10 Things You Didn’t Know About…Cooking Rice
It’s hard to wax poetic about rice; it’s far easier to gush about all the things we love to eat rice in, from those sticky little grains that hug our sushi tight to the golden basmati bed upon which rests our curried biryani, from the creamy comfort of Italian risotto to the pugnacious kick of a good jambalaya. It’s the filler, the stalwart staple, the perpetual sidekick, like that character actor you’ve seen in dozens of movies who never takes the lead.
More than once in our kitchen, long after the main course has been set simmering, one or the other of us will exclaim, “Oh, we forgot to put on the rice!” Then ensues a frantic scramble for the pot, the measuring cup, and a hurried glance at the bag to remind ourselves, “How much water? How long does it have to cook?”
Most times, we’re cooking your run-of-the-mill long-grained white rice (sorry, no fancy cultivars in our cupboards). Brown rice may be better for you, I know, but when the rice is so often an afterthought, I don’t want to risk being halfway through making dinner only to have to wait 45 minutes for the rice to cook.
Sure, when we’re hosting friends for dinner or just want to make something a little special on a Saturday night, I’m happy as a clam to fuss over a risotto, adding stock in judicious quantities and tasting for perfection. But when it comes to Monday through Friday, I don’t want cooking rice to be complicated. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be.
All rice was brown rice at some point. White rice is simply brown rice that’s had its bran and germ layer removed and then been polished with wire brushes until it’s as white as porcelain. When you take away the bran and germ, though, you take away a bunch of nutrients, too, such as fiber, protein and potassium. But the oil in brown rice also makes it less stable than white rice, which is why you can keep white rice (basically) forever in your pantry, but brown rice should be stored in the fridge.
Rice is typically categorized by the length of its grain: short (such as sushi rice), medium (the rice used in risottos and paellas), and long. The longer the grain, the less sticky the rice but the more water it takes to cook.
Your mother or grandmother may have told you to always rinse your rice before cooking. That’s because back in the day, rice was often coated with talc to keep it dry during transport. Talc is very rarely used today, and while some chefs argue that rinsing yields fluffier rice, most long-grain white rice today is “enriched” with a coating of some of the same nutrients that are stripped away during milling (see #1). Rinse the rice, and you wash away the nutrients.
Most of us use the “absorption method” when cooking rice, which is to measure just enough water so the rice absorbs all of it and then finishes cooking from the steam, which is the way it’s typically done in Asian countries like China and Japan. But you can, in fact, cook rice the same way we boil pasta, pouring off the excess water, which is the traditional method in India.
Removing the lid while your rice is cooking won’t ruin your rice. In fact, it’s a good way to check to see if it’s done. Don’t be afraid even to stir the pot to redistribute some of the water, then cover it and let it keep cooking.
The key to better, more evenly cooked rice? Let it rest after it’s cooked. Remove the pot from the heat and let it sit, covered, for 5 – 10 minutes, then fluff it gently with a fork. This allows moisture in the mushier bottom layer to make its way to the drier rice at the top.
Almost all rice has the capacity to make you very sick. Dormant spores of the bacterium Bacillus cereus lurk in most raw rice, and they can even survive boiling water. Left at room temperature for a few hours, they multiply and can cause food poisoning. Therefore, leftover cooked rice should be refrigerated a.s.a.p. (What about sushi rice, you ask? It’s mixed with vinegar, which kills the nasty stuff.)
Boxed rice side dishes are no doubt easy, but they can be pricey (and high in salt). It can be cheaper and just as quick to jazz up plain white rice. The key is to pick flavors that compliment what you’re having for dinner. Adding a tablespoon of butter or olive oil to the water is the easiest way to enhance the flavor. You can also replace some or all of the water with a flavorful stock, such as chicken or beef stock. Try adding a few tablespoons of fresh chopped herbs as well, such as parsley, cilantro or chives, or several teaspoons of dried herbs, like cumin or even cinnamon. Dried nuts, such as pine nuts, enhance flavor and texture. For Asian meals, try a tablespoon each of peanut oil and soy sauce.
What about “wild rice“? It’s actually only a very distant relative to other rices, all of which derive from Oryza sativa (a.k.a. “Asian rice”). Instead, wild rice comes from a long black marsh grass that’s native to North America.
Despite what many boxed rice mixes proclaim, “pilaf” is not simply a fancy name for “rice on the side.” A true pilaf is made when the dry rice is sautéed in butter or oil then cooked in seasoned liquid. Recipe.com has a great recipe for a pilaf that mixes both white and wild rice.
Find the perfect side dish with Recipe.com’s handy Side Dish Recipe Finder!