Rice paper sheets, also known as spring roll wrappers or spring roll skins, are thin paper-like sheets used in Southeast Asian and East Asian cuisine to wrap savory fillings into spring rolls or to prepare dishes like fresh summer rolls. The name “rice paper” is a bit misleading, as these translucent sheets are not actually made from rice. So what are rice paper sheets really made of?
Rice Paper Sheets are Made from Starch and Water
Authentic rice paper sheets are made from a mixture of water and starch, usually tapioca starch or rice starch. The process starts with extracting starch from the source and then combining it with water to make a slurry. The ratios vary, but generally more water is used than starch. This starchy slurry is then poured onto a heated surface in thin layers and steamed. As the slurry steams, the starch gelatinizes and the water evaporates, leaving behind a thin, translucent sheet.
The specific starches used can vary depending on the region and manufacturer, but common sources are:
- Tapioca starch – From the starchy cassava root
- Rice starch
- Potato starch
- Mung bean starch
Tapioca starch (sometimes labeled tapioca flour) is a very commonly used ingredient since it produces clear, pliable sheets. Rice starch can also be used alone or in combination with other starches. The starch is extracted from grains like rice, mung beans, or potatoes, then refined to produce pure starch powder. Water acts as the glue that holds the starch molecules together in a cohesive sheet.
The Sheet Making Process
Making rice paper sheets is an intricate process that requires specialized equipment and skill. The basic process involves:
- Mixing starch with water to create a liquid slurry.
- Pouring the slurry onto a heated circular mold or heated surface.
- Steaming the slurry until a gelatinized sheet forms.
- Peeling the delicate sheet off the mold.
- Drying and finishing the sheets.
The ratio of starch to water impacts the consistency, clarity, and pliability of the sheets. Getting it just right is a delicate balance. Too much water makes a mushy sheet; not enough makes it prone to tearing. The slurry is steamed at high heat on the mold for just 1-2 minutes before it sets. Timing is critical. Under-steaming produces weak, gooey sheets; over-steaming gives a cracked, brittle product.
The freshly gelled sheets are carefully peeled off the molds while still hot and soft, then laid out to air dry and finish setting. Some sheets go through additional steps like trimming, dusting with tapioca starch, and package pressing to achieve perfectly smooth, square sheets.
Sheets Vary in Thickness and Size
Not all rice paper wrappers are created equal. From soft and stretchy skins just 0.25mm thick to hearty 1mm sheets, many varieties are available. Thinner versions are used for spring and summer rolls, while thicker sheets work well for deep frying. Common sizes range from 5 to 12 inches across. Thickness, texture, pliability, and size make certain wrappers better suited for different fillings and uses.
- 0.25mm – Very thin and delicate. Used for fresh summer rolls.
- 0.4mm – Standard for spring rolls. Stretchy and translucent.
- 0.6mm – Medium thickness with more structure. Suitable for frying.
- 1.0mm+ – Thick and sturdy sheets. Best for crispy fried rolls.
Ingredients: More than Just Starch and Water
While starch and water make up the base of rice paper sheets, some versions incorporate extra ingredients for texture and health benefits. Added ingredients can include:
- Salt – For subtle flavor enhancement.
- Oil – Small amounts of vegetable oil or sesame oil help make sheets more pliable.
- Wheat flour – Added to some brands. Not gluten-free.
- Tumeric powder – For color and antioxidant properties.
- Guar gum or xanthan gum – Thickeners that give smooth texture.
Check ingredients lists to ensure sheets are vegan and free of allergens. Pure rice paper contains only starch and water, but added ingredients can make certain brands off-limits for restrictive diets.
Table Comparing Different Rice Paper Sheet Brands
|Brand||Base Ingredients||Thickness||Added Ingredients||Uses|
|Three Ladies Brand||Tapioca starch, water||0.25mm||None||Spring and summer rolls|
|Viet Wah||Tapioca starch, rice starch, water||0.6mm||Salt, vegetable oil||Frying egg rolls|
|Annie Chun’s||Rice starch, water||0.4mm||Salt, guar gum||Spring and summer rolls|
|Thai Kitchen||Rice starch, tapioca starch, water||1.0mm||Wheat flour, salt||Frying wontons and egg rolls|
A Versatile Ingredient with Many Names
The name “rice paper” can create confusion since these wrappers contain no actual rice or paper. They go by many aliases including:
- Spring roll wrappers
- Spring roll skins
- Egg roll skins
- Lumpia wrappers
- Cellophane noodles
- Banh trang
The sheets may look like paper, but don’t be fooled – it’s all edible! The translucent white color comes from the starch, not any paper product. Other names like “spring roll wrapper” and “egg roll skin” refer to popular dishes they are used for.
Most rice paper sheets are gluten-free, but some brands contain added wheat flour. Pure rice paper made solely from starch and water avoids gluten and common allergens. Brands like Three Ladies, Rose, and Thai Kitchens gluten-free rice paper provide gluten-sensitive diners with allergy-friendly spring roll wrappers.
Be sure to thoroughly inspect ingredients before consuming. Some brands add wheat flour for an extra binding effect. Rice paper made with just rice and/or tapioca along with water makes the safest choice for gluten intolerance.
Fresh rice paper sheets have a decent shelf life, but proper storage helps them last. Keeping rice paper sealed in a plastic bag or airtight container extends freshness.
Key storage guidelines include:
- Store sheets at room temperature in a dry spot.
- Keep unused sheets sealed in original packaging or a resealable bag.
- Press out excess air before sealing to prevent moisture.
- Avoid refrigerating or freezing uncooked sheets.
- Use within several months for best quality.
- Avoid moisture, humidity, and high heat when storing.
Refrigeration makes rice paper prone to cracking and drying out. Simply keeping sheets sealed at room temp preserves freshness. Cooked rice paper rolls keep longer in the fridge but are best eaten fresh.
Making Homemade Rice Paper
While convenient to buy, rice paper sheets can also be handmade at home with some practice. Homemade rice paper involves many of the same steps as commercial production. The basic process includes:
- Mixing tapioca starch and water into a thin batter.
- Brushing batter onto a steamer tray or parchment paper.
- Steaming the batter for 1-2 minutes until it sets.
- Carefully peeling the thin sheet off the tray.
- Allowing sheets to dry and finish setting.
A nonstick steamer tray, fine mist spray bottle, and some trial and error helps create DIY rice paper. Precise ratios plus steamer basket size impact results. But homemade can save money and allows customizing sheets.
Rice Paper Nutrition
Rice paper offers some nutritional value with very few calories. A typical nutritional profile for a standard size sheet breaks down as:
- 20-30 calories
- 5-6g carbohydrates
- 1-2g protein
- 1g fiber
- Small amounts of B vitamins and iron
The starch provides a carb source that can fill you up. Rice paper wrappers are low in fat, cholesterol free, and low sodium. Their light flavor makes them ideal wraps for vegetables, lean protein, fresh herbs – a perfect base for healthy fillings.
Rice Paper Benefits
- Gluten-free – Typically gluten-free, even for sensitive diets
- Low-calorie – Around 25 calories per sheet
- Low-carb – Less than 10g carbs per standard sheet
- Pliable – Soft texture perfect for rolling and wrapping
- Translucent look – Colorless sheets allow fillings to shine
- Mild flavored – Subtle taste doesn’t overpower ingredients
- Versatile – Use in everything from spring rolls to crafts!
Rice paper sheets provide the perfect edible canvas for wrapping flavorful Asian foods. Despite the name, they contain no rice or paper. Authentic rice paper consists of starch from sources like tapioca mixed with water. The slurry is steamed on a mold then dried into thin, translucent wrappers.
From delicate 0.25mm skins to hearty 1mm wraps, many varieties suit different uses like summer rolls, egg rolls, and wontons. While most brands are gluten-free and contain just starch and water, some add ingredients like wheat flour, salt, and oil. Proper storage keeps unused sheets fresh for months.
Simple components give rice paper sheets their delicate texture and light flavor. Understanding what they do (and don’t!) contain helps select the right sheets for recipes. Their versatility makes rice paper at home in both Asian dishes and creative recipes alike.