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Posted on Feb 15, 2007 | 88 comments

Speed bento technique: making & freezing yaki onigiri, onigiri

Speed bento technique: making & freezing yaki onigiri, onigiri

This is another speed bento made with previously frozen yaki onigiri (grilled rice balls) that I defrosted/warmed in the microwave for good texture). The yaki onigiri worked out surprisingly well — I don’t usually have fresh rice hanging around the house, so this’ll be another time saver on mornings when I suddenly feel like rice. The homemade ma po tofu, store-bought Korean octopus panchan, steamed kabocha and juice jello cup were all leftovers, so it only took about 5 minutes to assemble this bento in the morning.

Speedy yaki onigiri lunch お弁当

Yaki onigiri freeze extremely well, retaining their shape and flavor when packed in bento lunches and eaten at room temperature (important: reheat in the microwave before packing). Yaki onigiri are classic izakaya (pub) or bento food — very nostalgic for us. I’m lucky my husband didn’t eat all of them when I was making them!

First I made rice balls with triangular onigiri molds, then lightly firmed them up with my salted, wet hands for a flavor boost. Using molds is optional, of course — you could form them freehand if you like. In Japan, I usually saw yaki onigiri without stuffing or nori wrapping, but make them however you like best. You can grill them on an indoor fish grill (shown here), a grilling rack placed directly on a gas burner, an outside gas or charcoal grill, inside grill pan, etc. (EDIT: you can also make them over low heat in a nonstick frying pan lightly oiled with vegetable oil.) First heat the grill to medium heat, place the onigiri on the grill, and don’t move them at all for several minutes. Gently turn it over once the bottom is lightly browned as shown here. Grill the bottom half until browned, then turn down the heat to low.

Making yaki onigiri #1 (grilled rice balls)

With the heat now reduced to low, lightly brush the browned top with soy sauce and turn it over so that it heats through. Brush the other browned side with soy sauce, and turn it over again so that both sides have been grilled twice: once plain, and once with soy sauce. If you like, you can also brush the sides with soy sauce and grill those as well. The onigiri should now have a crisp outside crust.

Making yaki onigiri #2 (grilled rice balls)

It’s now ready to eat, pack in your lunch, or freeze. To freeze, first wrap each individual onigiri in plastic wrap, freeze, then put them all in a freezer bag for longer-term storage (sucking the air out of the bag with a straw — think of do-it-yourself FoodSaver vacuum-packing). To use a frozen yaki onigiri, it’s important to reheat it first in the microwave before packing (on Cook until it’s warm), otherwise the texture of the soft rice inside will be nasty. The crunchy exterior softens in the freezing/reheating, but otherwise tastes the same as when it’s fresh.

Frozen yaki onigiri for bento lunches

My son had a similar bento today, but with pre-frozen onigiri rolled in sakura denbu (sweet, colored fish flakes) and red hana ebi (savory, colored fish powder).

Speedy onigiri lunch for toddler お弁当

Surprisingly, you can actually prepare onigiri in advance and stash them in the freezer. No, seriously, you can — it’s in Japanese-language bento books and I saw people do it when I lived in Japan. The trick is to use very fresh rice (that’s moist and hasn’t been sitting in the rice cooker for hours), wrap each onigiri individually before freezing, and after you take them out of the freezer be sure to heat them in the microwave until they’re warm and soft again. If you thaw them on the counter or in the refrigerator the texture will be hard and nasty, so the microwave step is very important. (EDIT: If you’re concerned about microwaving food wrapped with plastic wrap, unwrap the frozen rice, place it in a bowl, then cover the bowl with a lid, microwave-safe cover or plastic wrap that doesn’t touch the surface of the food. Then microwave until warm.)

In this photo I put all of the freshly wrapped, warm onigiri (shaped in molds) on a metal pie plate to speed freezing.

Freezing onigiri for bento lunches

After freezing, I put them in a labelled freezer bag and sucked all of the air out of the bag with a straw before sealing (like do-it-yourself FoodSaver vacuum packing). This helps ward off freezer burn.

Frozen onigiri for bento lunches




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  1. I don’t own a microwave, is it possible to heat these up in the oven or will that ruin it?

  2. @58 from Fey: If you own a rice cooker, you can use the reheat function to bring frozen rice back to life. You could also use a steamer to revive regular frozen rice, or put frozen yaki onigiri in a covered frying pan. I haven’t tested out the oven yet, but I’d think it’d be ideal for yaki onigiri.

  3. Hi Biggie:

    Love your site…especially this entry on onigiri! I know all microwaves are different, but if you had to give a ballpark amount of time it takes for you to warm up a couple of onigiri, what would it be?


  4. @60 from Christina: Hmm, maybe a minute on high? Depends on the size and number of the onigiri as well as the microwave power. If the onigiri aren’t warm when you take them out, then just put ‘em back in for a little longer until they are.

  5. @61 from Valene: I don’t add sushi vinegar to the rice for onigiri, just plain cooked rice. Thanks for reading!

  6. Found out how yakionigari(Any one besides me catch the onomatapeaic yucki!)probably got started. Making rice and toddler-of course and forget to turn down rice(STOVE TOP METHOD)while making teriyaki beef and zucchini/onion. Lets just say the “grill smell” was not the beef. Being on a tight budget I scooped out the “white” rice for dinner and just put the lid back on the pot. Clean up time and the (burned) grilled rice has loosened from the heavy bottom pot so well-YAKI ONIGIRI! Lets not go into the whole story, just tight budget, rice, steam power and frugal to the max. Yaki onigiri! YUM!

  7. I just stumbled over this blog, and already I’m an addict! The frozen onigri are fantastic, I live by myself and if I want to have a varied diet that isn’t expensive (ie, eating out all the time) I have have cook…and cooking just for your self is difficult. Ever try just cooking one serving of rice? Hah! Since the ‘lunch room’ at school is two massive walls of junk food I’ve started packing a snack, and bentos are wonderful for that.

  8. @66 from brook: The crispy browned rice at the bottom of the pot can be delicious — it’s called “okoge” in Japanese. Happy coincidence! (not yucky, but that is a funny coincidence) :-)

  9. @67 from platedlizard: Plus you get to make a stylish statement about bringing your own food — it doesn’t have to be a pile of plastic baggies, it can be much more appealing than the hot lunch at school.

  10. Hi!

    I just recently started experimenting with bento lunches. Living in Sweden the choices are anything but fantastic, but at least we can find edamame now!

    I’ve tried to look through the comments but I might have missed and answer to my question. When you’re done microwaving the ongiri, do you put it in the bento box warm, or do you wait for it to cool to room temperature? Just thinking it might ruin veggies or fruit with the heat.

  11. hi, if i don’t have a microwave, how will i still be able to defrost it well?

  12. @70 from Petra: There’s no rule that says that bento boxes have to be filled with Japanese food, though. Feel free to experiment with local foods that lend themselves to packed lunches; I’m sure you can find a fun fusion style that suits you if you’re unable to come up with Japanese stuff.

    On your other point, you do best to let the onigiri cool before closing it up in a box (from a food safety standpoint and also for keeping neighboring foods at their peak). Have a look at my post on hot vs. cold lunch packing considerations:

  13. @71 from Dianna: Refrigerated rice tends to get hard and unappetizing, so I’d say definitely give it a spin in the microwave (or steamer, or frying pan) to revive the texture before packing it up in a lunch to go.

    Good luck with your finicky eater, though! You might want to peek at my post on Bentos and the Picky Eater for the cool reader comments:

  14. @72 from cherz: You’ve got a couple of options sans microwave. If it’s yaki-onigiri, try gently pan-frying it with a cover to revive the texture. If it’s regular onigiri, I’d say to re-warm it in a steamer. Good luck!

  15. thanks, i shall give it a try!~ i hope the steam will not turn it too soggy~lol

  16. I can’t wait to try the onigiri and will be testing results on my own, but has anyone tried putting the frozen onigiri in their bento then microwaving at lunch time? (I dont have a microwave at home but I dont have a problem using the one at work.) Thanks for the tips and I love your site Biggie!

  17. Oh my! These are super good instructions! I am going to try this out since I am looking for something to put in my bento for tomorrow!

  18. Gosh, I was just going to post the question that Bentz asked – what happens if one brings frozen onigiri to work and microwaves it at lunchtime? Has anyone tried this, and does the texture remain ok? It just seems strange to me to microwave it once in the morning and later again at lunch (to make it warm).

    Biggie, I think this post and the comments have become THE internet source of info on all that you want to know about freezing onigiri :p.

  19. OK… Love the site. We moved to Abq. from six months in Nagoya and we are missing all of this fun stuff. So, I just had lunch at a Japese restaurant and got some rice to go (lazy, I know) to make the yaki onigiri… I pressed it into the ice cream sandwich molds. But when I was cooking, the shapes did not weather so well. The star kind of fell apart as did the heart.

    Que paso?

  20. Oooh. Solution. Crammed them right back into the molds while they were hot. Now they look perfect.

  21. Thank you for all the great information. I’m new to Bento, but I’m amazed at how much I enjoy making lunches (never thought I’d say that!). I just made yaki onigiri tonight and since we have such small Bento boxes, I used the box as a mold so I could fit as much rice in as possible. I didn’t have anything too inspiring for a filling so I used spring (green) onions chopped with a bit of parsley, rice vinegar and a few drops of soy sauce. They smell divine and hubby and I might end up eating the “extras” for dinner tonight.

    Thank you again for all your work and your awesome ideas.

  22. They have this thing in the Supermarkets now from Reynold’s that’s like a vacuum, and bags that go with it, and it’s a lot faster than sucking air through a straw! My mom got it for my family for christmas, but I don’t remember what it’s called…it’s a unitasker though, unless you like to annoy people, then it’s pretty useful for anything!

  23. what if I don’t own a microwave?? :(

  24. I know plum pickles are the traditional stuffing of onigiri but could you tell me exactly what a plum pickle is. Do you think shredded chicken is a good filling for onigiri?

  25. Amazing… I was looking online for grilled Japanese rice balls recipes, found your site, and realized that you go to the same coffee shop I do. You and I exchanged a few remarks about a little dog that comes in with a little old lady and barks nonstop. I just had to write :)

    I guess I’ll see you drinking coffee sometime!


  26. @92 from Elena: Oh how funny! I know EXACTLY who you are! Well, now you know what I’m tapping out on my computer when I’m there. :-) Maybe see you around sometime this month — after that Bug starts kindergarten and schedules change up.

  27. Love your site! I’m inspired. This is my last year of packing school lunches — my daughter is a Senior in High School. She’s loved the grilled rice cakes at the local yakitori restaurant since she was in Kindergarten and you inspired me to try making them.

    I don’t have ongiri molds, so I used a 1/3 cup measure and made round cakes. I tried grilling them on a rack over a gas burner, but they started to char before the outside toasted. Searching my cabinets, I found a perforated metal flame tamer that worked perfectly! Six toasted beautifully over one burner.

    My daughter was surprised and delighted. It gets harder to delight them as they grow more sophisticated, so thank you!

  28. Thank you for this recipe.
    I always have onigiri at my favourite Japanese restaurant and have wanted to have a crack at making it for ages.
    Success first time!!!

  29. Do you think grilling it with teriyaki sauce would work and taste good? It sound good in my mind. I wonder..

  30. @96 from Emiko: Teriyaki sauce sounds good, but I’d beware of it burning if your teriyaki sauce has a lot of sugar in it. As long as you kept a close eye on it after brushing with teriyaki sauce it should be fine. Let us know if you try it!

  31. Hi! I love your website! there are some really great ideas here! i was wondering if there was any way that you could bake the rice after it’s cooked and formed? I don’t own a nonstick pan (i know…that’s weird) :) and I tried it in the pan i have and they fell apart way too easily…just wondering if there was a way to do it in the oven? Thanks a million!

  32. I was just wondering how many minutes should you microwave the yaki onigiri when your defrosting it?

  33. My daughter loves yaki onigiri and I had been buying them at TJ’s but they’ve discontinued them! Now I’m on to making them myself. My questions are 1) do you use sushi rice and 2) do you add anything to the rice before forming the shapes (ie make traditional sushi rice using vinegar, sugar, etc to help it keep its shape). I tried making some with fresh sushi rice from the rice cooker and the onigiri fell apart while frying it. Thank you!

  34. Ok had allways wanted to make yaki onigiri and this was very helpful thx

  35. I am beyond excited to have found this! My 5-year-old picky eater used to LOVE the yaki onigiri from the Trader Joe’s frozen section, but a little over a year ago they discontinued the product. (aaarrgghh!) I finally decided to figure out how to make them myself, and now–thanks to you–I can! So so so grateful.

  36. I just tried this for lunch. Super yummers!!!!! Now I can add it in my bento when school starts! :3

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