Rice is a staple in many cultures – in fact, it’s hard to think of a cuisine that doesn’t include rice dishes of some sort. The rice selection at the grocery store has expanded in recent years, making choosing the right variety for the dish you’re preparing critical to its outcome. Here’s what you need to know when rice is on your shopping list.
The wide world of rice can be divided into two categories: sticky (classified as japonica with usually short- or medium-size grains) and dry (indica, with long grains). The proportion of sticky starch is, not surprisingly, higher in japonica rice, causing the grains to stick together. If you guessed that sushi rice fell into the japonica category, you’d be correct. Indica rice, on the other hand, is lower in that sticky starch, making the cooked grains looser and slightly drier. Indian basmati rice is a well-known indica rice.
All white rice varieties have undergone processing to remove the bran and hull layers on the surface of the grain (they’re what make brown rice “brown”). Processing is why white rice cooks faster than brown rice, but it also strips the grain of some fiber and nutrients found only in the bran and hull.
Converted rice has been parboiled then processed to remove the bran and hull. Parboiling gives the grains a slightly golden color, but the rice also retains more vitamins and fiber during processing. We like to use converted rice in slow cooker recipes like jambalaya – it’s just the right texture and doesn’t get mushy as quickly as regular white rice can.
Instant rice is white or brown rice that has been completely cooked then dried. It just requires reconstituting in hot water for a few minutes. While convenient, the processing it undergoes strips it of a lot of nutritional benefits and flavor. We always opt for longer-cooking rice varieties for optimum flavor.
The most common method for cooking rice is simply simmering it water until tender. Pretty easy. But we take that technique one step further by substituting Swanson® broth (chicken or vegetable) for the water – our Broth Simmered Rice recipe is a great starting point. From there you can tailor the flavor of the dish to suit your menu: with additions like mushrooms and thyme to lemon zest and peas, creating a unique, flavorful side dish has never been easier. And it’s infinitely more flavorful and fresh-tasting than boxed rice pilaf mixes.
Generally speaking, use a 2:1 liquid-to-rice ratio when cooking. Bring the liquid to a boil in a heavy saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, then stir in the rice. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and let the rice cook until all the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes for white rice varieties – if the rice isn’t yet tender, let it cook, covered, another 5 minutes and check again. Let the rice stand, covered off heat, for 5 minutes after cooking, then fluff with a fork before serving. If there’s still liquid in the pot, just drain the rice before serving.
Where things get really interesting in the rice world is in all the varieties – that’s where visual, textural and flavor difference really stand out. Here are some of our favorite common rice varieties followed by more specialty rices and suggestions on how you can use them in everyday cooking:
Arborio: This rice is the classic choice for making authentic Italian risotto. It’s categorized as a medium-grain rice with a high amount of starch that, when slowly cooked and stirred, result in a creamy texture and consistency. Carnaroli is another medium-grain Italian rice that is often used to make risotto – use them interchangeably. If you can’t find either type but still want to make risotto, short-grain sushi rice or a generic medium-grain rice will work. Watch the cooking time, though: you may not need to go quite as long. Taste test frequently.
Basmati: Originally harvested in the Himalayan mountains of India and Pakistan, basmati is a fragrant, long-grain rice that is perfect for pilaf-style side dishes, casseroles and for serving alongside flavorful curries. It smells a bit like popcorn as it cooks and the grains stay separate during simmering. (Texmati® is a basmati-style American-grown variety.) Jasmine rice (see below) is another fragrant rice that could be used in place of basmati, as can any long-grain rice, although the flavor will be different.
Jasmine: Also known as Thai fragrant rice, jasmine rice is grown in Thailand and is the ideal choice for serving with Thai-inspired curries or as a side dish. While it doesn’t smell like jasmine flowers, it does have a distinct, enticing floral aroma. It’s slightly stickier than other long-grain varieties but the grains still remain relatively separate after cooking. Use basmati or long-grain rice as a substitute.
Sushi: The ubiquitous molded rolls of Japanese cuisine would be impossible to create if it weren’t for sushi rice. A medium-grain rice, sushi rice has high amounts of sticky starch which allow it to be shaped and make it easy to eat with chopsticks. Don’t confuse sushi rice with “glutenous” rice – it too is a type of sticky rice but is even higher in starch than sushi rice. Medium-grain rice is an okay substitute for sushi rice, but may be a little drier than you’d like if you’re making rolls.
Valencia or Bomba: These two types of short-grain rice are traditional in Spanish paella. The grains are round and plump and resemble Arborio rice but are drier in texture – don’t use Arborio rice as a substitute! Because of its dry texture, use long- or medium-grain rice to make paella if Valencia or Bomba isn’t available.
Chinese Black: This brown-black short-grain rice is sometimes called “forbidden” rice and was once only consumed by Chinese elite, hence, the name. It is unrefined, meaning it contains its hull and bran layers, much like brown rice, so it takes longer to cook than white rice. Presoaking for an hour or two can reduce cooking time. It’s often served as a dessert preparation in Chinese restaurants but we like it as an accompaniment to a colorful stir-fry.
Red: Originally hailing from Bhutan, red rice is a visually stunning alternative to white or brown rice side dishes. Unlike white rice, which has undergone extensive processing, red rice is not processed and is considered a “whole grain” because the hull and bran are left intact. Boil or steam it as you would brown rice – it takes about the same time to cook as brown rice varieties.
With all the delicious rice options available to cooks, it shouldn’t be hard to find a variety that can make any dish shine, either as a star ingredient in a recipe or as a simple side. And if, after cooking, you’re lucky enough that a crispy layer of rice forms on the bottom of the pot or skillet, all the better! This layer (called socarrat in Spain, pega in Colombia, nurungji in Korea, and tahdig in Iran) is not a mistake – it’s a prized culinary treat. Cook some rice tonight and see if you can achieve it!