Rice is a great starch, barely sweet and a fine match to roasts, stews, stir-fries and braises. But despite what we believed growing up, rice is not just a bunch of white grains on a plate. The choices are manifold, a boon to everyone who wants to eat healthfully. Here’s what you need to know about choosing, cooking and enjoying this great grain.
The meaning of brown and white
All rice must have its inedible hull removed during processing. What's left is the bran lying over a creamy endosperm. If the bran is removed with the hull, the rice is white rice. If the bran remains, the rice is brown. Any varietal can thus be white or brown.
Brown rice benefits
White or brown, all forms of rice are similar in terms of calories, carbs, fat and protein content. The real difference lies in the vitamins, minerals and fiber. By removing the bran to produce a white rice, the grains lose B1, B3 and iron. That said, "enriched" rice has one or more of these nutrients added back to the grains in processing. However, white rice grains lose magnesium and certain beneficial fatty acids which are never added back. Brown rice is also a much better source of fiber: 3.5 grams per 1 cup, as opposed to 0.6 grams for white.
The long and short of it
Rice grains are often categorized as short, medium or long. For example, Arborio is a medium-grain rice; basmati, a long-grain rice. Sushi rice is almost always short-grained. But contrary to what you might think, the categorization refers to the grain's starch content rather than its actual length. So, a short-grain rice is sticky when cooked, a long-grain rice appears drier and more compact, and Arborio, a medium-grain rice, achieves a chewy-sticky balance (i.e. risotto).
Which rice to use for what
In general, long-grain rice like basmati and jasmine are best for pilafs, fried rice and other dishes where the grains should be separate. They are also the best choice for simply adding a starch to a plate of food. Medium-grain rice is better for paella, casseroles and rice puddings. The grains are slightly sticky, holding the sauce and thickening the dish. By the way, risotto can only be made with a medium-grain rice. Short-grain rice are best for fried rice cakes, sushi and sticky Thai desserts. That said, a sticky, short-grain rice is a great side for spicy Southeast Asian dishes like Thai or Vietnamese curries.
Tips for storing rice
Once a package has been opened, transfer the rice to zip-closed plastic bags or sealed glass jars for storage. Unless you're going to eat it in a year, don't buy the 20-pound bag at a big-box store. Moths in your pantry are most often hatched from eggs dormant on rice grains. Brown rice goes rancid more quickly than white because of the bran's fatty acids and oils. Always smell brown rice before you cook it to make sure it doesn't have a sour, off smell like oil that's gone bad.
Almost every Asian home has a rice cooker. And why not? Just add the rice and water, and the machine cooks the rice in a steamy, sealed environment. Better still, a rice cooker will keep rice warm for hours, so dinner's ready when you are. Look for:
- An automatic keep-warm cycle.
- Multiple settings for brown rice, white rice and other varietals.
- A nonstick coating if you'll make lots of sticky rice
- A snap-shut lid for keeping the steam in the pot.
- Some cookers now come with "fuzzy logic" in their internal computers, meaning that the cooker can figure out the moisture content of the grains and cook them to perfection every time.
The rice rainbow
|White||Not only have the bran and hull been removed, but the white endosperm has been polished.|
|Brown (and various shades from russet to terra-cotta to dark walnut)||Any type of rice may remain brown: brown arborio, brown basmati and even brown sushi rice are available at high-end markets and many health-food stores.|
|Red||This brown rice has a distinctive, nutty taste, favored in many Southeast Asian dishes. Its color comes from the distinctively red bran.|
|Black||There are two types of this whole-grain varietal: forbidden rice from Asia which is very sticky, and black japonica from the U.S. which has a crunchy, earthy taste.|
|Green||This specialty white rice is made by pressure-treating grains with bamboo juice.|
|Golden||This brand-new varietal has been engineered by German and Swiss scientists to include beta-carotene in the grains.|
Alternatives to traditional rice
|Wild rice||It's actually a wild grass, not a paddy rice. In fact, it's a separate genus altogether, indigenous to the Upper Midwest of the U.S.|
|Converted rice||This is white rice that has been parboiled to reduce cooking time. Nutrients have often been added back to the grains although their texture is compromised.|
|Instant rice||This is fully cooked rice that has been dehydrated. Its texture may be more delicate than standard long-cook rice, but it has the advantage of cooking more quickly.|
|Cream of rice||For porridge-making, this is instant rice that has been ground after cooking.|