Even among those who consider themselves skilled home cooks, rice can present a thorny issue.
Once you nail your process, you’re pretty much good for life; I tend to use the first-knuckle strategy for white rice. But recently I’ve swapped out white rice for brown, which has more fiber and slightly more protein. Thinking I could use my usual recipe, I did my typical approach: boiling water and rice together, adding salt, covering it for 12 minutes and cooking it over low heat, then setting it aside, covered, for 12 minutes.
The result? Rice that went right into the trash can. It was completely undercooked, sitting in a pool of water.
The presence of that high-fiber bran coating means that not only does brown rice have a shorter shelf life—The Food Lover’s Companion declares that it goes rancid after about six months—but it tends to take longer to cook. I moved on to a Cooking Light recipe that worked pretty well—rice plus homemade stock is a delicious thing—but I still wasn’t nailing the texture.
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It was time to call in the pros, so I reached out to Grace Young, a James Beard Award winner for her seminal cookbook Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge ($35, amazon.com), and an expert in all things stir-fry and wok-related. She walked me through some common issues in rice cookery, particularly for the brown rice she prefers to white—and which is not what she grew up eating.
“In [much of] China,” says Young, “what’s valued is long-grain white rice. They want that polished rice, a symbol of status and refinement. My family only ate long-grain white rice, usually jasmine, and never had brown rice. Brown rice was looked down upon.” Then she got to college and started eating more widely. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I love brown rice!’ It’s more interesting, has more texture, and is more nutritious.”
Chinese cuisine is, Young explains, “a rice-centered culinary culture.” And not just as something to plop other foods on top of, she says. In fact, it’s the opposite: “The Chinese really love rice, and its pure flavor. That’s why when you eat rice in a rice bowl, you always bring the rice to your face and shovel it with your chopsticks in your mouth. You’re not picking up the chopsticks, you bring the rice bowl to your face.” Though this is just done for a mouthful or so, “part of the experience is that you’re smelling the aroma of the rice. You don’t want to adulterate it by adding different flavorings or seasonings,” Young explains.
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That’s partly why, she explains, traditionally, Chinese cooks don’t add salt to their rice. Young has observed that at American Chinese restaurants, Americans might eat half a bowl of rice, each, with their meal, “whereas when you go to a Chinese home, most people are eating two or three bowls of rice with a meal.” (She qualified that women might only eat one bowl, but that “it’s not uncommon to say, ‘Oh, I want a second bowl.’”) Requesting a second bowl of rice pleases the matriarch of the family, who thinks her food must be extra-tasty that night. It can also be the topic of boasting, says Young: “Oh, my son can eat three bowls of rice,” one mother might say to another. “He loves rice.”
While you might see non-Chinese Americans setting a base of rice and then cloaking it in other dishes such as mapo tofu or stir-fried vegetables, says Young, the typical Cantonese diner (from Southern China) will set the rice on the side, alternating bites of rice with other savory dishes. Consider the technique the next time you’re at a Chinese restaurant.
Below are a few of Young’s tips for better brown rice, plus her recipe for an excellent vegetarian fried rice.
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“Chinese cooks always rinse. When rice is harvested in China, it’s set out on these big mats to dry for I don’t know how long,” says Young. “It can get dusty.”
Try the first-line method
Young uses a technique to measure out water she says is typical of Chinese cooks: Rinse the rice, drain it, level it (shaking the pan so it coats the bottom evenly), and add enough water to come up to “the first line on your middle finger,” if that finger is resting on the surface of the leveled rice. You could also follow the recipe below, which specifies water volume, but rice varieties can differ in terms of absorption.
Use the right-sized pot
Pay attention to the size vessel you use when cooking rice. When Young, below, specifies a 1-quart saucepan, she means it! (Part of my issues, I’ve come to realize, may be because I’ve been cooking a cup or two of rice in a 5-quart Dutch oven, the smallest I had. In fact, when I followed Young’s recipe for a cup of rice in my Dutch oven, it promptly burned in the middle.)
Rice is one of those foods with which—if using Young’s method of boiling it uncovered, then simmering it over medium uncovered, then covering and simmering it—you’ve got to use your eyes. You can’t just “set it and forget it,” as you could with a rice cooker or a pressure cooker. Look for the “craters” she mentions that appear in the surface of the rice, and use that as a timing guide, too.
Short-grain rice may take longer
Oddly enough, Young has found that short-grain brown rice may take longer than long-grain rice, so keep that in mind. “Sometimes it depends on the rice that you buy; they’re not all the same. You’ll have to experiment.”
Use the leftovers for fried rice
This fried rice savant prefers the chewy texture and nutty flavor of brown rice over white for stir-fries. Its slightly higher protein content is a boon, too: “When I’m doing a vegetarian fried rice, sometimes I’ll add eggs, and sometimes tofu or nuts, but if I don’t add [those], the brown rice has more protein.” Here’s that recipe; enjoy!
Peppery Vegetarian Rice
By Grace Young, Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge
The key to a tasty vegetarian fried rice is to use brown rice, with its mild, nutty flavor and chewy texture. The beauty of this recipe is its total flexibility. I like the meaty texture of mushrooms and will sometimes use cremini or button mushrooms. The pine nuts can also be replaced with chopped roasted cashews, almonds, or pecans. For more protein, sometimes I add defrosted shelled edamame. I cook the rice the day before I want to serve this.
1 cup long-grain brown rice
2 tsps. plus 2 Tbsps. peanut or vegetable oil
2 large eggs, beaten
2 Tbsps. minced ginger
¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
1 cup ¼-inch diced carrots
4 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, cut into ¼-inch dice (2 ⅓ cups)
½ cup vegetable broth
½ cup chopped scallions
¼ cup pine nuts, roasted
2 Tbsps. soy sauce
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground white pepper
- Put the rice in a 1-quart saucepan and wash in several changes of cold water until the water runs clear. Drain and level the rice. Add 2 cups cold water. Bring the water to a boil uncovered over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, and simmer the rice until most of the water has evaporated and little craters appear on the surface, 4 to 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer 10 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed. Turn off the heat and let stand 5 minutes. Fluff the rice, cover, and allow to cool completely before refrigerating.
- When ready to stir-fry the rice, heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in 2 tsps. of the oil, making sure the bottom of the wok is completely coated in oil. Add the eggs and cook 30 seconds to 1 minute, tilting the pan so that the egg covers the surface as thinly as possible to make a pancake. When the bottom is just beginning to brown and the pancake is just set, using a metal spatula, flip the pancake and allow it to set, about 5 seconds, before transferring it to a cutting board. Cool, then cut the pancake into bite-sized pieces.
- Swirl 1 Tbsp. of the remaining oil into the wok, add the ginger and red pepper flakes, then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry 10 seconds or until the ginger is fragrant. Add the carrots and mushrooms and stir-fry 30 seconds or until all the oil is absorbed. Swirl the broth into the wok and stir-fry 1 minute or until almost all the broth has evaporated. Swirl in the remaining 1 Tbsp. oil, add the scallions and rice, and stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes, breaking up the rice with the spatula until it is heated through. Add the pine nuts and soy sauce, sprinkle on the salt, pepper, and the reserved egg pieces, and toss to combine.
Serves 2 to 3 as a main dish or 4 as part of a multi-course meal.
From STIR-FRYING TO THE SKY’S EDGE by Grace Young. © Copyright 2010 by Grace Young. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.