How to Make Summer Rolls, Savory to Sweet
Name your flavor adventure, from classic veggies with peanut sauce to fruit salad with a salted caramel dunk. These refreshing bundles are way easier than you might think.
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I’ve been dreaming about getting away lately. I mean, who hasn’t? But since I can’t hop on a plane right now and head somewhere exotic like Vietnam or Thailand, I’ll just eat like I’m there. That’s where summer rolls come in.
Also known as fresh spring rolls or rice paper rolls, classic Southeast Asian summer rolls encase crisp raw vegetables, oodles of herbs, chewy rice noodles, and a protein like tofu or shrimp inside a soft, translucent wrapper made of rice paper. With a dipping sauce alongside, they make a perfect appetizer or light meal, and an interactive cooking activity to boot. To me, they feel like a vacation on a plate.
As much as I enjoy making and eating summer rolls, I think I find looking at them most satisfying. The vegetables’ vibrant colors shine through the softened rice paper — if you place the filling carefully, they look like edible art. And while that part can get a little fiddly, in reality they’re no big deal to make. Since most of the ingredients go straight from the cutting board to the wrapper, you’re not doing much more than assembling.
Summer roll basics
Though fresh spring rolls are easy enough that kids can help put them together, I have some tips and tricks to ensure things go smoothly.
Gather any special ingredients. For sure you’ll need rice paper wrappers. These thin sheets made of rice, water, and salt are your building block and they come in different sizes, but 10-inch (25 cm) is versatile. Some recipes also call for thin rice noodles (rice vermicelli) or cellophane noodles (made with sweet potato starch). You may need a seasoning such as hoisin sauce or sambal oelek chili paste, or dipping sauce like peanut sauce, though many recipes tell you how to make your own dipping sauce.
Prep your fillings. When you’re prepping your ingredients, keep in mind what it’ll be like to eat the finished roll. Every piece should be delicate enough to bite through cleanly — you don’t want the whole thing to fall apart while you struggle with an oversized carrot baton. Cut your vegetables into thin slices or matchsticks, or shred or dice them. Slice any cooked meats very thin. Leave herb and lettuce leaves whole.
Get ready. Don’t begin assembly until you have everything prepped and at your fingertips. Arrange the filling items in the order you’ll be adding them, with the most visually appealing ingredients last (so you see them on the finished rolls). Fill a shallow bowl with warm water — a pie plate works beautifully here — and set it to the side in front of you. Put a cutting board next to it to use as your work surface. Keep a plate and a damp towel nearby, since you’ll need them to hold the finished rolls. If you’re assembling as a group activity, each person should have their own setup of water bowl and cutting board, with the other ingredients easily accessible to everyone.
Soften it up. Summer rolls get made one at a time, and you’ll need to work quickly. Take one sheet of rice paper and submerge it briefly in the warm water, just until it’s pliable. It shouldn’t take more than 30 seconds or so. Don’t wait until it’s fully softened, or it’ll become too hard to work with — you should still feel some of the paper’s texture. Slide it out of the bowl and onto your cutting board. Immediately start to add your various filling ingredients, just a little of each or you’ll have trouble rolling. (Rice paper tears easily.) Don’t add the decorative bits yet!
How to wrap summer rolls. Fold the sides of the wrapper inwards, then fold the bottom edge up and over, tucking it in carefully. Roll it upwards once. Now, working very fast, lay down the pretty stuff. Finish rolling as tightly as you can, and transfer to the plate. Cover with the damp towel. Repeat until you run out of ingredients.
How to make summer rolls ahead. Important: If you’re assembling these in advance, leave a little space between each roll on the plate, or you’ll have a hard time separating them later. Softened rice paper likes to stick to itself. Add some plastic wrap on top of the damp towel. How long do summer rolls last? Only for an hour or two at room temp, or a few hours in the refrigerator. After that, the rice paper starts to stiffen and the greens wilt.
Bonus tip for newbies: If you’ve never done anything like this before, don’t worry about making your first few rolls pretty. I recommend putting down a soft lettuce leaf (like Boston or Bibb) first, then placing everything inside it. The lettuce will hold everything in while you roll. If you like, you can even assemble all the lettuce-and-filling packets first, before you dunk your first rice paper.
Now that you’ve got the basics, you’re ready to rock and roll. Check out these recipes to get a sense of summer rolls’ versatility. And by the way, if you're wondering are summer rolls gluten-free, why yes, they are — but double-check any store-bought sauces.
Vegetable-forward summer rolls
Summer rolls are sometimes called “salad rolls,” so it’s no surprise that vegetable-packed versions abound. Generally speaking, these vegetable rolls are likely to be vegan.
If you want to start with a classic version, look no further. Rice noodles, crunchy raw vegetables, herbs, and tofu fill these pretty rolls. And you get two options for dipping sauce: Sweet chili, made with sambal oelek, or peanut, made with peanut butter, coconut milk, and red curry paste.
These gorgeous rolls are perfect for the way we’re living these days — most of the ingredients are pantry staples or long-lasting vegetables like sweet potato, squash, and cabbage. Delicata, a variety of squash that tastes like roasted corn, can be hard to find outside of the fall and winter season, but you can sub strips of zucchini.
Traditionally you’d use raw vegetables, but roasting carrots and scallions in a soy sauce-honey-sesame glaze adds a delicious, easy twist. Baby spinach and rice noodles fill out the rest.
Summer rolls with a bit of meat
Chicken, beef, pork…fresh spring rolls make a great use of leftovers. Or perhaps you feel like cooking specifically for the recipe. It’s totally up to you.
These couldn’t be simpler: The filling is shredded chicken, bits of carrot, rice noodles, cilantro leaves, and sweet, juicy mango. Doesn’t that sound refreshing?
Despite the name, you could consider these a hand-held version of a steak salad. Sirloin gets a brief interlude in a spicy marinade before cooking on the stovetop. Then you slice it thinly and wrap it up along with rice noodles, bok choy, carrots, fresh herbs, and crunchy peanuts.
Thin slices of pork tenderloin in a sticky-sweet glaze, crisp carrots, cucumber, scallion, and tender lettuce meet rice noodles inside a soft rice paper packet. Dip into a peanutty hoisin sauce and dig in.
Seafood summer rolls
Shrimp make an appearance in many traditional roll recipes, but they’re not the only sea creatures you can use. The recipes here also use salmon and crab, but don’t let that stop you from trying other seafood, even lobster, if it’s available.
Order summer rolls in a Vietnamese restaurant, and this is what you’re likely to get. Cooked shrimp, tons of herbs (fresh basil leaves, cilantro, and mint), rice noodles, and bright, fresh vegetables star here. Serve them with the recipe’s salty-sweet-tart-spicy dipping sauce that's made with fish sauce, sugar, fresh lime juice, and chilies.
Do you have a bit of leftover grilled or broiled salmon? You’re in luck. These nontraditional rolls pair it with pea shoots (or watercress), scallions, fresh herbs, and rice noodles. That pink salmon looks (and tastes) fantastic inside its translucent wrapper.
You’ve probably eaten crab and avocado together in other dishes. Rolling them inside soft rice paper with cucumber and carrots makes a perfect light lunch. Don’t forget the spicy red sauce, either.
Once you’ve mastered the technique, there’s nothing stopping you from filling rice paper with anything that appeals to you. Let these options inspire your imagination.
Sometimes an ordinary BLT just won’t do. When you’re feeling that way, try a BLT summer roll. It’s got everything you love about the sandwich version without the bread, and with a creamy avocado dipping sauce instead of mayo.
There’s nothing remotely authentic about this vegetarian roll, but once you taste it, you won’t care. It features chili-seasoned mushrooms, corn, black beans, bell pepper, avocado, cilantro — basically everything you’d put in a burrito. But eating one (or more) of these won’t give you that I can’t believe I ate the whole thing feeling.
These are exactly what they sound like: A rice paper wrapper filled with your favorite chicken salad. Add a handful of microgreens to the salad, and dip the rolls in herbed mayo. Tell me that’s not clever — and tasty.
Dessert summer rolls
You didn’t think rice paper could only hold savory ingredients, did you? These fruit-filled rolls are a perfectly light way to end a meal or give yourself a mid-afternoon pick-me-up.
Rice paper encases a rainbow of fresh fruit (plus luscious avocado slices, because avocado’s technically a fruit, too). And while the salted caramel dip may sound indulgent, it’s made with cashews and dates! So go ahead, eat as many of these as you like. And by all means, invite the family to help with the assembly.
Mango sticky rice is a traditional Thai dessert made with glutinous rice, coconut cream, and ripe mango. Here that combo gets rolled up inside rice paper along with fresh mint leaves, and served with a sweetened coconut cream dipping sauce.
This recipe blew me away for one simple, ingenious reason: The wrappers are dyed pink, not with food coloring but with a bit of beet juice mixed into the water you use to soften the rice paper. That one little step adds so much flair — and the filling is no slouch, either: berries and melon, citrus zest and zoodles. Add a strawberry-mint yogurt dip, and you’ve got the perfect thing for a tea party, shower, or y’know, Wednesday.
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