In China, a girl who doesn’t finish her rice may be told that each uneaten grain represents a pockmark on the face of her future husband. Indian babies taste their first solid food—a mixture of basmati and ghee—at the Hindu rice-eating ceremony. In China and Japan, you ask, “Have you had your rice?” as a way of saying, “How are you?”
Rice is a labor-intensive grain from two species of cereal grass, Oryza sativa and Oryza glaberrima. It grows mostly in semitropical and tropical climates, on terraced hillsides that are manually flooded with water. The shallow puddles in these rice paddies prevent weeds from growing but must be drained before harvest. More humans eat rice than possibly any other food on the planet. Despite there being over 100,000 varieties, many people just rely on plain white long-grain rice like Uncle Ben’s”. Here’s our guide to different types of rice, cooking methods, and some less familiar varieties we like.
Types of Rice
Short-grain rice is round and fat, about as long as it is wide. It gets sticky and viscous because of its high starch content and must be rinsed before cooking. Short-grain sushi rice should be soaked before cooking, too. Besides sushi, it’s used for Chinese rice porridge called jook. Some varieties of short-grain rice are used for paella and risotto.
Medium-grain rice is two to three times longer than its width. It’s firmer than short-grain rice, but is sticky and has a tendency to clump together when it cools. It’s great for serving with stir-fries or for making risotto and paella.
Long-grain rice is four to five times longer than its width. Because it has very low starch content, the grains are fluffy and dry, and remain separate when cooked. It’s an excellent base for saucy foods and is the rice of choice for rice-based casseroles like Indian biryani or pilafs.
Sticky rice, also known as sweet rice or glutinous rice, is a short-grain rice that must be soaked and steamed rather than boiled, or it will fall apart. In northern Thailand and Laos, where it’s widely consumed, sticky rice is rolled into balls and then dipped in savory sauces, or sweetened and served as a chewy dessert.
Aromatic rice can be either long or medium grain, and contains high concentrations of naturally occurring chemical compounds that create pungent fragrances. Examples include Indian basmati and Thai jasmine rice.
Terms like brown, white, and instant refer not to the type of rice but to the method by which the rice has been processed before it’s sold.
Brown rice: Rice in its most natural form, brown rice is grain that’s undergone very little or no milling. Its nutritious, nutty-tasting outer layer of germ and bran are left intact, so it appears light brown and requires longer cooking times. All types of rice have a “brown” (that is, unprocessed, whole grain) form.
White rice (or polished rice): White rice has its germ and bran layers removed in the milling process, and the grain beneath has been “polished” by tiny wire brushes.
Wild rice: Despite its name, wild rice is not technically a rice, but rather the whole grain of a cool-climate-dwelling marsh grass native to North America.
Instant rice (or quick-cooking rice): This is white rice that’s been precooked and then dehydrated. It can be recooked in boiling water in about five minutes.
Parboiled (or converted rice): Parboiling is a common way of processing rice in South Asia. The rice is boiled in its husk, then dried and milled into white rice. Parboiling makes rice more nutritious (because nutrients from the germ and bran diffuse into the grain), gives the rice a nuttier flavor, but causes it to require longer cooking times than nonparboiled rice.
Rice We Like
Carolina gold: This long-grain rice, which has a sweet, buttery taste and is originally from Madagascar, was one of the first New World crops, introduced in the Carolina Territory in 1685 and farmed by slaves. It nearly went extinct until a Savannah, Georgia-based eye surgeon recovered some seeds in the 1980s and promoted its cultivation. Cook it using the basic boiling method, then try adding bacon, ham, scallions, and tomatoes.
Jasmine rice: This long-grain, aromatic rice from Thailand will make your house smell like a combination of flowers and popcorn when you cook it. Cook using the basic boiling method, then serve as an accompaniment to Asian foods like curries and stir-fries. Or do as Ilene Rosen of New York City’s City Bakery does and make a pilaf out of brown jasmine rice, radishes, toasted pistachios, chopped parsley, and mint.
Basmati rice: This savory-smelling aromatic long-grain rice grows in the foothills of the Himalayas and is the favored rice in India. Cook using the basic boiling method and serve with sauce-heavy curries. Or try our recipe for Persian-Style Rice with Saffron and Lentils.
Carnaroli rice: This short-grain rice is creamier and less sticky when cooked than Arborio rice, so it is the choice of many for making risotto. Cook using the risotto method. Try our recipe for Wild Mushroom Risotto.
Sushi rice: After washing and soaking this short-grain rice, cook using the basic boiling method. Once the rice is cooked, season and then cool it by fanning it. You may want to skip the labor-intensive process of making hand rolls or nigiri and instead make chirashi sushi: In a bowl, top cooked rice with raw fish, sliced lotus root, and nori, and serve.
Chinese black rice: Legend has it that this nutty medium-grain rice, also known as forbidden rice, was reserved for the emperors of ancient China. Cook using the basic boiling method. Good on its own, or in a rice salad (it turns purple when cooked) with edamame, toasted white sesame seeds, and a tamari and vinegar dressing.
Bhutanese red rice: Cook this medium-grain rice from the eastern Himalayas using the basic boiling method. Add dried figs, toasted pine nuts, and chopped scallions for a rice salad, or cook the rice in stock, finish with melted butter, and serve as a complement to wild mushrooms or gamy meats.
Kalijira rice: This tiny long-grain rice from Bangladesh is also called baby basmati because it’s like a miniature version of the better-known aromatic. Cook using the basic boiling method or the pilaf method. It makes an excellent biryani.
Bomba: A short-grain rice grown in Spain, bomba is considered the best variety to use when making paella. Cooked similarly to pilaf, paella is made in a cast-iron pan, a paella pan, or any large, shallow pan that’s oven safe—not a pot. After the liquid is added and the rice is cooked on the stovetop, seared meat, fish, and/or shellfish is added, and the mixture is cooked uncovered in an oven, over a grill, or on an open fire.