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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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( 55 comments — Leave a comment )
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Feb. 15th, 2007 10:09 am (UTC)
Will it be all right to freeze stuffed onigiri? I'm thinking tuna and kewpie, smoked salmon and cream cheese, and fake kani, mayo and mango. I'm stoked to get home and try it; one of the reasons why I can't have onigiri as often as I like is because it takes too much time in the mornings...
Feb. 15th, 2007 03:21 pm (UTC)
i would imagine as long as the fillings are microwave safe (won't melt and ooze out), it'd work.
(no subject) - ss_biggie - Feb. 15th, 2007 06:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kaoko_cow - Feb. 16th, 2007 01:55 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 15th, 2007 02:49 pm (UTC)
hello SUPER MOM!
Feb. 15th, 2007 06:19 pm (UTC)
:-) Hee hee!
Feb. 15th, 2007 06:16 pm (UTC)
I'm totally wanting to make onigiri now! :O
Feb. 15th, 2007 06:19 pm (UTC)
Go for it!
Feb. 15th, 2007 06:37 pm (UTC)
It's been ages since I've had yaki-onigiri - I really miss them and your post made me wanna make some myself! I'm getting better of cooking bento food for freezing, that's so neat when I'm short of time.

Is that real octopus by the way?
Feb. 15th, 2007 09:51 pm (UTC)
Yes, I've been meaning to get more organized with bento prep as well -- I'm totally inspired by my bento cookbooks.

That is real octopus in the bento, BTW -- this big Korean supermarket in South San Francisco has a big salad-bar setup of assorted panchan. They were out of my favorite this time, though (the little tiny sweet chili crabs).
(no subject) - rings_tiffany - Jun. 26th, 2010 07:46 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 24th, 2007 05:56 am (UTC)
I've been reading back over your speed bento and you've really inspired me to pick it back up again! I love your tips but I was wondering if I could ask you a couple of questions, please? :)

When you reheat your frozen onigiri I'm assuming you take the plastic wrap off so it doesn't melt, but do you cover it with anything or just leave it on a plate?

Also I've got some great jello molds I would love to use the knox juice jello recipe with but they're all of the variety that you take them out of the mold to serve. Do you think the jello would be firm enough to hold its shape in a fairly cool office? I figure I'll put them inside a muffin wrapper or something at first but I'm afraid they'll melt all over the rest of my lunch.

And finally how would you say frozen spaghetti holds up texture wise? I almost always have left over pasta when I cooke but I always throw it away because it just gets so soggy if you put it in the fridge over night.

Thank you!!
Feb. 24th, 2007 07:59 am (UTC)
Hey, thanks for the nice words!

1) I leave the plastic wrap on the frozen onigiri when microwaving to keep the moisture in the rice, then let it cool a little in the plastic wrap before unwrapping. The plastic wrap doesn't melt in the microwave.

2) The Knox juice jello recipe that I used (1 packet of Knox per total of 1 cup juice) produces a very firm gelatin that's much more similar to Jello Jigglers than regular jello. It'd definitely hold its shape at room temperature all day without melting. You'll want to dip the bottom of the mold in hot/warm water for 15 seconds before unmolding, but you probably know that already. Hope it works out for you!

3) The frozen spaghetti itself wasn't bad, but it did absorb some of the sauce in sitting/defrosting. Because my 2-year-old likes softer pasta, I've been making it that way more lately (when it's mostly for us I take it out more al dente). So I didn't notice a big texture difference. One nice thing to do with leftover refrigerated, sauced pasta is to turn it into a frittata (mix it in with beaten egg, Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, pepper, maybe a little parsley or other fresh green -- any cook). Maybe a change in texture might not bother you as much if the pasta is just an element in an overgrown omelette?
(no subject) - _jzabelle_ - Feb. 26th, 2007 12:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ss_biggie - Feb. 26th, 2007 06:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pinkfairywand - Apr. 13th, 2007 05:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - _jzabelle_ - Apr. 13th, 2007 11:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
Another way to make jelly (without gelatin) - (Anonymous) - Apr. 23rd, 2007 07:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 26th, 2007 12:19 pm (UTC)
is it ok to make yaki-onigiri in the oven? or maybe a frying pan? aww i don't have a bbq grill ._.
Feb. 26th, 2007 10:16 pm (UTC)
I just tried making yaki onigiri in a frying pan on the stove and it worked perfectly! It's important to keep the heat on low (in order to develop the crust on the onigiri) and lightly oil the nonstick pan (i.e. with vegetable oil spray like PAM), but the rest of the process is identical. I'll edit my post to note this!
(no subject) - _jzabelle_ - Feb. 26th, 2007 10:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
Toaster Oven - end_in_tears - Mar. 8th, 2007 01:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Toaster Oven - ss_biggie - Mar. 8th, 2007 10:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - burberry_outlet - Jun. 26th, 2010 03:16 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 26th, 2007 07:05 pm (UTC)
Oooh! I wish I would have known about microwaving frozen onigiri. When I first started making bento, I made a huge batch and froze them. I let a group thaw in the fridge, and as I always eat my onigiri cold...didn't microwave and YIKES! Disgusting. I threw out the whole batch. I'm going to have to give this all another shot. Also, I have to give the yaki onigiri a go. Looks yummy!
Feb. 26th, 2007 10:18 pm (UTC)
Ooh, waste of rice! I feel your pain... Definitely try the yaki onigiri -- I just tried making them in a nonstick frying pan on low heat and they came out great.
Mar. 16th, 2007 02:24 am (UTC)
This is a fantastic post -- thank you so much. It's never occured to me to freeze onigiri before, and I think that we'll be having them a lot more frequently now!

If you don't mind my asking, how do you wrap the molded ones effectively? I made a batch of triangular ones today, and those went well, but I'm having a hard time picturing how to wrap molded ones without deforming them. Do you line the molds themselves with cling flim?

Thank you so much!
Mar. 22nd, 2007 01:05 pm (UTC)
Ooooo, this was a fabulous post to find!

This makes it MUCH more likely that I'll start including onigri in my lunches!
Mar. 25th, 2007 05:17 pm (UTC)
Help! Ok, so I followed your directions for freezing onigiri. I just took them out of the freezer, nuked them for a bit, let them cool, unwrapped them, and they completely fell apart! What did I do wrong? They were perfect onigiri when they were fresh!
Mar. 25th, 2007 05:52 pm (UTC)
Interesting. If anything, my regular frozen onigiri tend to be a little more dense after I nuke them (but the more intricate molded kid shapes are a little delicate after nuking). Were they pretty firmly shaped before going into the freezer (or loose)? If you're having problems with crumbling, I'd say give them a quick re-shaping (or re-molding) or mold after they come out of the microwave, before you pack it in your bento. You could do the reshaping either while it's still wrapped in plastic wrap or after it's unwrapped (in wet/salted hands or a mold). I hope this helps -- freezing/nuking rice is a pretty common technique, and I'd hate for you not to be able to take advantage of the convenience factor if possible.
Mar. 25th, 2007 06:39 pm (UTC)
I packed those babies tight before I froze them! So, I wonder what I did wrong. I made them about 2 weeks ago, is that too long to keep them?

I ended up putting all the crumbles in a bowl, nuking them some more, and then reshaping them, they were ok after that. Thanks for your help. I'm going to have to try freezing again, I'm not giving up!
Mar. 26th, 2007 04:49 am (UTC)
Two weeks is just fine; I don't think that's it. Maybe just resign yourself to reshaping them after nuking -- I'm sorry, I don't know what else to advise. That, or try making yaki onigiri and freeezing those -- those definitely keep their shape (they were touted in the Shufu no Tomo freezing book as being perfect for freezing because they do retain their shape so well).
(no subject) - ss_biggie - Mar. 26th, 2007 04:52 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kawaiikiki - Mar. 26th, 2007 05:53 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 8th, 2007 03:35 pm (UTC)
I solved the mystery! I'm an idiot! When I made onigiri this past week I was confused why it was not sticking together, and it was fresh! The rice I *thought* was short grain is actually long. I knew the rice looked funny! I'm dumb, I learned my lesson. I won't let the chinese characters and Asian looking bowl on the picture of the rice bag confuse me again!
Apr. 8th, 2007 06:42 pm (UTC)
So THAT's it!!!
Great to hear that you solved the mystery, kawaikiki! It's been bugging me a little ("why didn't that work for her? sounded like she did everything perfectly!"). Hooray!!!
Re: So THAT's it!!! - kawaiikiki - Apr. 8th, 2007 06:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 21st, 2007 08:53 pm (UTC)
Alright, may be a silly question, but is there another way to heat them up after freezing (before packing)? I don't have a microwave :/

Thanks for the article! Will definitely try it if I can find a way to de-frost them :D
Apr. 28th, 2007 03:49 pm (UTC)
Sorry for the delay in answering, julie. The microwave really is the best way, but if you have frozen yaki onigiri you could try pan-steam/frying it on low heat with a tablespoon of water and a tight-fitting lid. For regular frozen onigiri I'd venture the only way would be to re-steam the rice, but you'd also need to reform the onigiri afterwards.
(no subject) - julieho - Apr. 28th, 2007 03:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 3rd, 2007 03:29 pm (UTC)
Sesame Oil
I've been "toasting" my genmai onigiri on a nonstick frypan. However, in addition to brushing each side with temari soysauce, I brush the sides with toasted sesame oil. I tried using that oil instead of Pam for the toasting, but it didn't really add enough flavor.

I've also toasted onigiri (brushed with soysauce and sesame oil) in my toaster oven. I put the onigiri on a piece of aluminum foil, then turn it over to toast the 2nd side when the 1st side is toasted.
May. 3rd, 2007 05:12 pm (UTC)
Re: Sesame Oil
Sounds delicious, and I love the toaster oven idea!
May. 17th, 2007 05:59 am (UTC)
Been reading your posts for a few weeks now (including a lot of back-entries) and as of today want to say THANK YOU for your "make ahead, then microwave in the AM" rice solution.

I'm a busy medical student and new-ish diabetic who has recently realized she's going to be packing lunches for the next 50 years and had better get out of the cheese sandwhich/hummus/PB sandwhich rut now before she gets heartily sick of all of those. My one prior attempt at rice for lunch was merely leftover refrigerated rice with rice vinegar, and then nori, tofu bites and veggies on the side, trying to delude myself it was a vegetarian sushi salad. The result was pitiful.

Inspired by your instructions, I made rice with dinner last night, formed some of it into my very first onigiri, and shoved them into the refrigerator along with the rest of my lunch fixings. (I've never had onigiri before, let alone made them, although I have made vegetarian sushi of dubious authenticity.) Today I microwaved them before sticking them back into the lunchbox and heading out. They were wonderful! I had them with an omelet today and I can envision them with tofu in the future. Thank you for adding lusious new options to my lunch rota!
May. 18th, 2007 11:19 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for the feedback, nightengalesknd! So happy you've got more lunch options -- I don't want to compromise on what I eat just because I'm not in the house. That's where the Japanese bento cookbooks come in, for their rocking packing tips!
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