A Tasty Tufts Guide to Rice
Rice is the most commonly consumed staple food in the world. There are entire cultures of food surrounding it; in Japan in fact, the word for ‘cooked rice’ (gohan) is the same as the word for meal. In America, we tend to see rice through lenses crafted in other cultures: risotto, fried rice, sushi, and pilaf. With our diverse culinary tradition we often overlook the nuances of preparation and variety that are so important in transforming a simple starch into everything from chewy desert to puffy cereal, or from creamy porridges to rich stews. This is a guide to what the average college foodie needs to know about rice; both when eating out and when shopping for his or her personal use.
First, a little biology:
Rice is a grain – a seed from the rice plant (Oryza sativa) which consists of a starchy endosperm surrounded by layers of more fibrous hull – called the bran and the chaff and tipped with a germ – the oily immature bud of the plant which the bulk of the seed is designed to nourish. Typically in the United States we recognize rice by its color – brown and white. These designations refer to various levels of ‘polishing’ which is used to reduce the rice grain in size, creating a more refined and less perishable product while also shortening its cooking time but reducing its nutritional merit. Brown rice is merely rice that has been only lightly processed – de-hulled to remove the chaff, leaving the bran and the germ, while white rice has had both bran and germ also removed by friction to leave just the endosperm. With the loss of the germ and the bran, rice loses the bulk of its nutritional value but increases its cultural currency in many countries – since it is a more refined product, it is associated with wealth, quality, and good taste. Rice bran is high in fiber, while rice germ contains the bulk of rice’s fat-soluble nutrients like thiamine (Vitamin B1). In some rice-loving cultures, thiamine deficiency has become a ‘disease of the wealthy,’ associated with only eating the most highly refined rice, especially on a vegetarian diet. In the United States, most white rice is treated to counter this process, though this is really just a surface treatment and easily sloughs off when rice is washed.
Beyond considerations of color, we often distinguish rice in terms of grain length – long-grain, medium-grain, or short-grain. These designations refer to the shape and composition of the endosperm of the rice; particularly in context of their texture when cooked. Here’s the lowdown:
Long-grain rice, generally of the subspecies indica, is long and thin and generally less sticky than shorter varieties due to the higher content of amylose, which does not dissolve readily in water. The most well-known varieties of long-grain rice are basmati and jasmine rice; long-grain rices retain their texture better than shorter varieties, so are favored in many cultures’ ‘dry’ rice dishes or as an accompaniment to food.
Short-grain rice is usually of the subspecies japonica and is almost round, containing much less amylose by weight, which means that the sticky amylopectin more readily dissolves into the cooking liquid. Short grain rice is often known as ‘glutinous’, especially when compared with longer-grained varieties of japonica rice. The textural qualities of short-grain rice also lends it unique cooking traits when ground – glutinous rice flour is central to many Asian foods like rice balls and mochi, as well as a favored ingredient in gluten-free baking.
Medium-grain rice is not so clearly defined as the other two sizes. It comes from both indica and japonica species and generally refers to varieties of the two that are shorter and longer, respectively, than most varieties. These are often special cultivars which have been bred for specific culinary uses; unlike long and short-grain rice, they can often not be used interchangeably. From the indica subspecies come the risotto rices: Arborio and Carnioli are probably the best known names in this field, notable for their high ratio of amylopectin to amylose. Paella rices such as arroz bomba share similar traits to risotto rices, being distinguished by a less extreme ratio to retain more of their texture. Paella-type indica rices are also favored in India and the Near East for biryani and pilaf, though the specialized varieties are rarely found in the United States. From the japonica subspecies comes Asia’s many varieties of sticky rice, which unlike glutinous rice does not dissolve in liquid but rather clumps together while retaining most of its shape. Sticky rice spans from the long-grained Thai varieties to the Japan’s sushi rice, which lends itself to easy shaping and molding; in general cultures which focus on the rice (such as Japan and China) favor sticky rice as a vector for sauces and flavors which keeps it shape without being too bold in texture.
The final potential distinction one could make is between the normal and heirloom varieties of rices. Many stores now promote certain varieties of rice which are known for their vivid color and potential nutritional benefits. Tufts was actually in the news recently (not in a good way) for a Tufts researcher’s work into ‘golden rice,’ which gets its color from a high level of beta-carotene. Generally the color of these heirloom rices comes from the distribution of chemicals such as anthocyanins, which also are the source of the dark purple, blue and red colors of fruits like blueberries, raspberries, and grapes. The most widely available varieties are probably Bhutanese red and Chinese black or forbidden rice. Fair warning: the recent popularity of these rices has led to some producers creating fakes with dyes, so if you’re interested in trying these heirloom varieties, make sure you’re buying the real deal.
A note on ‘wild rice’: It’s not actually rice! Wild rice is a grain closely related to rice that is popular in North America. High in protein and less energy-dense than rice, it is often found as part of blends of rice to add texture and flavor. Unfortunately it also has a very long cooking time owing to its unrefined nature. This problem can be circumvented by either cooking it alone or using it, as is often done, in soups, where it retains its shape very well.
Now to cooking: How does a college student cook rice? Assuming like many Americans you prefer the texture of long-grain rice, and you have a suitable pan with enough capacity for the rice, this is The Kitchn’s advice:
Use a 1:2 ratio of rice to water. Bring the water to a boil first and add the rice and any additional seasoning like salt or fat. Bring it back to a simmer and then reduce the heat to low and cover the rice. Avoid removing the lid to check on the rice. White rice will take 18-25 minutes, brown between 30-40; wild rice and blends containing other grains may take as long as an hour.
To store rice and avoid the unfortunate ‘dry rice’ phenomenon, it’s best to portion out and protect your rice from air. It should be refrigerated in a sealed container. Ideally you’d want to wrap each portion in plastic wrap to maximize its protection from circulating dry air. If you’d like to make brown rice in bulk, another good suggestion is to parboil it for 20 minutes and then store it, or soak it overnight; both methods reduce the cooking time to roughly the same as white rice.
Below are some great recipes for the major types of rice-based dishes, as well as suggestions for how to make use of leftover rice. Cheap, tasty, and versatile, a bag of rice is a great thing to have in a college pantry.
Cover photo source.