The cultivated rice we eat originates from the grass plant Oryza sativa, commonly known as Asian rice; from this plant we have bred over 100,000 varieties. There’s another known species of rice by the name of Oryza glaberrima: cultivated in west Africa for at least 1500 years, now mostly overtaken by the introduction of Asian rice to the area (although used in crossbreeding).
How to cook rice
There are only two methods of cooking rice: the draining method or absorption method. Long-grain varieties can be cooked well by either method, but the short-grain varieties are best suited to the absorption method.
- The rice is added to surplus boiling water and cooked until just done. When cooked the rice is drained well and served.
- The rice most often used in this method is the basmati style rice, sometimes referred to as the ‘traditional’ method for cooking basmati in India.
- This method requires your full attention nearer the end, as the window between not done and perfectly done is small.
- This method is also used to part-cook rice for elaborate dishes such as biryani and middle eastern pilaf. The rice will be studded and sprinkled with other ingredients and cooked further: some rice dishes are cooked until a prized brown crust on the bottom forms, called tahdig. Tahdigs are cooked using both the absorption and draining method – first par-boiled and then steamed.
For sushi, risotto and paella rice it’s the absorption method.
- Sushi rice has adequate cold water added at the beginning until all of the water has been absorbed by the time the rice is almost cooked, and the locked residual steam finishes cooking.
- Risotto rice absorbs sufficient hot liquid until rice is creamy but still has a bite.
- Paella rice has just enough water added to the pot in order that by the time the rice is cooked, all of the water has been absorbed and socarrat (crusty rice bottom) has been achieved.
How to cook rice by absorption method
For short-grain and long-grain rice (no rinsing no soaking)
- Use a heavy bottom pan with a tight-fitting lid
- Add twice the volume of water to volume of rice (use same cup to measure both)
- Put cold water and rice in pan. On a medium heat bring water to boiling point
- Turn heat down to low setting, and add lid (make sure it’s tight, with no gaps)
- Cook for 10 mins (do not open lid)
- Turn heat off (still do not open lid)
- Let it rest with lid on for 12 mins
- Now take the lid off and turn out the rice to fluff it up (otherwise it will carry on cooking and will stick)
Should you rinse and soak rice?
One common trait shared between the long- and short-grain growing regions is rinsing and soaking rice prior to cooking. From India to Japan, washing the surface starch until water runs clearer, then soaking for 10-30 minutes is a time-honoured ritual.
In Japan, thorough rice washing (rubbing grains between palms of hands while in water) was a long-established requisite in order to remove the hada nuka, the residual bran skin left on the grains (in order to make rice whiter and glossy). But with modern polishing technologies, rice doesn’t need scrubbing.
There is general agreement between different cultures rinsing rice was originally needed to remove any impurities, make rice less sticky, whiter and more glossy. Plus the swelling of the grains from soaking cuts down on cooking time. However, with modern rice varieties and processing technologies, rice can be cooked without soaking. Cooks ingrained in this practice affirm soaking virtues - and having tried both ways, there is a noticeable difference but not significant enough for time-constrained cooks such as myself to do it! This should be left to personal preference.
Note: soaking makes grains fragile, and susceptible to breaking if heavy-handed.
What are the main types of rice?
Long-grain indica rice varieties are the types we associated with basmati style rice. The reason they’re less likely to stick, absorb more water, swell the most, and harden when cooked at room temperature is because they have a higher proportion of a starch called amylose.
The medium- and short-grain rices from the japonica variety are rices such as risotto, paella and sushi; and they have less amylose starch - this makes the rice stickier. The grains don’t swell as much as long-grain rice, they stick in clusters, have a glossier appearance and remain tender when cooked at room temperature.
There’s a style of rice which goes by the name of sticky, sweet, waxy or glutinous rice which has the least amount of amylose (mostly made up of another starch, amylopectin). Glutinous rice does not contain gluten. This rice almost disintegrates when cooked, and in some recipes it’s steamed rather than boiled. Popular to make sweets such as the Japanese mochi balls.
Aromatic rices are a distinctive group of mainly long- and medium-grain varieties that accumulate unusually high concentrations of volatile compounds. Thai jasmine rice and Indian basmati rice (basmati is Urdu for “fragrant”) are well-known aromatic rices.
Brown and White Rice
- Brown rice can be any variety of rice that is unmilled, such as this long-grain variety basmati brown rice or this short-grain sushi brown rice. It has the bran and germ intact with its nutrients, giving brown rice the characteristic sweet nutty flavour. Takes longer to cook than its white counterpart. The oil in the rice makes it more susceptible to staling than white rice.
- White rice is polished rice, where the bran has been removed along with aleurone layer and germ - this makes it stable and keep well for months.
Red, Black and Wild Rice
- Red rice such as Camargue red rice is a variety of rice with elongated appearance somewhat of wild rice. Its colour is due to polyphenols (compounds with antioxidant properties) and it’s usually sold partially hulled, giving it a nutty flavour.
- There are increasing varieties of black rice such as ones grown in China (once known as forbidden rice for only high society would consume it), to one’s grown in places such as Italy. Their black colour is due to large amounts of anthocyanins (compounds with antioxidant properties found in foods such as blueberries). Both red and black rice have a chewier texture even when cooked correctly.
- Wild rice is different to other rices, it’s from the genus grass plant Oryzeae Zizania. Distinctive in its appearance with lineage in Asia and North America. Today wild rice is cultivated all over the U.S., Canada, Hungary, Australia. Wild rice contains nearly twice as much protein and amino acids complex - similar to oats.
Sushi rice is today grown in different parts of the world but what makes it distinctive to other short-grain rices is that the texture of cooked sushi rice should be glossy white, soft, plump and sticky but not overtly sticky; with the individual grains intact giving a pleasant velvety mouthfeel, and pleasant aroma.
Risotto rice distinctive characteristic is its ability to seep out plenty of starch throughout cooking and stirring without losing the desirable ‘al dente’ texture when it’s done. The perfect risotto is described as “risotto all’onda”, literally translates wave risotto – meaning when it’s cooked it should flow like the waves of the ocean. The texture is creamy but not soupy, and not dry that it can be piled high – should collapse into a low mound on the plate.
Paella rice made in its specially designed paella pan in order to achieve that socarrat, is a short-grain rice very different in personality to risotto rice. The grains when fully cooked are soft and but remain separately intact, a cross in texture between sticky and long-grain rice.