About Rice

My intention is to develop this blog into a cookbook the purpose of which will be to help people expand their cooking repetoire and enjoy cooking. To that end, I am writing short essays on underappreciated ingredients. This is the first. Feedback is most welcome.

If you are like most Americans raised in the 1950s and 1960s, as was I, when you were a child rice rarely showed up on your dinner table and when it did it was long-grain white rice or, if your mother had an attack of post World War II modernity, that late‑1940s abomination Minute® Rice.  Today rice is a much larger part of the American diet, per capita consumption having doubled since the 1980s according to the US Department of Agriculture. And now dozens of varieties are readily available in supermarkets and specialty stores. Becoming familiar with some of them as well as the different ways of cooking rice will reward you with a new palette of flavors and textures for your meals.

Types of Rice

From a market perspective, four major types of rice are grown around the world[1]:

  • Indica, grown mostly in tropical and subtropical regions, the most common
  • Japonica rice, typically grown in regions with cooler climates, used in sushi and risottos
  • Aromatic rice, jasmine from Thailand and basmati from the Punjab, is the most flavorful
  • Glutinous rice, grown mostly in Southeast Asia and often used in desserts

However, from a culinary point of view it is more common to discriminate rice by kernel length: long, medium, and short.  The aforementioned long grain white rice, sometimes called Carolina rice after the area where it was first cultivated in the American colonies in the 17th century (not to be confused with rice from the Carolina Rice Company of Houston, Texas), is the quintessential American table rice. Believed to be derived from rice grown on the Ganges plain around Patna, the capital of the Indian state of Bihar, it has a mild flavor and grains that cook up firm and separate. The aromatic jasmine and basmati rice also have long grains and produce a product similar to Carolina rice.  Most of the medium grain rice produced in the US is of the Calrose variety of japonica rice developed in California in the 1970s. It is popular as sushi rice, paella, and in Mexican cuisine where its stickier texture is preferred. The most common short grain rice is Arborio, an Italian variety of japonica rice used in risotto. Glutinous rice, which contains no gluten, is also a short grain rice that cooks up gummy, hence it common name, “sticky rice.” It is rice consumed daily in Southeast Asia. It is also used as the basis of sweets in China and Japan where it is known as sweet rice.

It is also common to differentiate between milled, or white, rice and unmilled, or brown, rice. The latter, because they retain bran have a slightly higher fat content and a bit more fiber than white rice, however the nutritional advantages of brown rice, especially compared to enriched white rice, are often exaggerated. Nonetheless, brown rice is a worthy addition to your pantry because of its distinctive nutty flavor and chewy texture. Most of the rice varieties sold milled are also available unmilled. Brown basmati rice is especially flavorful. Unmilled japonica and glutinous rice come in a variety of colors from purple to black and can add an element of eye appeal to a dish. Be sure to buy such rice from a reliable source since instances of artificially dyed rice are not unknown. Especially nice is the partially-milled red rice from Kingdom of Bhutan in the eastern Himalayas that exhibits many of the best qualities of white and brown rice.

There is a third style of rice that is especially popular in the American South and among Latinos: converted or parboiled rice (not to be confused with Minute® Rice). It is prepared from brown rice that has been soaked, steamed under pressure to force water-soluble nutrients into the starchy endosperm, and then dried and milled. The result is slightly golden white rice produces firm separate grains when cooked.

Minute® Rice, if you must know, is rice that has been cooked, crushed into a paste, formed into rice-like pellets, and dried. It is just plain nasty.

Incidentally, North American wild rice is a species of aquatic grass completely unrelated to rice.

A Rice Pantry

When building up your rice pantry, remember that while white rice has a nearly indefinite shelf life, brown rice, because the bran covering it contains some fat, can turn rancid over time. With this in mind I usually buy white rice in 10 pound to 25 pound bags but brown rice in smaller quantities.  If you have room you could also refrigerate brown rice to extend its shelf life. Which rice you stock depends, of course, on your taste and the type of cooking you prefer. Here are my recommendations:

  • Long grain white rice: your basic rice, great with Chinese food
  • Medium grain white rice: best for Mexican food and paella
  • Basmati rice: essential for Indian and Pakistani cooking
  • Jasmine rice: similar to basmati but not as aromatic, good if you cook a lot of Thai dishes
  • Arborio rice: a must-have for risotto
  • Glutinous rice: I keep some around but rarely use it
  • Long grain brown rice: really good in vegetarian dishes
  • Brown basmati rice: also great for vegetarian meals and even with curries
  • Bhutanese red rice: there is nothing quite like it
  • “Forbidden rice”: a wonderful colorful Vietnamese rice that is as pretty as it is tasty
  • Wild rice: even though it is not really rice, wild rice goes really well with brown rice

Cooking rice

As you can imagine a food that is a daily staple for half the world’s population is cooked in a nearly endless number of ways. But before we take a look at some of them let us dispel the myth that rice is hard to cook. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Follow a couple simple rules and rice cooking is nearly fool proof. The first rule is that one volume of rice needs 1½ to two volumes of water or water-based liquid to cook. The second rule is that you can not rush it; white rice takes about 20 minutes to cook and brown rice takes from 30 to 40 minutes. That is it. Everything else is just a detail. But, of course, the devil is in the details, or in the case of rice, flavor and texture are in the details.

To rinse or not to rinse

The answer is simple: yes and no. In some countries, notably India, rice was often coated with talc as a preservative and to improve its appearance. Although today talc, weakly associated with stomach cancer, is rarely used much of the rice from India and elsewhere in Asia is coated, often with corn starch. Coated rice needs to be rinsed well until the water runs clear. Domestic long and medium grain rice is not coated and does not need to be rinsed. Rice from Europe generally does not need rinsing either. One way to tell is to put a quantity of rice in a bowl of cold water and swish it around with your fingers. If the water becomes cloudy the rice should be rinsed.

To soak or not to soak

Again it depends on the rice. Many cookbooks advise that brown rice should be soaked for a half hour so that it cooks more quickly; a Vietnamese shop keeper told me that Forbidden Rice is always soaked for three hours before cooking; and some authorities say that basmati rice also should be soaked for a half hour. I doubt that any harm will come from soaking the rice or from not soaking it. So my advice is, if you have time, soak brown rice and glutinous rice. Otherwise, don’t bother.

To fry or not to fry

This is primarily a cultural question. Indians, Italians, and Mexicans commonly fry the dry rice grains in butter, lard, or oil sometimes along with onions and/or whole spices before adding the cooking liquid. In the US and the Far East, this is rarely done, although in the US many cooks add butter to the rice. Frying does impart a nice texture to the finished dish but does add fat and takes a good five minutes. In my opinion, it is an essential step when making pilafs but optional otherwise.

To steam or to boil

Steaming is the most common method of cooking rice.  Any recipe that calls for adding a measured quantity of water to rice in a covered pan is steaming the rice. The easiest way to steam rice is in an electric rice steamer. I have a small one that I use occasionally although to my taste the product that results is somewhat indifferent. Risotto and paella are examples of boiled rice because the rice is cooked uncovered. Some Indian recipes for cooking basmati rice also call for cooking it is a large pot of water and draining when done.


[1] Source of this information is: http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/rice/background.htm

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