Picking Your Grains

by Zrinka Peters

THERE ARE FEW FOODS that are as indispensable to human nourishment as the humble grain of rice. Rice is the most widely consumed grain in the world, providing the staple food for an estimated half of the world’s population. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the world as we know it without rice. What would much of Asia’s diet be (where individuals consume an average of 200-400 pounds per year), if not based on rice? The word for rice is even a synonym for ‘food’ or ‘agriculture’ in some countries.

Rice cultivation has been recorded for at least 4000 years in Chinese records, and its enduring place in human history is well deserved. Many thousands of different varieties are grown, on every continent except Antarctica. Rice is low in fat, and few other cultivated plants have such a high nutritional value. Carbohydrates in the form of rice starch form the largest nutrient group, but minerals and some protein are also present, as well as vitamins and amino acids. Rice is also one of the few foods in the world which is entirely non-allergenic and gluten-free.

Americans don’t generally consume rice as a staple food. But we do have an enduring love for it, demonstrated not only by the 25 pounds or so consumed by the average American each year, but also by the growing US demand for specialty rice types. Here we seem to love rice most for its ability to enhance our cuisine. But with so many different types now available to choose from, making the right selection can be a challenge.

Rice comes in many shapes, and even colors. But there are a few basic types that are helpful to know. Keep in mind that within each of these categories there is a lot of variation.

long grain rice

This is a generic classification for rice in which the milled grain is at least three times as long as it is wide, although it is often 4-5 times as long. It has a long, slender kernel. Long grain rice tends to be firmer, and not as sticky as short- or medium-grain varieties when cooked. Long-grain rice is best for pilafs, stir-frys, paella, salads and side dishes.

medium grain rice

Medium-grain rice is shorter and wider than long-grain rice. The kernels are two to three times longer than its width. Medium-grain rice tends to be a little on the softer side, and stickier than long-grain rice, with the kernels clinging together somewhat. Medium grain rice is good for making dishes that have a creamier consistency such as molds, croquettes, meat loaves, rice rings, desserts, and sushi.

short grain rice

Short-grain rice is almost round and is a little softer than medium-grain rice. As a rule, the shorter the grain, the more tender it is and the more it clings together. Short grain rice is great for croquettes, puddings and risotto. It can have an almost creamy texture when cooked.

whole grain rice

This refers to rice which has been minimally processed, so that it retains its nutrient-rich husk. Because whole grain rice is not husked (it has only the outer hull removed), it takes longer to cook (40-45 minutes), but it is much more nutritious, and tends to be more flavorful, aromatic, and colorful. Whole grain rice also has special storage considerations, as it can go rancid if it is kept at room temperature. Brown rice is the best-known whole-grain rice.

white rice

This is rice that has been processed so that the husk or bran is removed, and in some cases it may be polished to take the germ off as well. White rice requires less cooking (about 15 minutes), and it has a more mild flavor than whole grain rice, but it also has less nutritional value. This is also normally the least expensive type of rice. Vitamins and minerals are added for enrichment.

jasmine rice

This is jasmine rice from Thailand, which is aromatic with a delicate jasmine scent and unique taste. The rice looks like long-grain rice, but its texture is stickier when cooked. There are many varieties being grown in the US in imitation of this unique type of rice, but so far none can match Thai Jasmine’s unique texture and aroma. It is perfect, of course, in Thai dishes, as well as other Asian cuisine.

basmati rice

Indian Basmati rice is also an aromatic rice with its own unique aroma and taste. Some people describe its aroma as resembling popcorn. The rice has a long and slender raw kernel, which expands by more than three times its original length when cooked. When properly cooked, it has a firm, almost dry texture. Authentic Indian Basmati Rice normally commands the highest prices of any rice grown in the world, and the best Indian Basmati has been aged for at least a year to increase firmness and the length of the kernel in cooking. Besides being used as an ideal accompaniment for Indian dishes, basmati rice holds its own well as plain steamed rice, pilafs or just different types of fried rice.

arborio rice

Arborio Rice is an Italian medium-grain variety of rice. It is named after the town of Arborio in the Po Valley, where it is grown. It has a rounded kernel with a distinct chalky center. When properly cooked, Arborio rice develops a unique texture with a starchy creamy surface and a firm bite in the center. There are varieties of Arborio-type rice grown in California that are comparable to Italian varieties. This is the rice for making risotto.

converted rice

Also known as parboiled, this is rice that has had steam passed through the grains, with the husks on. The grain is soaked, steamed, dried and then milled to remove the outer hull. The nutrients are embedded into the rice by this procedure. It is then polished, resulting in extra-fluffy rice, and kernels that remain separate when cooked. Converted rice is best used as an all-purpose rice, for pilafs, as plain boiled rice, or for side dishes.

instant rice

Also known as pre-cooked rice, this rice has been completely cooked and then dehydrated. It is good for quick cooking when life gets too busy and one wants to have a quick rice dish.

colored rice

There are many other unique varieties of rice. Forbidden black rice is purple-black in color, and prized for its fragrant aroma, nutty taste and nutritional value. Wehani rice is a long grain rice has a red bran layer. Its aroma while cooking is similar to hot buttered popcorn. It is chewy and sweet, similar to the flavor of brown basmati. Bhutanese red rice is grown at 8,000 feet in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, and it contains trace minerals which result in a beautiful russet color and nutty flavor.

wild rice

Wild rice in not officially classified as rice, but is in fact the long-grain seed of marsh grasses that are native to the northern Great lakes. Its nutty flavor, chewy texture and pleasing dark appearance make it a great addition to rice pilafs or as an addition to plain brown rice. •

from the May-June 2009 issue

The best
Indian basmati rice
has been aged for
at least a year.