice, usually labeled sushi rice. This kind of rice cooks up stickier than long-grain or basmati rice, so don’t be tempted to substitute. For an extra boost of flavor, cook the rice with a piece of kombu (dried kelp) if you’d like.
  • Nori: These are sheets of dried seaweed. Look for a dark-colored nori that’s tightly grained — and the thicker, the better.
  • Bamboo mat: An inexpensive bamboo sushi rolling mat makes for easier sushi rolling. Some recipes call for wrapping it in plastic wrap, but I find that the plastic wrap never stays in place and becomes a nuisance — just wipe the mat clean and air dry when you’re finished using it. Can’t find a mat? Fold a thick kitchen towel in half, then place a sheet of plastic wrap on top and use this to roll instead.

The rest of the ingredients are easy find: sesame seeds (get toasted if you can), ripe buttery avocado, cucumber, rice vinegar (don’t get seasoned rice vinegar), soy sauce, and wasabi and pickled ginger for serving.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

Making Sushi Rice

The only cooking that needs to be done for California rolls is cooking the rice. Rinse away the extra surface starch, and cook either on the stovetop or in your rice cooker. While it’s cooking, make the rice seasoning by heating up some rice vinegar with salt and sugar. This version is a fairly mild one, so feel free to play around with the vinegar and sugar proportions the second time around. To help cool the rice down, fan it with a sheet of paper as you fold in the seasoning.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

Rolling California Rolls

Now comes the fun part: rolling! Make sure all the ingredients are prepped and ready to go/ Cut cucumber and avocado into pencil-thin strips, and unwrap the crabsticks. Tear the seaweed sheets in half, too — a full sheet will make a sushi roll that’s too thick. Keep a bowl of water handy — damp hands keep the rice from sticking to them. Here’s how to roll/

  1. Top the nori with rice and sesame seeds. Place an even layer of rice over a nori sheet, about 2/3 cup. Press it gently in with damp fingers. Sprinkle with some sesame seeds.
  2. Flip and press. Next, flip the whole thing over. Remember, the rice goes on the outside! Then comes an extra step that I found extremely helpful to get the rice to stick to the nori and not to the mat: fold the mat in half and press down gently to compact the rice a bit.
  3. Fill with crab, avocado, and cucumber. Place the crabsticks and cucumber across the middle of the nori. Top with the avocado.
  4. Roll up tight. Use the mat to roll the sushi up until the top and bottom meet. Press gently to compact and shape the roll until it’s nice and round.
  5. Cut into 6 pieces. After all the sushi is rolled up, cut each one into 6 pieces. Use the sharpest knife you have, or use a serrated knife, which is great for cutting through the seaweed. Flip the pieces cut-side up to show off your beautiful rolling skills.
Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

Serving California Rolls

California rolls are best made and eaten within an hour or two, before the rice dries out and the seaweed get soggy. Keep them covered with plastic wrap until ready to serve. Set out soy sauce and wasabi so that people can make their own dipping sauces, and serve with some pickled ginger if you’d like. Once you get the hang of making California rolls, you can experiment with the filling: try cooked shrimp or other veggies for your next sushi night instead!

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn
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If you think sushi is hard to make, think again: here’s a step-by-step guide on how to make a California roll that anyone can make, even if you’ve never rolled sushi before.

California Roll

A step-by-step recipe for California sushi rolls that are filled with crab, avocado, and cucumber.

Prep time 40 minutes

Cook time 15 minutes

Makes 6 rolls (36 pieces)

Serves 6

Nutritional Info


For the rice:

  • 1 1/3 cups

    sushi rice

  • 1 1/2 cups


  • 2 tablespoons

    rice vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon

    granulated sugar

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    kosher salt

For the sushi:

  • 16

    imitation crabsticks (about 8 ounces)

  • 3 sheets

    nori seaweed (about 7 1/4 inches wide by 8 inches high)

  • 2

    Persian cucumbers or 1/2 English cucumber

  • 1

    medium avocado

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    toasted sesame seeds

For serving:

  • Pickled ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce or tamari


  • Bamboo sushi rolling mat or thick kitchen towel

  • Fine-mesh strainer

  • Plastic wrap

  • Rice cooker or saucepan

  • Whisk

  • Chef’s knife

  • Serrated knife

  • Cutting board

  • Measuring spoons

  • Mixing bowls


  1. Rinse the rice. Place the rice in a fine-mesh strainer and rinse under cold water for a minute to get rid of some of the milky starch. Drain well.

  2. Cook the rice. Place the rice and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover and cook on low heat for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let steam, covered, for 15 minutes. (Alternatively, cook the rice in a rice cooker.) Meanwhile, prepare the vinegar seasoning and fillings.

  3. Make the vinegar seasoning. Microwave the vinegar, sugar, and salt together in a small microwave-safe bowl in 15-second bursts, stirring between bursts, until warm to the touch and the sugar and salt are dissolved, 1 to 2 bursts. (You can also do this in a small saucepan on the stove.)

  4. Prepare the crabsticks and nori sheets. Unwrap the crabsticks if needed. Halve the nori sheets: for each sheet, position it with a long side closer to you. (If the nori is scored with lines, the lines should be running from top to bottom.) Fold it in half from left to right, it should then easily tear along the crease.

  5. Prepare the cucumber and avocado. Cut the cucumbers lengthwise into pencil-thin sticks (about 1/3-inch wide). Halve and pit the avocado. Peel the avocado, then cut lengthwise into 1/3-inch thick slices. For the wide center slices, lay them flat and cut into 1/3-inch wide sticks so that they are shaped like the cucumber sticks.

  6. Season and cool the rice. When the rice is ready, transfer it to a large, wide bowl. Drizzle with the vinegar mixture and fold it in with a rubber spatula until thoroughly combined and cooled to room temperature. You can speed up the process by fanning it while folding.

  7. Top the nori with rice. Have a small bowl of water for dampening hands handy. Place a bamboo sushi mat on a work surface with the slats running from side to side. Place a sheet of nori with a long side lined up with the bottom edge of the mat. With dampened hands, place 1/6 (scant 2/3 cup) of the rice on the nori and press into an even layer to the edges.

  8. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Sprinkle the rice with about 1/4 teaspoon sesame seeds.

  9. Flip the nori and rice over and press. Flip the rice-covered nori over. Fold the top half of the bamboo mat over the nori and press down to compact the rice slightly.

  10. Add the filling to the nori side. Open the mat up again. Lay 2 crabsticks across the middle of the nori. Place a row of cucumber sticks next to the crabsticks (trim them as needed to fit). Top the crabsticks with avocado slices, trimming as needed to fit.

  11. Roll the sushi. Lift up the bottom edge of the mat and roll until the top and bottom of the nori are touching and the mat is completely wrapped over the sushi roll.

  12. Mold the sushi. While holding the mat over the sushi roll in place, gently pull the top of the mat to pull it taut. Gently squeeze along the length of the roll so that it holds together.

  13. Shape the sushi if needed. Unroll the mat. Check the sushi roll. If it is not perfectly round, fold the mat over the roll and gently shape it into a round shape.

  14. Repeat rolling. Transfer the sushi to a plate seam-side down. If there is any rice stuck to the bamboo mat, remove it before making the next sushi roll. Roll the remaining pieces of nori, you may have some cucumber and avocado left.

  15. Cut each roll into 6 pieces. Cut the sushi rolls with a damp knife — a very sharp chef’s knife or serrated knife works best. For each roll, cut it in half crosswise. Place the two pieces next to each other and cut twice more so that you end up with 6 pieces. Turn the pieces so that they are cut side up. For the best presentation, place the two end pieces in the middle.

  16. Serve the sushi. The sushi is best served within an hour or two, so keep covered in plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out if not serving immediately. Serve with wasabi, pickled ginger, and soy sauce or tamari for dipping.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Sushi is best eaten fresh, but can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to 1 day.

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