How to Make Fresh Summer Rolls at Home
From the fillings to the dips, plus other tips and tricks
Ever heard of gỏi cuốn? It’s a popular Vietnamese dish that also goes by the names: nem cuốn, spring rolls, summer rolls, rice paper rolls, salad rolls, or even crystal rolls. Not only are they a common starter at many a Vietnamese restaurant, they’re also very popular here at the Kitchen Stories office—we once organized a summer roll lunch party, where hungry KS employees gathered around an abundant table heaving with various fresh cut fillings and tons of different dips for a “make your own spring roll” lunch.
Traditionally, Vietnamese summer rolls are filled with pork belly, shrimp, fresh vegetables and herbs, and rice vermicelli (bún), which are rolled in the softened sheets of rice paper and eaten directly—no cooking or frying necessary. However, as with many things wrapped and rolled, the fillings can be varied and experimented with. This versatility makes summer rolls a great choice for those with special dietary restrictions, like vegetarians, vegans, or anyone with gluten-free or dairy-free diets. It’s also a generally very low-calorie dish, and while it often hits the table as an appetizer, it can definitely make for a light dinner as well.
What you’ll need to make homemade summer rolls
Summer rolls are not difficult to prepare. The most time and attention will be spent simply prepping the ingredients—sometimes a hassle, but totally worth it. Our tip? Slice and dice your ingredients to approximately the same size and length. This way, you’ll be able to layer and roll everything up much more easily later. In any case, summer rolls are ideal for improving your knife skills in the kitchen—mainly, the julienne.
Most valuable player: Rice paper
Without rice paper (bánh tráng), springs rolls would not be summer rolls. There are recipes out there that try to swap lush lettuce leaves in for the rice paper, but the variant with rice paper keeps everything together much more nicely and just plain tastes better.
Rice paper is made from tapioca starch, water, rice, and salt. As soon as you dip them in water—even for just a few seconds!—the paper becomes transparent, softens, and gets a bit sticky, allowing it to roll up and stick to itself to hold all the fillings you desire. You can find the wafer-thin rice paper sheets—they can be round, angular, or even triangular—in many specialty Asian supermarkets but lots of large supermarkets also sell them. If you want to challenge yourself, try making the rice paper from scratch, I recommend you watch this YouTube video in which a cook in Hoi An shows you how to make the batter.
Fill your rolls up, just not too much
Below is a selection of filling ideas from which you can mix and match your favorites. Of course this list is not the end all, be all, so definitely feel free to share your favorite fillings in the comments below! If you want to, you can marinate the proteins beforehand or add lightly pickled vegetables like cucumber or softened carrot strips soaked with lime juice and sugar.
● Red cabbage
● Napa cabbage
● Bell peppers
● Bean sprouts
● Shredded iceberg lettuce
● Fresh herbs (think cilantro, mint, or Thai basil)
● Pork belly
● Rice vermicelli
● Roasted peanuts
● Sliced chili
Dips for summer rolls
Depending on what your rolls are filled with, the dip you serve alongside it might need a switch up. I myself love to combine several dips—and my colleague, our Operations Team Lead Lenja, even spoons some peanut dip directly into her rolls! How many and which dips you use is of course up to you, but in our recipes (scroll down for them!) you’ll see the following dips as options:
● Peanut dip: peanut butter, maple syrup, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and lime juice
● Soy-sesame dip: soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, chilli lime juice, rice vinegar, and agave syrup
● Hoisin dip: hoisin sauce, garlic, sugar, and soy sauce
Want more? Check out these great Vietnamese dipping sauces from Vicky Pham.
Prep is everything
We say this a lot, but prep is really very key for summer rolls because, as mentioned above, having everything prepped and at your fingertips will save a lot of effort when you get to rolling.
✓ Pre-cut all the vegetables
✓ Marinate and pan fry or poach your proteins
✓ Pre-cook the rice noodles. It’s best to let them sit in cold water after cooking, or sprinkle them with toasted sesame oil, to prevent them from sticking together.
✓ Prepare all the dips
✓ Prepare a deep dish with some water (should be at least as big as the rice paper, more on this below)
✓ Pick a big serving plate for the finished summer rolls
How to prepare rice paper for summer rolls
For pliable, but not too soft or hard to handle rice paper, some people swear by cold water for soaking, others prefer lukewarm or even hot water. Personally, I seem to get along best with water at room temperature. I’ve found that if the water is too hot, the rice paper becomes sticky super quickly and softens too fast. If the rice paper is too soft, it’s much more likely to tear apart when you roll it. So test it for yourself, but keep in mind that often just a few seconds are enough to soften up the rice paper for making summer rolls. Submerge one sheet completely, transfer to a cutting board, stuff, and roll, then move onto the next. Never lay your soaked rice paper sheets on top of each other, and never submerge more than one sheet—they will stick together and be impossible to get apart.
The best ways to roll homemade summer rolls
No matter what technique you prefer to use to roll summer rolls, it's always best to use a smooth surface moistened with a little water to prevent the rice paper from sticking. Like we mentioned above, always concentrate on just one roll at a time for maximum efficiency.
Transfer the softened rice paper sheet to your prepared work surface and layer the fillings onto the lower third of the sheet. You could make it incredibly easy for yourself by letting the filling take the whole width of the paper, then roll it from bottom to top, leaving the sides open. However, if you want to close the rolls for easier dipping and eating, place the filling in the middle of the sheet, with a little space between the left and right edges. Fold the bottom edge of the rice paper over the filling, then tuck the left and right sides towards the middle like a little burrito before rolling everything up tightly. Just like the first pancake, you might need to roll one or two for practice until you get a good feeling for how much filling is just right. A rule of thumb? Start with a little less filling first.
An extra tip: If you have a lot of hearty ingredients for the filling that keep their shape well (like carrots or bell peppers), rolling is much easier than with shape-shifting ingredients like rice noodles or shrimp. A tip I’ve come across in the past that might help: take a soft leaf of lettuce and roll the filling into the salad leaf first. Transfer this whole roll onto the prepared rice paper and you might be surprised just how easy it is now to roll it together into a perfect spring roll.
How to use up leftover ingredients
We all know it’s possible, even likely, to have eyes that are bigger than your stomach—even with a dish as light as summer rolls. I usually prepare all the summer rolls at once, then start eating them. But if you’re not sure how hungry you (or your friends) are, it’s worth preparing the summer rolls one by one for the best texture and freshest flavor.
If you end up having some summer rolls left over (or if you want to prepare and transport them for a picnic or work), you can store them in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a day. However, they definitely taste best fresh, because the longer you store them, the drier the rice paper gets. To prevent them from sticking to each other, it is best to place them at a distance from each other so that they don't touch each other, or wrap the individual rolls with moistened kitchen paper or cling film.
If your ingredients are still loose, do like I do and make a salad the next day from the remaining ingredients that didn't make it into your rolls; rice noodles, veggie or protein fillings, and dips fit together perfectly over a bed of lettuce—no rice paper needed.
Ready to get rolling? Get started with these recipes!
Published on July 28, 2020