Rice was one of the first crops chosen by our ancient ancestors when they decided to ditch the hunter/gatherer lifestyle in favor of farming because it’s a nutritional powerhouse that supplies most human dietary needs for protein, complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.
Today, rice is this country’s fifth most valuable food crop and riding high, with per-capita consumption in the U.S. up almost 25% since 1990. The reasons include…
- mainstream nutritional guidelines that emphasize eating grains, especially whole grains rich in complex carbohydrates and vegetable proteins;
- the growing interest in authentic ethnic cuisines, many of which feature rice prominently;
- rice’s intrinsic versatility, which lends itself to numerous uses in all dayparts; and
- the ready adaptability of rice to a wide variety of the kinds of convenience products that time-challenged consumers are increasingly turning to.
There are actually thousands of varieties of rice in the world, though only a few are grown commercially in the United States. Most can be classified by grain lengths, which generally determine starchiness.
Long-grain rice is a fairly dry, fluffy product that separates well and is therefore ideal for soups, salads, pilafs and other uses where the chef wishes to emphasize the distinct grains. Short-grain rice is just the opposite—mushy and quite sticky—while the less common medium-grain variety straddles the two extremes.
Another area of differentiation is color—brown or white. This is determined by the processing, not the variety, since both come from the same raw product. When rice is milled, the seed’s inedible shell, called the "hull," is removed, leaving a brown kernel. At this point, the brown fibers enveloping the shell can either be removed, producing white rice, or retained, leaving brown rice. The latter has a stronger, often nutty, flavor, and is chewier, while white is preferable for applications where its blandness allows it to combine with other ingredients.
Brown rice is more nutritious than white because the brown husk that is removed to produce white rice contains much of rice’s natural fiber, vitamins and minerals. Consequently, white rice is often fortified (or enriched) to put some of these desirable nutrients back. Alternately, the raw rice can undergo a special soaking and steaming process before milling that forces the bran and germ into the starch of the grain. The resulting converted or parboiled rice combines the qualities of white rice with the nutritional aspects of brown (it takes a little longer to cook than conventional white rice because of the extra fiber).
Other generally available types of rice include the following:
Arborio rice, typically used in risotto, is a medium-grain variety that develops a creamy texture around a chewy center and readily absorbs surrounding flavors. The raw product has a charcteristic white dot at the center of the grain.
Aromatic rices—-which include della, jasmine, wild pecan, texmati and basmati—-have strong flavors and aromas, often described as similar to roasted nuts, because of greater natural concentrations of flavor-producing compounds.
Wild rice is actually not a rice at all, but a kind of water grass seed with exceptionally high levels of vegetable proteins.
Rice is available in all of the forms listed above, plus more. Convenience rice formulations come in a wide variety of pre-spiced forms for a quick start to ethnic dishes ranging from jambalaya and paella to various Asian favorites. Of course, the most common convenience rice is precooked, which is raw product that has been completely cooked and dehydrated after milling. Consequently, it requires little more than rehydration and heating.
Always follow a manufacturer’s directions, especially for proprietary convenience formulations. For plain rice, the ratio of water to rice generally ranges from 3:2 to 2:1, with the brown and longer grain varieties requiring less water than white and shorter grain types. All varieties should be cooked with the lid tightly on the pot to prevent steam from escaping. Special rice steamers and cookers require a little less water. For these, follow manufacturer’s directions.
Since rice triples in size when it cooks, the pot should be large enough to accommodate the extra volume. White rice takes about 15 minutes to cook while brown can take 45 or more. Once done, fluff with a fork or slotted spoon to vent remaining steam.
Tip: For greater grain separation, saute the uncooked rice in a little butter before boiling.
Unopened bags of uncooked rice should be stored off the floor in a dry, clean place. White rice keeps almost indefinitely at room temperature but brown rice should be refrigerated because the oil content of the bran layer could become rancid.
Once a bag is opened, unused rice should be stored in a clean, sturdy container with a tight-fitting lid.
Rice should not be left in the pot or kettle for more than 10 minutes after cooking. Turn cooked rice immediately into shallow pans, cover and hold at a temperature of 140°F until served. Rice that is held below this temperature for more than one hour should be discarded. Adding a half cup of melted butter, margarine or oil to each gallon of cooked rice helps keep the grains separate.
Leftovers should be turned into shallow pans, covered, and cooled rapidly to below 70°F within two hours and refrigerated at 40°F or lower. Cooked rice can also be frozen.
To reheat, add one-half cup liquid per quart of cooked rice. Cover and heat thoroughly on top of range or in oven to an internal temperature of 165°F and serve immediately. Subsequent leftovers should be discarded.
Resources: Information from the American Rice Council. For more, log on to www.ricecafe.com fm