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Rice Up Your Life

Rice is a delicious, versatile alternative to potatoes and pasta, and there are lots of varieties to choose from.

Tiffany Duncan
March 28, 2019

Rice is one of the only foods that occupies a place in almost every kitchen, no matter where you happen to be in the world. In that way it’s an almost transcendent food; it unites people of every background and culture — from the street food markets of Southeast Asia, to the deeply fragrant dishes of India, to the meticulously crafted sushi rolls in Japan, to around the corner in the freezer section of your local Trader Joe’s. As a planet, we eat so much rice that it provides more than a fifth of the calories consumed worldwide by humans.

But depending on the dish you are making or the taste/style you are going for, rice is not a one-size-fits-all ingredient. Some are better for frying, while others are better cooked over the stove top into dishes like risotto. Rice comes in many different colors and grain lengths, and some should be washed or soaked before use. With varying nutritional content, some are also better for you than others.

How to make sense of all this nuance? Here’s a very short, unofficial guide to selecting your rice:

White rice
We know it, we love it, but what is it exactly? Where does it come from? Rice itself is the seed of the grass species Oryza sativa, and white rice has been milled further to remove the husk, bran, and germ. This is done to prevent spoilage and to make it shelf stable for years, but unfortunately the processing also removes the nutrients. Much of the commercial white rice available is enriched with nutrients, because a diet simply based on unenriched white rice can lead to serious health complications. The majority of rice today comes from India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and Japan. It is also grown domestically in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Missouri, Mississippi, and California.

Cooking tips: Simply follow the instructions on the bag.

Brown rice
When you go to Chipotle, it’s always a struggle to answer the “brown or white” question because if we are being honest, most of us prefer the taste of white. It has a more neutral, less nutty flavor. Brown rice can have a nearly dirt-like flavor, and it can be an acquired taste. But brown rice is better for you because the grain still retains the bran and the germ, and therefore the dietary fiber and other vitamins and minerals that white rice has been stripped of.

Cooking tips: Typically, brown rice has a much longer cook time than white rice; if you sub in brown rice for white in a recipe, make sure to adjust the cook time accordingly.

This short-grain rice is a bit of an anomaly in the rice family, as it was originally cultivated in Italy (though it is now also grown in parts of the U.S.) and is the primary ingredient of the staple Italian dish, risotto. The grains are fat, pearly white, and slightly oval in shape. Its starch content makes it possible to absorb lots of liquid without becoming mushy.

Cooking tips: When making risotto, Arborio rice must be stirred constantly while adding in any cooking liquid. Also, if risotto is not eaten right away, its starch content will turn the texture stiff and gluey.

Wild rice
Wild rice, some people may be surprised to learn, actually comes from a semi-aquatic grass. It grows in the shallows of North American lakes and bodies of water — primarily in the Great Lakes area and California — but some in China as well. Health benefits of wild rice include being a good source of many vitamins and minerals, high in antioxidants, and may also help lower cholesterol. Wild rice is often accompanied by a higher price tag, as it is very difficult to harvest.

Cooking tips: Soaking wild rice overnight can shorten cooking time as well as break down some of the harder-to-digest properties, so more of its nutritional content can be absorbed.

Black rice
Black rice gets its color from its extremely high content of anthocyanin — the same pigment found in blueberries and raspberries — resulting in the rice turning a deep purple when cooked. It is similar in taste and fiber content to brown rice. Originating in China, it’s tricky to grow and revered as an extremely healthy food, giving it nicknames like “forbidden rice” or “emperor’s rice.”

Cooking tips: Rinsing or soaking the rice will lessen cook time and yield a more tender product.

Jasmine rice
Originally from Thailand (and still primarily grown there), jasmine rice has a soft, slightly sticky texture. This rice is prized for its subtle floral aroma, but as it sits on a grocery store shelf it rapidly loses this delicate flavor component. Many Southeast Asians and connoisseurs of jasmine rice will prefer the current year’s crop, as it will not yet have lost its unique flavor/aroma. Contrary to what the name may lead you to believe, this rice is not named for its floral quality but rather its pristine white color that resembles the Jasmine flower’s petals.

Cooking tips: Rinse to rid the rice of excess starch or talcum powder used in processing, but do not soak (this will only make it soggy). To cook perfect jasmine rice, it’s all about getting the perfect ratio of water to rice (about 2/3 cup water to 1 cup rice).

Basmati is a word that most people have heard in conjunction to rice, but might not know much else about it. Basmati rice largely hails from the Indian subcontinent, and it is long and slender. It is used extensively in many traditional Indian, Persian, and Middle Eastern dishes. The flavor is distinctively nutty, and the texture is softer than jasmine rice when cooked. It is available in both brown and white varieties.

Cooking tips: Soak for at least 30 minutes before cooking to shorten cook time.