Make Room for Versatile Rice

Inside your kitchen cabinet, you'll probably find one of the world's most versatile foods. It has been a central ingredient in salads, entrees and desserts for thousands of years. Packed with energy-yielding carbohydrates and practically fat-free, its popularity continues to soar. Since it also is allergen-free, it has been embraced by people who are allergic to other staples. Have you guessed? It's rice.

Rice gets around

Archaeologists have determined that rice has been cultivated since at least 5000 B.C. Grown around the globe, rice is the main staple in the diets of more than half the world's population.

Modern convenience foods, including quick-cooking rice and flavored rice mixes, have contributed to the grain's rising popularity. At the same time, American households are enjoying ethnic foods that incorporate rice, such as Asian stir-fry, Italian risottos, Spanish pilafs, and Indian curries.

Nutrient rich

Rice has a good number of nutritional benefits. It contributes protein, some essential B vitamins, and, depending on the type of rice, fiber, vitamin E and important nutrients such as folate.

Rice naturally contains thiamine, niacin and iron; the qualities of these nutrients often are reduced during the milling process, however. American rice producers, therefore, fortify their grains by applying a coating of thiamine, niacin, and iron. To retain as many of these nutrients--and other vitamins--as possible, it's best not to rinse rice either before or after cooking.

Cooking characteristics vary according to rice variety. Short-grain rice tends to be more creamy and sticky when cooked; these varieties are used in dishes such as risottos, desserts, and sushi. Long-grain rice tends to stay separated when cooked; these types are often used in pilafs and other side dishes. Nutritionally, most rice varieties are similar, and can be interchanged in recipes. Quick-style rice typically is partially cooked, then dehydrated before packaging.

White rice results when the husk, bran, and germ of the grain are removed in processing. Brown rice is the entire grain with only the inedible outer husk removed. Because the bran and germ are still intact, brown rice provides more nutrients and more benefits than white rice. These benefits include some antioxidants, such as selenium, which strengthens the immune system. One cup of cooked brown rice provides 3.5 grams of fiber, a healthy percentage of the daily allowance of 20 to 35 grams recommended by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Wild rice isn't rice at all. It is actually the grain of an aquatic grass native to North America. Like brown rice, it is brown in color and has a chewy texture and nutty flavor. It is comparable to rice in its makeup of carbohydrates and fat, but offers more protein and fiber, fewer calories, and three times the folate of brown rice.

Cooking for nutrition

To serve the most nutritional rice, choose brown rice or fortified white rice over regular enriched white rice. Additionally you should consider limiting the amount of flavored rice mixes you serve, especially if someone in your family has a history of high blood pressure or is on a sodium-reduced diet. One serving of cooked rice contains about 2 mg of sodium, but prepared mixes can contain several hundred milligrams of sodium per serving.

Keep your rice fresh by storing it in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry place. White rice can be stored this way almost indefinitely, but brown rice, thanks to its bran and germ, has a shelf life of up to six months. You can keep brown rice fresher longer by refrigerating it.

Types of rice

In the United States, only a few varieties of rice are grown. These are typically designated as long, medium, and short grain varieties:

  • Long-grain rice has a long, slender kernel, four to five times longer than its width. Cooked grains are separate, light, and fluffy. One of the more exotic varieties in the long-grain category is the aromatic East Indian Basmati rice.

  • Medium-grain rice has a shorter, wider kernel (two to three times longer than its width) than long-grain rice. Cooked grains are more moist and tender, and have a greater tendency to cling together than long grain. It's shorter and moister than long-grain and generally not as starchy as short-grain. Although fairly fluffy right after being cooked, medium-grain rice begins to clump once it starts to cool. A popular medium-grain rice is Italian Arborio rice, typically used in risotto, which develops a creamy texture around a chewy center and is prized for its ability to absorb flavors.

  • Short-grain rice has a short, plump, almost round kernel and a higher starch content than either long- or medium-grain rice. Cooked grains are soft and cling together, making it ideal for stir-fry and sushi.

Tips for the perfect rice:

  • Time cooking accurately.

  • Keep lid on tightly during cooking to prevent steam from escaping.

  • Rice triples in volume--use the right size pots and pans.

  • At end of cooking time, remove lid and test for doneness. If rice is not quite tender or if liquid is not absorbed, cook two to four minutes longer. If cooked rice is crunchy, add additional liquid, cover tightly, and cook until grains are tender.

  • When rice is cooked, fluff with fork or slotted spoon to allow steam to escape and to keep the grains separate.

  • If more separate grains are desirable, saute rice in small amount of butter before cooking. Add liquid, and cook as directed.