I first tasted whole-grain brown rice in 1972 at a little natural-foods store and cafe in Isla Vista, the student community adjacent to the University of California at Santa Barbara.
I was captivated by the full flavor. Before that, whole grains just didn't exist in my world: rice, bread, pasta, cereals, cookies, flour, corn — they were all degerminated, milled, polished, bromated and bleached. Popular foods were heavily processed, with less nutrition. Totally artificial foods like Tang, Cool Whip, Jell-o, Crisco and Velveeta were all the rage.
That's when I became a whole-grain person. That taste was life-changing. Whole grains are flavor- and texture-forward. I could feel strength and power and change with every bite. It was a food revolution. Nothing personified it more than brown rice.
Rice was one of mankind's first domesticated crops, dating back 10,000 years. It fueled the great enduring civilizations in China and India and Egypt, then traveled around the world. Now more than half the world's people rely on rice for the majority of their caloric intake. It's the most important food on the planet.
Every grain of rice is a seed that consists of an inedible husk, the germ (the life-starting location for the emerging plant), several thin layers of bran, and the white, starchy endosperm. Every grain of rice starts as a whole grain.
To prepare rice for eating, first the husk is removed, and 150 years ago that's where most processing stopped. This is whole-grain rice. It is perishable and must be kept cool. It takes about 45 minutes to cook.
With the Industrial Age new machines came into use that processed rice faster and cleaner, "milling" and "polishing" to remove the germ and bran, peeling off key nutritional components, and producing a white rice that cooks soft in 15 minutes and keeps for decades.
The complete nutritional package of whole-grain rice protects against cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, inflammation, type-2 diabetes, obesity, and colorectal cancer. White rice does not. Instead it is a factor in promoting those diseases.
There are more than 40,000 varieties of cultivated rice, a continuum ranging from very short, sweet and sticky to extremely long, thin and dry. Some distinctive heritage varieties are especially aromatic or colored — red, purple or black. American "wild rice" is a distant cousin, harvested and developed as a food crop over the last 2,000 years. To simplify, there are only three major categories.
Short-grain rice is stout and round, and heavier in proteins that stick together. It's used for sushi, rice pudding and Italian risotto. Extremely short-grain, sticky-grain rice, also known as mochigome, is used for the chewy, gelatinous Japanese confection called mochi.
Medium-grain rice cooks up nutty and chewy. It's still soft, but holds its shape in salads, soups and even when fried (as in Chinese fried rice). Medium-grain rice is the most versatile, the one I keep around for everyday use.
Long-grain rice is elegant, and the grains hold up distinctively. This is the standard white rice in the grocery store. Jasmine and Basmati gourmet varieties are also long-grain. It's the rice of preference for pilafs, which I'll explain later.
Rice is the mainstay of human nutrition across hundreds of countries and cuisines from Japan to Brazil, Louisiana to Egypt, India to East Africa and Greece to the Philippines. There are probably 40,000 delicious ways to cook it. Before the 19th century most rice was whole-grain, so you can take any recipe that calls for white rice and use whole-grain. Just remember to add 30 minutes to the cooking time.
Cook it up
I've been through the brown-rice cooking school of hard knocks. I've made all the mistakes — undercooked, dry and hard, gooey, sticky, burned. So please pay close attention here.
For basic steamed rice, use two parts water to one part rice. One cup of dry rice turns into three cups cooked. Bring the water to a boil. Add rice. Reduce to a simmer and cover tightly. Simmer 40-45 minutes. This is important: do not stir. When you're ready to check for doneness, taste a few grains with a fork. If they aren't tender, add a tiny bit more water, cover and simmer for a few more minutes, covered. Let the rice sit for a few more minutes before serving.
I always make extra rice to have it on hand in the refrigerator (it keeps for about a week) as the base for quick, thrown-together meals. For example, I just had a rice salad for dinner: greens, vegetables, a dollop of rice, and dressing. Or use it for rice bowls, in soups, or for rice pudding. Mix cooked rice with sautéed onions, roasted peppers, sweet corn and cheddar cheese and bake, and you have a Mexican dish. Add sautéed garlic, zucchini, mozzarella, an egg or two and Parmesan cheese, and it's Italian. Cooked rice is a great out-of-the-hat trick for cooking on the fly.
Thirteenth-century Arabic texts describe the consistency of pilaf: the grains should be plump and somewhat firm, to resemble peppercorns, with no mushiness, and each grain should be separate, with no clumping.
This has evolved into complex Indian rice dishes, Spanish paella, and simpler Mexican rice and French pilafs. Essentially, to make pilaf you first fry raw dry rice in a little oil until the grains are sealed, then follow with additions (tomato juice or stocks, roasted vegetables, smoked meats, seafood, chicken, spices, onions, garlic) characteristic of the cuisines that make each recipe spectacular, then steam with a tight lid until the liquid evaporates. With all the extra ingredients it's tricky to balance the right amount of liquid to cook the rice so it comes out tender and not mushy.
Experience healthy and delicious rice dishes from around the world. Use whole-grain brown rice (increase cooking time by 30 minutes).
Steamed Rice Recipes
Fried rice is always made from cooked, cold rice.
The leading grower of organic and specialty rice, based in California. Available in stores.
California whole-grain organic brown rice and almonds, available online.
Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid
"Two hundred easy-to-prepare dishes from the world's great rice cuisines, illuminated by stories, insights, and more than two hundred photographs of people, places, and wonderful food. Cherished dishes — Chinese stir-frys, Spanish paellas, Japanese sushi, Indian thorans, Thai salads, Turkish pilafs, Italian risottos — are shared not just as recipes, but as time-honored traditions."
Storage: To preserve the best flavor and nutrition, whole-grain rice should be stored in an airtight container and refrigerated or frozen if kept longer than two months.
Safety: Always refrigerate cooked rice in small batches within two hours of cooking.
Bacillus cerus is a naturally occurring toxin-producing sporulating, anaerobic bacteria that grows in improperly handled rice and causes yucky foodborne illness.
Arsenic: Rice is a plant that picks up arsenic and always has. Rice from the American south has been planted on land where cotton was grown. Cotton is not a food crop, so it gets sprayed with more harmful chemicals, like arsenic. Whole-grain brown rice from California tests well below the maximum permitted level of arsenic. For complete information and full analysis visit Lundberg Family Farms.
Chef Molly Beverly is Prescott’s creative food activist and teacher. As Chair of Slow Food Prescott she champions community gardens and sustainable food education.