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Rice is a central, daily staple food for billions of people around the globe. There are thousands of varieties of rice, but the vast majority of them are derived from one of two basic types:

  • Indica: a long, firm grain; and
  • Japonica, a short, stickier grain.

(there are also “medium grain varieties that you can buy)  The names “indica” and “japonica” are rarely used; 99% of the time you’ll just hear these referred to as “long grain” and “short grain,” or by the name of a particular subtype. Basmati and jasmine are long-grain rice; sushi rice is short-grain.

You will also see “brown rice” and “white rice.” Curiously, these terms have nothing to do with the particular type of rice, and everything to do with how they are processed. There are three main parts to a grain of rice: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The endosperm is the central part and is mostly starches. Brown rice leaves the entire grain, with all three parts, intact; white rice has the bran and germ milled off, leaving just the endosperm. Brown rice is chewier, has more nutrition and more flavor, and takes longer to cook. The bran contains almost all of the pigmentation for a grain of rice, which is why an intact grain looks brown, and a grain with the bran removed looks white.

There are other types of rice that have different colors of pigmentation in the bran, usually red or purple/black. While they could be milled down like white rice, they would lose almost all of their coloring in the process. Consequently, nearly all red or black rice you buy is whole-grain like brown rice.

You will also see “quick cooking” rice on store shelves. This is white rice that has been partially pre-cooked, then dried out again – so most of “cooking” it at home is simply rehydrating it.

Rice is incredibly flexible as an ingredient. It can be a side dish, one that you can flavor in all sorts of interesting ways. It can be a base for serving food on top of, especially when that food comes with a sauce. It can be a wrapped around ingredients, for example in sushi. It can be mixed into a dish such as paella, jambalaya, or any of a countless number of dishes from other cuisines. It can be the main dish, for example risotto. It can be breakfast food, porridge-style, like congee. And it can be dessert, such as coconut sticky rice (one of my favorites).

Part of the magic of rice is that it absorbs a lot of liquid, and in doing so can absorb flavors. White rice itself is fairly flavorless, but that’s perfectly fine if it’s going to be served with something that has strong flavors – a palate-cleanser, much in the same way that bread serves in western cuisines – or if it’s going to absorb the flavors of things that are cooked along with it.  To that end, many recipes call for cooking rice in two steps: first the traditional way (sometimes stopping a bit short of fully cooked so that it has a bit more capacity to absorb liquid) and then added to other ingredients to finish it off.

A few words on making substitutions:

  • Sticky rice, sushi/sashimi, and anything to be eaten with chopsticks will probably call for short-grain rice. Most other dishes use long-grain. Substituting a long-grain rice for a short-grain one, or vice versa, rarely works out well.
  • In many recipes you can substitute brown rice for white rice, but keep in mind that it will require more cooking time. If your rice cooks while mixed in with other ingredients (e.g. a Spanish rice recipe) then the extra cooking time might overcook some of the other ingredients. Substituting brown rice for white rice works best in recipes where the rice is cooked entirely separately, or is mixed in right at the end.

Cooking rice

When you cook rice, you are mainly doing two things: allowing it to re-absorb water (rice is dried as part of processing it after it’s harvested), and softening the starch contained in the grains.  In different parts of the world, there are differing ways to cook rice that relate to the way they are typically served and consumed. The two main ways are:

  1. Measure out just enough water and simmer the rice in it so that when all of the water is either absorbed into the rice or boiled off, the rice is done. You can do this on the stove with a covered pot, but it’s also how a rice cooker works. This tends to give fluffy, sticky rice that clumps together – a big plus if you’re trying to eat it with chopsticks.
  2. Boil it like pasta, in a big pot of water, and strain out the rice when it reaches the appropriate level of tenderness. This gives less sticky rice where every grain separates out, as it tends to be served in south Asia and in western countries.

Rice starts out with some starch on the outside of the grain, which can add to the stickiness/clumpiness of the finished product. Many recipes call for rinsing the rice first to remove the starch, especially if you are using a rice cooker and hoping for western-style rice that isn’t sticky or clumpy.

Most rice packages only give instructions for the “east Asian” style where the rice and water are precisely measured out and all the water is absorbed at the end. This method, however, can be fickle since it will depend on how much heat your stove gives off when set to “simmer.” That makes it easy to get the timing wrong. With the rare exception of sushi rice or sticky rice, I tend to use the “boil it like pasta” approach: it’s ridiculously easy, you don’t have to worry about exact measurements, it’s impossible to burn it, and (the best part) it cooks rice faster – in about half the time. The only downside is that it uses more water. You also don’t have to worry about rinsing the rice before cooking it; the pot of water will take care of that for you. Not surprisingly, this is how most restaurants cook rice in large quantities (other than East Asian cuisines, which often use large rice cookers).

To boil rice:

  1. Bring a pot of water to boil. Use at least 2 quarts of water for every cup of (uncooked) rice you intend to boil. The rice will still absorb a lot of water, up to twice its uncooked volume, and you want enough extra water so that all of the rice can move around in the pot and cook evenly.
  2. Add in the rice. Bring back to a boil.
  3. Add approx. 1 tsp. of kosher salt for every quart of water in the pot. This doesn’t have to be a precise measurement; you can adjust it to your taste, though honestly you won’t taste much of the salt in the rice – mostly it stays in the water.  Also, make sure to wait for the water to come back to a boil before adding the salt, otherwise you risk doing damage to the surface of your pot.
  4. For white rice: cook on high boil for 13 minutes. For brown rice, 23 minutes. Don’t start the timer until the water has come back up to a boil.
  5. Strain the rice out through a fine-mesh strainer, and serve.

Tips and things to try:

  • The leftover water that you used to boil your rice is great for adding to sauces: all that extra starch that came off the rice and is now in the water will help to naturally thicken the sauce.
  • Use chicken or vegetable stock instead of water for either method of cooking rice. Or coconut milk (though you may need to dilute it, and be careful that it doesn’t burn).
  • Try adding 1 tablespoon (or more) of curry powder to the boiling water before you add the rice. It will give your rice a nice yellow color and some mild flavor. Or invent your own variations on this, taking advantage of the fact that the rice will absorb whatever is dissolved in the water.

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