Wednesday, August 1, 2001

Brown rice, good and easy – long version

This is a lightly edited early draft of a much shorter article that was ultimately published as my Table Talk column in Madison Magazine in the summer or fall of 2001. Although it's not as polished as the published version, this draft contains a lot of info that didn't make it to press. I came upon it when posting the Table Talk column to this archive blog, and thought it was worth dusting off to post alongside. In truth, the need to abbreviate so severely for mainstream publication has been, for me, one of the most painful things about freelance writing.

To read a version of the rice article closer to the published version, click here.

– VVK, October 1, 2009

It's easy to make a perfect pot of brown rice, fluffy and appealing as a bed or side dish for just about any main course. What's not so easy is finding out how.

You wouldn’t expect this to be so. Brown rice is practically a symbol of the whole natural foods movement. It’s available everywhere, from the tiniest co-op to the slickest supermarket. Yet, I can’t count the times that friends – good cooks, whole foods enthusiasts – have told me that brown rice just won’t cook up right for them. It always seems to end up mushy, or scorched, or underdone, or somehow otherwise yucky. “I hate brown rice!” cried a vegetarian friend. Why? Because it always comes out just awful.

Really, this is as much as can be expected. Many published directions for plain brown rice – even those printed right on the packages, strangely enough – are literally recipes for disaster. As an experiment, instead of preparing rice the way I usually do, I tried following the instructions on the bag of Tsuru Mai California Brown Rice, my usual brand. Sure enough, I wound up with a insipid, soupy, crunchy, unpalatable mess.

I did some more investigating, and I was appalled at what I found. Most of the recipes I checked out include at least one feature guaranteed to wreck the rice. Like, they don't include salt – which you need to bring out brown rice=s marvelous, but mild, flavor. Or they have you turn down the heat to the lowest possible simmer – thereby guaranteeing a pot of pulpy sop. Or they have you cooking a single cup of rice in an enormous pot or pressure cooker.

Sometimes there's simply not enough information. For instance, one recipe, which doesn’t even tell how much rice to use, just stipulates “enough water to cover the middle finger to the middle of the second joint as the fingertip rests lightly on the top of the rice.” No wonder some people decide, after a few bouts with it, that brown rice is for the birds.

Why are the instructions so often so wrong? I can't even guess. But after about twenty years of practice, I do know how to make brown rice so that it's: tender (not mushy), moist (not soggy), and agreeably firm to the bite (without aggravating little hard spots). And so can you.

Brown rice is a little trickier to cook than white rice. But you can learn the tricks. And it's worth it.

Brown rice makes a hearty, tasty foundation for any high-fiber, low-fat, whole foods diet. [Author’s note, 2009: I no longer follow, espouse, or believe there are any benefits to a low-fat diet. Nor do I believe anymore that grain is an optimal foundation for a human diet. See this manifesto on, my low-carb site, for a more current representation of my views on the matter.] It’s got two to four times the fiber of white rice, and is a richer source of naturally-occurring B vitamins (white rice is usually enriched artificially), Vitamin E, essential oils, and minerals like magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium and zinc.

Rice naturally has a loose, tough, inedible hull which is easily cracked and winnowed away, even with a hand tool like a wooden pestle. What=s left is the whole grain that we call brown rice – though depending on the variety, it can be brown, red, or even white. More pounding with a pestle will shatter off the edible, nutritious layer of rice bran, leaving only a white core consisting mainly of carbohydrates. This remaining core of white rice can be stored longer – important in low technology societies without modern packaging and storage – and cooks faster – important when fuel is dearly obtained. Also, although rice is not a high-protein food, research shows that what it has is more available when the rice is polished – important when protein is scarce. All these reasons put together may be why white rice became the predominant way of preparing rice the world over.

Ironically, then, brown rice seems to be a true modern health food, rather than the iconic back-to-nature fare it seems to represent. California's Lundberg Family Farms introduced brown rice to an American market in the late 1960s, in response to requests from the blossoming natural foods community. In this light, perhaps it's not so unusual, after all, that we're still figuring out how to get it right.

So what’s the secret to perfect brown rice? It all comes to combining a few ingredients in a suitable container, applying heat for an appropriate length of time – and otherwise leaving it all alone.

Stripped to the essentials, here's how to do it, followed by what you need to know to make it as easy as it should be.

Brown Rice
1 cup short grain brown rice
1 1/2 cups water
1/4 teaspoon salt

Rinse rice. Combine all ingredients in a one- to two-quart saucepan (smaller is better), Bring to boiling.
Reduce heat, cover, and cook 40 minutes at a high simmer/low boil. Do not stir.
Remove from heat and let sit at least fifteen minutes before serving.
Yield: about 3 cups cooked brown rice.

Use short grain brown rice, at least to start. Long grain is trickier to pull off; it=s more likely to become mushy. Look for the chubby little grains of short grain brown rice. They stay firm and delicious for days after cooking.

The best pot for this job is a thick-walled, two-quart saucepan. I use a clear glass Corning Visions pot. You can see right through it, without lifting the lid, to check how hard the water is boiling. The bottom is clear, too, so I can look through the bottom of the pot to check for scorching. Newer Visions pots, though, have opaque nonstick linings on the bottoms, so they don't feature the bottom view. The uncoated ones do turn up often at places like Goodwill – that's where I got mine.

If you don't have a glass pot, try stainless steel, enameled iron (with no chips), or some other nonreactive surface. That way, you can store your cooked rice in the same container you cook it in. (Caution: Don't store cooked food in a reactive material like iron or aluminum. Iron rusts, and aluminum pits and can leach aluminum oxide, which is toxic.) And here's another advantage of glass: not only can you stick the pot in the fridge, but you can pop it right into the microwave to reheat!

If you bought the rice from a bulk bin, pick over it carefully for any pebbles you might find. Occasional green grains are normal, but discard any black, spoiled grains. Rinse the rice to get rid of any field dust.

Place rice in pot and add water and salt. From this moment on, do not stir! As the water boils, the rice grains will arrange themselves into a network of nooks and crannies through which the water bubbles up. In this way, each grain gets its own little space to plump up to perfection. You'll be able to see the passageways when you look inside the pot. I tried stirring the rice partway through cooking once, as an experiment. I suppose it was for the good of science, but I felt sorry for the sodden mass of rice that made the sacrifice.

Now, turn the heat all the way up to get a good rolling boil. Leave the pot uncovered for this step, so it doesn’t boil over while you're not looking. It helps to set a timer. On my stove, nine minutes brings me back just as the boil is getting started.

Once you’ve got the boil going, set your timer for another forty minutes, cover the pot, and adjust the heat until it's bubbling lightly, checking in now and again on the activity level. If you can't decide whether to call it a simmer or a boil, you’ve got it where you want it. The rice should be done in about forty to fifty minutes, but take note of how long it actually takes on your stove and with your cookware (check again if you change pots next time), and adjust your timer, or perhaps your flame, accordingly the next go-round.

As it gets closer to time, check in to make sure there's still water in the pot. Since you're not allowed to stir the rice, how can you tell when the water's all gone? Simple: tilt the pot. If you can see water pooling, it needs to cook some more. If no water pools, take the pot off the heat. Right away. Even if the rice looks very moist. Otherwise, it's going to scorch. Fortunately, rice is among the more forgiving of foods in this way; even if the bottom gets moderately scorched, the rest of the rice does okay. (I’ve known people who swear by the supposed fiery energy bestowed by the singed so-called “yang layer” peeled from the bottom of their cook pot. When life gives you lemons, I guess.)

After you take the pot off the heat, leave it alone – tightly covered – for at least fifteen minutes. Longer is fine. But if you serve it now, it'll be wet and droopy, and will lay flat on the plate. Some recipes call for "fluffing" the rice with a fork or paddle at this point, and then covering with a bamboo mat to let the steam escape. Wrong on both counts! This is a critical moment: the hot steam in all those little tunnels and chambers is now quietly finishing up the job of puffing up those individual rice grains. Let the steam do the fluffing. Let time do the work. I can’t stress enough, this isn’t extra time added to the cooking; this is an essential part of the cooking time.

Now your rice is ready to serve. A bamboo or plastic rice paddle, sold at Asian food stores, is the perfect tool for this: the wide, relatively flat, bowl section can pick up a good amount of rice, while the short, stubby handle gives your wrist the right leverage to hoist it.

Brown rice does take longer to prepare than white rice. But the active preparation time is really the same; it's only the total time frame that's longer.

Also, once it's cooked, it's terrifically convenient: it keeps for a few days in the fridge, and reheats easily in the microwave. It comes in handy all day long. For instance, for an easy breakfast that will power you through to lunch, try this: In a bowl, microwave some rice – anywhere between a half cup and a cup – till it's steaming hot. Make a one-egg omelet stuffed with some crumbled feta and perhaps (if you've a few extra minutes) some sauteed mushrooms and onions, and serve over the rice. With all those complex carbohydrates providing a steady supply of blood sugar, you won't be craving doughnuts mid-morning. [Author’s note, 2009: I am no longer under the impression that plenty of carbohydrates, complex or otherwise, stave off hunger. In fact, it’s the fat and protein in the meal describe that wards off the doughnut cravings. See this article by Barry Groves to learn more about this effect.]

At dinnertime, when the rice is freshly made, I like to serve stir-fried veggies and tofu over it. Rice from the refrigerator is better stirred in during the last few minutes of cooking. (But go ahead and take it out of the fridge at the beginning of your meal prep, so it has time to lose its chill.) A handful or two of cooked rice also goes great in soup for a stick-to-your-ribs one-dish meal.


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