Did you know – there are over 40,000 types of rice? How many can you name? There’s red rice, black rice, purple rice, wild rice, basmati, jasmine, brown rice, white rice, long grain, medium grain, short grain, Arborio – and another 39,988 more! Varieties of rice differ by color, stickiness, grain length and aroma. There are also differences in processing method among those varieties.
Rice is more complex than you might think. And, as with many food and nutrition topics, plenty of confusion exists about the health benefits of rice and how best to prepare and use it.
Rice nutrition – let’s break it down
Processed food often gets a bad rap. But when it comes to rice, the actual processing is minimal. Processing, here, means the way rice is harvested and prepared for consumption. That said, how rice is processed does impact its nutrition and culinary outcomes, with some negative and some positive consequences.
Rice can either be processed as whole grain, or it can be milled (for example, to make white rice). Then, it can be parboiled or left raw. Rice that’s parboiled is partially cooked and then re-dried. This is sometimes called converted rice. Raw rice is merely the name for rice that has not been parboiled.
Surprisingly, milling and parboiling rice has been done since ancient times. Parboiling helps to reduce cooking time and stickiness of rice, while increasing firmness, fluffiness and shelf life. Parboiling also improves the nutrient content of white rice. Both whole grain and white (or milled) rice is available in raw or parboiled form.
As with all grains, when rice’s bran, germ and endosperm are retained, it is considered a whole grain. The bran and germ contain a majority of important nutrients and the color. Therefore, rice that is not white is likely a whole grain.
Brown rice is always a whole grain, as is typically red rice, black rice and other colored rice. When the bran and germ are stripped away (during the milling process), rice is considered a refined grain and leaves a more white-colored rice behind with fewer nutrients.
As with all plant foods, antioxidants are responsible for the color of various types of rice. Antioxidants are compounds known for their health benefits, including protecting our cells from damage and helping to prevent chronic conditions. Different antioxidants produce different colors.
While brown rice and white rice are most popular, try to include other colors of rice to vary your antioxidant intake. From a culinary perspective, remember that deeply colored rice (like black or red rice), may “bleed” during cooking – so if you’re cooking other ingredients with it, they may be colored in the process. (You probably don’t want purple chicken!) To avoid this, just cook any lighter colored ingredients separately.
Grain length and stickiness
Rice naturally comes in long, medium and short grain lengths. It’s not cut to different lengths; instead, each variety naturally grows to different lengths.
Generally, the shorter the grain length, the more starch the contains, and the stickier the rice is when cooked. Longer rice grains and whole grain rice tend not to stick together as much when cooked.
Arborio rice is the popular short grain variety that is used to make risotto. The combination of the short grain and constant stirring during cooking gives this dish its characteristic stickiness. Sushi rice and rice served with Asian dishes are typically shorter grain (and stickier), which makes it easier to form into a ball or pick up with chop sticks.
Rice used in salads is typically longer grain or whole grain, so that it doesn’t stick together or to the other ingredients in the dish.
Aromas of the different rice varieties may be described as nutty, floral, sweet, popcorn or fruity. And their tastes often match these aromas.
Whole grain varieties have a different aroma and taste than milled, white varieties. Some people don’t notice or don’t mind, while others do. Food preferences and tastes change over time, though. So even if you don’t like the taste of whole grain rice at first, keep trying and you may change your mind over time.
Is rice healthy?
Due to its high carbohydrate content, many people think rice isn’t healthy – or they avoid it while following low-carb diet. However, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines and MyPlate advocate that around half of our caloric intake can come from carbohydrate sources as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
There’s also much research showing that low carbohydrate diets are not necessarily healthier, nor more successful for weight management, than a diet containing moderate amounts of carbs as advocated by the MyPlate guidelines.
Studies show that eating whole grain rice could be linked to a lower risk of diabetes, lower blood sugar levels and more favorable cholesterol levels.
Carbohydrates also are an important source of energy for our bodies, and, like all grains, rice provides essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Brown rice and other whole grain rice varieties are superior in fiber and nutrients than white rice.
Interestingly, parboiled white rice has significantly more nutrients than raw white rice because the parboiling process helps push some of the B vitamins into the endosperm before the bran is removed to make white rice.
Here’s a comparison of nutrients in different types of rice (per one cup, cooked):
|Brown rice||Wild rice||White parboiled rice||White rice|
|Vitamin B6 (mg)||0.238||0.221||3.65||2.32|
Rice has an important role in specialty diets, especially for those with allergies, intolerances or problems with digestion. Rice is one of the most easily digested foods, is naturally gluten free and is not a common allergen. Therefore, rice is a commonly tolerated, liked, affordable and versatile food that provides important nutrients for those with dietary restrictions.
As with all foods, variety and balance is important. Include rice in a meal and as part of an overall diet balanced with other food groups: protein, fruits, vegetables, dairy or dairy alternatives, other grains and healthy fats. This way you can ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you need, in the proportions needed, for optimal health.
How to cook rice
I was always embarrassed to say that I couldn’t properly cook rice. It seems like it should be easy. But it’s not! Rice can easily become overcooked and soggy, undercooked or worse, and before you know it, you’ve nearly started a kitchen fire and burned the bottom of your pot.
After a little practice and following directions, cooking rice should be as easy as “boiling water.” You don’t need a fancy rice cooker, though many people do swear by them. You also can cook rice in a slow cooker or Instant Pot, but I just prefer a standard pot. Follow these simple steps for perfectly steamed rice:
- Get your rice to liquid ratio perfected. Always follow directions on the rice package, as different varieties of rice require slightly different amounts of water and cooking time. The general rule of thumb is that one cup of uncooked rice requires about two cups of liquid (water or broth). White rice typically requires less water (1-½ to 1-3/4 cups of water to 1 cup of rice), since it’s cooking time is less. Brown or whole grain rice requires more water (1-¾ to 2 cups of water to 1 cup of rice), since it’s cooking time is longer. Pro tips: I usually use slightly less water than what the package directions call for. If cooking wholegrain rice, add a dash of oil to the water.
- No peeking! Always cover the pot with a tight-ﬁtting lid and keep the lid on as much as possible during the entire cooking time. Rice cooks best with steam and you will lose precious steam every time you open the lid.
- Don’t stir. Stirring rice releases starch and causes it to stick together. So leave it alone unless you want sticky rice.
- Turn it down. After the water starts to boil, keep the pot covered but reduce the heat to low and gently simmer for the specified time. Pro tip: Turn off the heat for the last part of the cooking time and just allow the rice to steam while covered. For white rice, do this for the last 5 minutes of cooking time, and for brown rice, try it for the last 15 minutes of cooking time.
Want the benefits of whole grain rice but have no patience for the extra-long cooking time? Cheat! You can buy parboiled or pre-cooked brown rice. Look for packets of rice (or small, microwave-ready containers) that say “minute rice,” “microwave rice” or “60- or 90-second” rice. Precooked rice is also available frozen.
Also note, some varieties of whole grain rice require less cooking time. For example, some red rice only takes about 20 minutes, instead of the 45 minutes typically required for brown rice.
You can also make your own minute rice. Just make a large batch of brown rice and freeze it in smaller portions to use later.
Creative ways to enjoy rice
Sure, rice is the perfect addition to stir frys and Asian dishes, but with 40,000 types from all around the world, why not give it a try in different cuisines? Think of rice as a canvas for nearly anything!
- Rice pudding – A creamy, sweet dessert that can be flavored with vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon or other spices or fruit.
- Rice bowl – Combine rice with beans or another protein, vegetables and sauce or herbs of choice. Choose a theme for your ingredient choices such as southwest, Asian, Indian, Moroccan, Greek or Italian.
- Fried rice –This is technically a stir fry, but add extra veggies, an egg and more rice. It’s a great way to use leftover stir fry. Mix in some freshly chopped cilantro or green onion, or a peanut sauce, to change it up.
- Meatballs over rice – Meatballs aren’t just for topping pasta. Make Italian meatballs, teriyaki meatballs, Thai meatballs or Middle eastern-inspired meatballs and serve over rice.
- Beans and rice – This classic and simple dish also can be transformed to different flavors. Make Caribbean black beans and rice or Cajun red beans and rice or Greek-style chickpeas and rice. Vary your spices, the type of bean and other additions to create the cuisine of choice.
- Rice salad – Just like a cold pasta salad, make a cold rice salad by adding chopped vegetables, herbs, spices, cheese, dressing and/or protein. Brown rice and other colored rice is particularly great for this dish.
- Congee – This is basically rice porridge that is often eaten for breakfast. There are many different versions and flavors you can make.
So now that you’re inspired, what type of rice should you choose? It depends what type of dish you are making and your preferences. Do you want the rice to be sticky or fluffy? What aroma or taste do you prefer? When possible, try to use whole grain rice for better nutrition, but it’s also important for your food to be enjoyable. Try whole grain varieties a few times to see if you can get used to it, but don’t force it if you don’t enjoy it.
The most important thing is that you have fun in the kitchen. Experiment with rice and discover how you like it best! There’s good reason that rice has been a staple in cuisines forever. It’s versatile, affordable, delicious and nutritious. All the reason for rice to become your new staple, as well.