Rice is a grain, the seed of a type of grass, which is the most widely grown and the most important source of dietary carbohydrate on Earth. Generally grown in flooded paddy fields to keep predators at bay, it can also be grown in soil but then requires much more human intervention and pest control. It is said there are almost 50,000 varieties of rice and more are being created every year by cross-breeding. In China, which produces about 25 per cent of all rice, some varieties ripen so quickly that two or even three crops a year can be harvested.
Rice may be cooked and eaten as a high-fibre, high-nutrition wholegrain, often called brown rice, or might be husked and then served as white rice, which is less nutritious and has no fibre content.
A few rice families have distinct and attractive fragrances and flavours, but most rice is chosen to be bland so it can be cooked, served and eaten as a filling accompaniment to tastier foods.
When ground and added to a hot liquid, white rice acts as a thickener.
Wherever you are in the world, rice of some kind will be available.
Choose the best
The important thing is to choose the style of rice that most suits your intended cooking: long-grain rice plumps and cooks into long separate grains, which are also still a little absorbent: medium length grains are a little softer, starchier and stickier and short-grain rice can be relied upon to stick together.
Otherwise, if you're buying in bulk, look for and avoid broken grains and dustiness, generally not a problem if you're buying in the West, even if buying in bulk that has been pre-packed in other countries. Best check what is said on the label and to pay extra to be sure the rice has been graded and cleaned.
Here are some of the choices, in alphabetical order:
Arborio: see Risotto rices
Basmati: properly from the slopes of the Himalayas, this very fragrant long-grain rice is widely considered to be the most superior of all. Its elegant grains and fine flavour add a noted glamour to any dish. Basmati rice should be aged at least a year before it is sold – enquire if you're buying in bulk – a process that reduces the water content and changes the flavour; really old basmati might smell a bit of the sacking in which it is traditionally stored but this cooks out, leaving something highly fragrant; basmati can be bought by district and vintage, that is by the precise area and by the year in which it was harvested. Cooking by any method other than absorption dilutes the flavour and finesse for which you have paid.
Black rice: wholegrain rice varieties, from long-grain to sticky types, including jasmine rice, all with a dark, blackish outer skin. As a wholegrain it is credited with extra nutritional advantage, especially iron, and was once reserved for royalty. When cooked it is more likely to look very dark brown. Maximum colour and nutrition is gained only from cooking slowly by the absorption method.
Bomba: this family of medium to short-grain rice from the Spanish East Coast is the correct variety to make a traditional paella. Its pointy fat grains have the ability to absorb very much more liquid than other varieties, from a third to five times more, and so swell tremendously, yet keep a good texture that is thus enrichened with the flavour of the stock. A well-known and reliable variety is calasparra DOP.
Brown rices: this term means a rice sold just as it is harvested and dried, thus brown rice means wholegrain rice. Every rice, long or short-grain, can be a brown rice and over the last decades newer and forgotten types have come onto the market, sometimes offering a different colour, like red camargue or black rices. They can be an unprocessed style of a variety usually sold as a white rice, like brown basmati rice. All brown rices require long cooking and should be served in smaller quantities than usual, as they're very filling.
Contrary to popular belief, no brown rice contains the full spectrum of proteins needed for a balanced diet; only soya, eggs, milk and meat do this. Like all grains, brown rices need to be eaten with pulses to provide this. There is published opinion that brown rices slow the digestion, but their high fibre content means exactly the opposite will happen.
Calasparra: see Bomba
Carolina: a reminder of the time that South Carolina produced more rice than anywhere else in the USA. Today it is more likely to be found as a catch-all brand, selling every type of rice.
Jasmine: native to Thailand, this rice must be cooked by the absorption method to get maximum return on flavour, the finest examples of which should remind you of the jasmine flower or pandanus/screwpine leaves. Also known as fragrant rice, it is not an alternative to basmati rice but a completely different choice in appearance (it is shorter and fatter), texture and taste.
As fragrant rice it is often the rice preferred by better Chinese and other Asian restaurants, except for those with roots in the Indian continent, which will choose patna or basmati.
Fragrant rice: see Jasmine rice
Glutinous rice: see Sticky rice
Paella rice: see Bomba rice
Par-boiled rice: although a processed, white rice, par-boiled rice contains more nutrition than other white rices, because the manufacturing process transfers nutrients to the grain from the husk before this is removed. Provided it is cooked by the absorption method it is nutritionally somewhere between brown and white rice but is fibre free and has the added attraction that the grains will never stick together.
Patna: a high–quality, non-fragrant, long-grain rice originally from Bihar State, India. It has long been the world’s favourite ‘go-to’ rice for savoury cooking.
Pilaf rices: pilafs, like pilaus, pulaos and similar, should be made only with long-grain rices; basmati is always a very good choice.
Pudding rice: short fat grains that plump and hold together with long cooking but are unctuous rather than sticky.
Risotto rice: Arborio is the best known variety. Others are vialone nano and carnaroli, both of which have fans, who think these are better. Grown mostly in the north of Italy, risotto rices retain integrity and bite while also releasing enough starch to make a thick emulsion with stock and butter that creates a lusciously textured sauce, which may just hold the grains together or be quite soupy, according to preference. Stirring of the rice while cooking is the key to creation of the sauce but it is not necessary for this agitation to be constant.
Sticky rice: also known as glutinous rice, these are varieties of short-grain rice that will always stick together; true sticky rices are very popular for making such sweet dishes as green mango and sticky rice in Thailand.
A degree of stickiness is preferred by those who eat with chopsticks or their fingers, and long-grain rice is made clingy without being sticky through very thorough cooking and being kept hot in a closed container. See also Sushi.
Sushi rice: a variety of short-grain rice guaranteed to hold together without being gluey, to make sturdy bases for sushi construction.
White rice: any rice variety that has had the outer husk removed, leaving just the inner seed.
Wholegrain rice: see Brown rices
Wild rice: not really rice at all but another variety of grass seed, originally native to the rivers of North America. Glossy, dark brown, thin and elegant it requires long cooking. Most grains should pop open and ‘butterfly’ when cooked. Now widely cultivated, even in Europe, rather than collected by Native Americans in canoes, it remains very expensive but is incomparably delicious, nutty, rich and satisfying. Often mixed with other rices but it should not be cooked with them for one or the other will be overcooked or undercooked: cook separately and then mix.
To retain nutrition, texture and flavour, the best way to cook rice is by the absorption method. The electric or microwave rice cooker is an invaluable and reliable best friend for rice cooking.
Because most rice sold in the West has been washed and cleaned, instructions to rinse and wash rice are largely pointless, wasting water and time as well as reducing nutrition, although not by much. Some long-grain rices or bigger-grain medium rices benefit by being pre-soaked to ensure they are fully plumped when cooked but careful cooking with added water for absorption gives the same result.
Equally, rinsing cooked rice results in less flavour and the likelihood of flabbiness: letting rice steam dry is as important letting pasta steam dry and this is a natural part of the process if you cook by the absorption method.
Rice intended for a cold rice salad should be a basmati or jasmine rice; if you use a non-fragrant rice, add bay leaves to the cooking water. Use oil rather than butter and once cooled a little, spread the rice out to dry further. Flavour while warm with a good dressing before adding other ingredients.