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What Is Rice?
Rice is a cereal grain that encompasses more than 10,000 varieties from two main species: Oryza sativa, which is native to India, Southeast Asia, and southern China, and west African Oryza glaberrima. Most rice comes from one of two Oryza sativa subspecies: Indica, which is long-grain and high in amylose starch (more stable), and Japonica, which contains less amylose starch and tends to be short-grain and sticky. Oryza glaberrima has red bran and has been cultivated in west Africa for thousands of years.
Anatomy of a Grain of Rice
Rice, like most gains, is composed of three important parts: the endosperm, bran, and germ. The bran (outermost layer), contains fiber and B vitamins. The germ (aka embryo) contains oils, vitamins, proteins, minerals, and antioxidants. The endosperm (located above the germ), contains carbohydrates and protein. Brown, or whole-grain rice, contains all three parts. It takes longer to cook and has a more complex, nutty flavor than white rice, which is starchier and contains just the endosperm.
Rice contains both amylopectin and amylose starches. Rices that are high in amylose and low in amylopectin, like basmati, are considered waxy and look translucent when raw and have a firm, dry texture when cooked. Rices that are low in amylose and high in amylopectin, such as jasmine, look opaque when raw are sticky and soft when cooked.
Categorizing Rice: By Length, Aroma, Starch Content, and Milling
The thousands of varieties of rice can be categorized in many ways, including by texture, level of milling (which also encompasses color), aroma, and starch content. Here are some of the most common ways of talking about rice.
- Long-grain rice is four to five times as long as it is wide and contains around 22 percent amylose starch. It produces separate gains and should be cooked in lots of water. Most Chinese and Indian rices are long-grain Indica rices.
- Medium-grain rice is two to three times as long as it is wide and contains around 15 percent amylose starch. Popular medium-grain rices include Italian risotto rice, Spanish paella rice, and some Japonica rices.
- Short-grain rice is only a little longer than it is wide. It’s popular in north China, Japan, and Korea, and good for sushi because it tends to be clingy and tender at room temperature.
- Aromatic rices are long- or medium- grain rices with lots of volatile compounds, such as jasmine and basmati rices.
By Starch Content:
- Sticky rice (aka glutinous rice or sweet rice) is high in amylopectin starch and very clingy. It’s typically prepared by soaking and steaming rather than boiling, to preserve the starch. Despite its name, glutinous rice does not contain gluten and does not taste sweet, although it’s especially popular for desserts in Laos and northern Thailand.
By Level of Milling:
- Any variety of rice can be sold brown, or unmilled. Brown rice is a whole grain with its bran and germ intact. Brown rice takes longer to cook, has a chewy texture and nutty flavor. It’s less shelf-stable than refined rice because the oil and the bran can become rancid, and should ideally be stored in the fridge to prevent spoiling.
- Semi-milled rice, known as semi-lavorato in Italy and haiga-mai in Japan, is more nutritious than white rice but less chewy and quicker-cooking than brown. Bhutanese red rice is often sold semi-milled.
- White rice, aka milled rice, has had its bran and germ removed and is therefore quicker cooking and less nutritious than brown rice.
9 Types of Rice Used in Cooking
- Jasmine is one of the most commonly available white rice varieties in the United States. Jasmine rice is an aromatic long-grain rice with a high concentration of compounds that give off a strong fragrance when the rice is cooked and a low percentage of amylose starch. Jasmine rice comes from Thailand, where it’s known as khao hom mali (“rice smell jasmine”). Oddly enough, the name comes from the color—white like a jasmine flower—not the scent, which is popcorn-y and only subtly floral. Jasmine rice is the perfect side dish for all kinds of Thai foods, including grilled or ground meats and spicy curries. The stickiness and sweetness of jasmine rice make it a great addition stir-fried vegetables, and it stands up well in a stew. Its soft texture means that it’s not the best choice for fried rice.
- Basmati is an aromatic, long-grain Indica rice. Its name means fragrant in Hindi, the most prominent language in India, where approximately 70 percent of the world’s basmati rice is grown. Basmati rice is extraordinarily versatile and can be prepared with butter and fresh herbs as an accompaniment to curries and braised meats. It’s healthier than white rice because it has less starch, which also allows whatever flavorful sauce you might use to completely coat the rice. Try it in our cheesy herbed basmati rice recipe.
- Arborio rice—short-grain with a starchy coating—is used to make a risotto that slowly absorbs liquid, resulting in a creamy-saucy texture. It is a great way to showcase a flavorful stock. Named after the commune of Arborio in the northwestern Italian region of Piedmont, Arborio rice is high in amylopectin starch, which is what gives risotto its creamy texture. The oval grains are about a quarter of an inch long and typically white. Arborio rice is also available brown (unrefined), but it’s much more commonly sold as white rice, which is starchier.
- Wild rice is not technically rice, but it is a whole grain, the seed of a marsh grass native to North America long cultivated by Native Americans. Wild rice contains more protein and fiber, but less iron and calcium, than brown rice. Try it in a wild rice salad with green onions, cranberries, and pecans.
- Black rice, also known as purple rice or forbidden rice, can refer to more than 20 varieties of rice high in anthocyanin pigment, the same antioxidant pigment that gives eggplants and blackberries their deep color. Black rice is almost always sold as a whole grain, with the outer layer of bran intact, making black rice technically a type of brown, or unrefined, rice. The raw, uncooked grains look black, while cooked or soaked grains look more purple—the result of the dark bran mixing with the white endosperm. Although they look similar, black rice is not related to wild rice, a grain of the genus Zizania. Instead, it’s a true rice: an heirloom variety that gets its color from the same type of mutation that affects red rice. Black rice is popular in Asian porridges and desserts.
- Red rice, like black rice, refers to multiple varieties of rice that are high in anthocyanin, an antioxidant pigment that colors the bran. Red rice is either sold whole grain or partially milled to show off the red color and will become pink when cooked. Varieties include Bhutanese red rice, Himalayan red rice, Thai red rice, and Vietnamese red rice.
- Carolina gold is a long-grain Indica rice from South Carolina, which was a major rice producer before the Civil War. It’s now experiencing a revival in the artisanal market. Carolina gold is versatile: Try it in pilafs, rice pudding, and even risotto.
- Bomba, also known as Valencia rice, is a Spanish medium-grain Japonica rice used for paella. It’s from the region of Calasparra, southwest of Valencia, and has very absorbent, large grains. It’s the most commonly available variety of Spanish rice, and somewhat similar to arborio rice.
- Carnaroli is a medium-grain Japonica rice from Italy, and the most expensive risotto rice. It has more amylose starch than other varieties, so it stays firm even when cooked with lots of broth.
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