Bread, milk, eggs – we all have food staples that feel necessary to always have on hand, especially right now. These items are the foundations of our meals, snacks of choice and ol’ reliables when we’ve run out of everything else. If I had to guess, there’s one staple in particular sitting in the back of your cabinet right now that could use a little more love: Rice. So, let’s talk about it.
Yes, rice has been a last resort dish at least a few times for all of us. But if you want something that’s economical, incredibly versatile and satisfying, then look no further! Rice doesn’t have to be the sad meal of the eleventh-hour. This staple can shine up to be as interesting and flavorful as you’d like it to be. To get there, you’ll need to gain understanding of the rice basics – and for that, you’ve come to the right place. This Rice 101 article is for anyone interested in how to best utilize, accessorize and prioritize their rice.
Rice Rice Baby
Rice comes from every part of our world. There are Italian varieties, African varieties, rice that comes from the Himalayas, and, of course, rice from America, too. Wild rice, in specific, holds a special place in every Midwesterner’s heart. Of the overwhelming amount of varieties (more than 40,000 if we’re talkin’ numbers), rice can typically be organized in three categories: long-grain, medium-grain, and short-grain. And, turns out, the verdict is in: size does matter. Rice grain size correlates with varying ratios of amylose to amylopectin (the two components of starch), which determines how sticky -or not- your rice will be. Maybe more than you wanted to know, but (again) rice size does matter.
Long-grain rice has higher amounts of amylose, which we can interpret as lower starch content than other rices. This results in individual, distinct grains after cooking. Think fluffy rice that doesn’t clump up. Long-grain rice is the most forgiving to cook which makes it great for beginners and a staple from there on out. This is the rice that you see on most plates. Red beans and rice, fried rice, and bipbimbap are all dishes that will include a base of long-grain rice. Specific examples are basmati and jasmine.
*Disclaimer: “instant” or “quick” rice is rice that has been cooked then dehydrated and packaged for purchase. Long grain rice is usually used for instant brands and dehydrating it to package will result in loss of firmness when rehydrated. Hello, mushy rice!
Medium-grain Some will blur the lines between medium and short-grain rice because of its similar stickiness when cooked. The end result is a desirably chewy and, occasionally, almost creamy texture. Determining whether you should select a medium or short-grain often comes down to what dish you want to prepare. Medium-grain specific dishes are risotto or paella. A varietal example is bomba rice (sourced mostly from Spain) which is ideal for paella.
Short-grain Plump and not much longer than it is wide, short-grain rice contains the highest amounts of amylopectin and the lowest amounts of amylose. Meaning, these grains have a high starch content that makes them undoubtedly sticky. When cooked, short-grain rice will become clumpy and dense. This is ideal when using chopsticks for the fact that the rice is not separated grain-by-grain making it easier to pick up. Short-grain can also be quite moldable making it great for nigiri or sushi rolls. However, this rice is versatile enough to be used in dishes spanning from breakfast to dessert. When shopping for short-grain, it may be helpful to look for packages that are labeled “sushi rice.”
Glutinous rice (Sweet rice) This rice is the true “sticky rice”. Glutinous rice (also called sweet rice) is a particular strain of short-grain rice. We would consider other varieties of short-grain to be “non-glutinous” though they are still quite sticky. Sweet rice sets itself apart for having no measurable amount of amylose and, in particular, for being the stickiest variety of rice we can find. Oh – and contrary to the name, this rice, like all rice, is gluten free. It’s called glutinous to refer to its glue-like nature after being cooked. It has a naturally sweet flavor that lends itself well to a wide variety of dishes. Desserts, rice snacks, and dumplings are just the start of possibilities for what you can do with this rice.
Rice is grown in three colors: brown, red, or black/purple. However, on the inside, all rice is white. What we are seeing when looking at colorful rice is the bran or the “coat” of the rice. White rice is a result of harvested rice being milled and polished to get rid of the bran and husk. Milling rice increases the shelf life and makes it easier to digest, which are the primary reasons it is so commonly done. Rice that hasn’t been milled and still has its bran and husk is considered to be a whole grain and contain more nutritional value. Why? The bran of rice contains antioxidant, mineral, and nutrient levels that are either partially or completely lost once rice is milled.
If you are interested in what specific nutrients bran holds, it can be broken down by color:
Brown rice contains minerals like manganese, copper, phosphorus, as well as vitamins B1, B3, and B6. It’s also rich in essential fatty acids and has a high glycemic index that helps us maintain blood sugar and insulin levels.
Red rice gets its color from an antioxidant called anthocyanin. In fact, red rice is packed with antioxidants – about 10 times the amount found in brown rice. You’ll also find it’s a great source of minerals like magnesium, manganese, and phosphorus.
Black rice contains even more antioxidants than red rice (much more). It’s one of the best sources of antioxidant-rich foods you can find in the world. Not only that, but it also contains iron, fiber, vitamins E, B1 and B2. Not too shabby!
Cooking w/ Care
I’ve heard over and over again of people that keep rice around but don’t use it often in their home cooking because it’s tricky to cook. That’s true, rice can be cooked poorly and it can be cooked well. But, don’t let that stop you from getting it right. We’ll help you get there!
First and foremost, you want to rinse your rice. All rice. Rinsing your rice removes excess starch on the outer layer of the grains. This is important for all grain sizes. Rinsing short-grains will avoid an unwanted gummy texture. For long-grain rice, rinsing will ensure clump-free and individual grains. To do so, run your rice under cold water in a mesh sieve and agitate with your fingers to help loosen the starch from the grains. Do this until the water runs clear (not cloudy). If you don’t have a mesh sieve, you can work the rice in a large bowl of cold water. Put the rice in the bowl, fill with water until the rice is just covered, agitate, pour off the water carefully and repeat until the water sitting in the bowl is clear.
If you have the means for a rice cooker, we highly recommend you buy one. They are so simple and have automatic timing and cooking features that will give you perfect rice every time (as long as your ratios are right). If you don’t have a rice cooker yet, check out one we recommend in our hidden gems. In the mean time, we have a method for cooking a perfect pot of rice.
The Fools’ Gold foolproof method for cooking rice:
We recommend a 1 to 1 ¼ ratio of rice to water. Place one cup of rinsed rice and 1 ¼ cup of water into a pot. Bring the water to a boil. When the water is boiling, turn the heat as low as it can go and cover the pot with a tight fitting lid. Let the rice simmer undisturbed (important: don’t lift that lid) for 18 minutes. This might seem like a specific amount of time, but 18 is the magic number – we promise! Remove the pot from the heat and let it sit still covered for another 15 minutes. Uncover pot and fluff the rice with chopsticks or a fork and transfer to a serving dish. Viola! Perfect rice. This fool-proof method can be used for all grain types.
Before we let you go,
We’ve still got a couple things to get straight.
First off, the term “sticky rice”. By now, we understand (on a molecular level) that differing amounts of the two starch components can lead to stickier rice. However, the term itself has been one that gets kicked around quite loosely. Sticky rice is used as a general descriptor for a bowl of rice, to describe the main characteristic of short-grain rice and is also used to reference a sweet Thai dessert. Don’t let the adopted slang fool you! Any rice will have some amount of “stick” but remember this rule of thumb: the smaller, the stickier.
Another common misconception is that rice should only be served as an accompaniment or a side. While it’s true a small side of rice can balance the spice of a hot curry or even be eaten after a meal as a sweet finish, rice deserves to be the main event once in a while. Its versatility lends itself to being your best friend when you want to experiment in the kitchen. An amazing bipbimbap can be made from the odds and ends in your fridge – add pickled items, herbs, protein, even fruit to build a one of a kind dish! Or consider adding a bit of rice to dishes you already love: soups, frittatas, even cakes can be made with this beloved grain. Fried rice makes the perfect lunch, and we’ve got a recipe for that.
It all seems so easy doesn’t it? Grab the rice off your shelf and start rinsing. You’re going to love what you come up with.