Think rice is nothing more than a side dish? As the staple food for more than half of the world's population, rice has earned its reputation as an indispensable grain. For many societies, rice is truly a way of life.
Rice has been cultivated since at least 5,000 B.C. Impressed? We are. This descendent of a wild grass first cultivated in the foothills of the Himalayas can now be grown in practically any climate and condition, not just in the wet paddies of water-flooded farm fields, as is widely presumed.
The Long and Short of Rice
Hungry for paella? Wanna settle into a bowl of pilaf? Dive into some sushi? Well, then, you'd better know your stuff.
"Long grain" is just a generic classification for rice whose milled grains are at least three times as long as they are wide. Common varieties are usually simply labeled "long grain," but you might know them as basmati, Carolina, jasmine or Texmati.
With "medium grain" rice, the grains are less than three times as long as they are wide. Look for bomba, carnaroli, arborio, vialone, Valencia or Thai sticky rice, to name a few.
This is the last one that involves math, we promise. "Short grain" rice indicates grains that are less than twice as long as they are wide. To confuse things a bit, though, medium grain and short grain rice are often combined into this one category, which includes sushi and CalRose rice.
Rice: Learn to Talk the Talk
We think it's helpful to understand a few simple terms when you're shopping for rice to make a great meal. To answer consumer needs, and aid in making quicker meals, rice manufacturers have done a little of the work themselves. Sound good? Read on, rice lover.
"Polished" rice refers to white rice that's been polished to remove its bran and germ.
Look for "parboiled" rice if you prefer your rice fluffy. It cooks a bit slower than regular white rice because it's been processed so that the starch in each grain is gelatinized. But this also infuses each kernel with some of the bran's nutrients, so eat up!
"Converted rice" has in fact not changed religions. It's simply parboiled rice that's been further pre-cooked. Look for this option if you're in a hurry to get supper on the table.
In the spirit of being honest, we think you should know that "instant" or "quick" rice, which is processed to cook faster than regular rice, is often lacking in flavor and texture. We won't fault you if you're in a hurry, just promise us you'll make the regular stuff on occasion, too.
If you're looking for a healthful rice choice, look no further than "brown" rice. Just like whole wheat bread, it's much more nutritious than its white counterpart, in this case because it retains the bran.
Drumroll, please! "Wild" rice isn't actually rice at all. In fact, it's the nutty-tasting seed of a long-grain marsh grass. But it's great in pilafs, so we'll give it a well-earned honorable mention.
Though modern processing techniques are effective at removing impurities and producing clean, consistent rice, many people still prefer rinsing it before cooking. Proponents say another benefit of rinsing is removing any loose starch, making it less sticky for more consistent cooking.
Some rice (Basmati, for example), cook better after soaking in water to soften the grains for better texture or to prevent breaking of brittle varieties. Most sticky rice won't cook properly without soaking, so if your recipe requires it, listen up.
3 Methods for Cooking Rice
Most folks think there's just one way to cook rice, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
This is the most popular method for cooking rice, using a set amount of rice and a set amount of water for a set amount of time. By the time the water is absorbed, the rice should be done.
To avoid sticking to the bottom of the pot, this is usually the preferred method for cooking sticky rice. Soaked and drained rice is put in a special steaming basket or pan over a pot or wok of boiling water and cooked with steam alone.
In this method, the rice is cooked much like pasta. The rice is sprinkled into a large pot of boiling salted water then stirred often to prevent sticking or burning. After cooking, be sure to drain it immediately and thoroughly, then rinse quickly in cold water to halt the cooking. (Note: don't try this method with sticky rice.)
A Few General Cooking Tips
If the uncooked rice in the pot is more than two inches deep, choose a larger pot.
Use a tight-fitting lid so the steam will stay in the pot while the rice cooks.
When preparing large quantities of rice, consider cooking it in two or three smaller batches.
Oddly enough, microwaving rice takes no less time than cooking on the stovetop.
Storing Rice Safely
Due to its low moisture content, properly stored rice should keep without losing quality for as long as 1 to 3 years. Store in a sealed container in a dry, dark, and cool place. (Note: Due to the bran, the shelf life of brown rice is only 1 to 6 months. Alternately, store it in the refrigerator and it will last a bit longer.)
Allow to cool completely, then store, well sealed, in the refrigerator. Use within 2 or 3 days.
4 Facts About Rice
There are more than 7,000 varieties of rice.
Asian countries produce about 90% of the world's rice.
About one-third of the rice used in the U.S. is found in beer.
In Japan, the word for rice is the same as the word for "meal."
A Rice of Every Color
If you're looking for a little adventure outside of the white rice realm, look to these standouts:
Forbidden black rice: Legend says this purple-black rice was originally grown only for the emperors of China. It's prized for its fragrant aroma, nutty taste and nutritional value.
Bhutanese red rice: Grown at an elevation of 8,000 feet in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, this premium heirloom variety contains trace minerals that make for a beautiful russet color and complex, nutty flavor.
Black Japonica rice: This is actually a blend 25% black short-grain japonica and 75% medium-grain mahogany-red rice. It's chewy but tender and full of flavor, making it great for stuffing or rice salads.
Wehani™ rice: This one's quite unique, with a red bran layer and an aroma not unlike hot, buttered popcorn. It's also chewy, sweet and reminiscent of brown basmati rice.