Rice is a staple food for over half the world's population and is one of the most important commercial food crops.
Rice is also one of humanities earliest foraged Grains and one of our earliest cultivated ones. Collectively, we have a 12,000 to 14,000 year relationship with Rice. The History of Rice and its dispersal around the globe is fascinating.
Rice is a member of the grass family (Gramineae) in the genus Oryza. Many other grass species are, like Rice, primary human agricultural crops (Corn/Maize, Wheat, Sorghum, Barley, Oats, and Sugar Cane).
There are 20 wild species of Rice and 2 cultivated Species (the cultigens) of Rice: Asian Rice and African Rice are the cultigens and the source from which from which every other commercially available species of Rice is descended. In practice though, the world has thousands of varieties of Rice. You may have a few different strains in your pantry now and each one is best suited to a specific technique or dish. We will pick up on this theme in the Culinary Use Section.
Rice harvesting season in North America is typically early or mid-July in early planting regions such as Texas and Louisiana, and September through early October (even into November in California) in later planting locations. Some Rice farmers are able to reflood their fields after their first harvest and achieve a partial second harvest or "ratoon" crop from the stubble of the first.
Rice is available year round.
Rice was originally a tropical marsh grass. Today, many varieties still thrive in moist tropical climates with a perfect 75˚ F (24˚ C) temperature, but thousands of years of selective breeding by farmers have produced Rice species that can also flourish in a wide variety of subtropical and temperate areas.
Today, Rice can almost be grown anywhere, even on hillsides, between 53˚ N latitude and 35˚ S latitude (roughly the Chinese/Russian border to Argentina).
Rice seeds are usually sown into “Paddies,” shallow puddles, because Rice is water-tolerant and weeds are not. Once the crop is ready for harvest, the paddy is drained so farmers can access the Rice. While the paddy system is the most productive norm, Rice will also grow on dry land such as on a terraced mountainside.
The two most commonly grown Rice types by harvest volume (Indica Rice and Japonica Rice) favor different types of climates and environments. Long-Grained Indica Rice (Jasmine Rice and Basmati Rice are examples) favors hot tropical climates. Japonica Rice, a Medium Grained Rice, does better in temperate and mountainous areas.
Rice is typically an Annual Plant (lives 1 year aboveground) with a 3-6 month growth cycle, though under ideal tropical conditions Rice can be a Perennial Plant that can bear repeated harvests. On average Rice plants grow from 1.3 feet tall to as high as 16 feet tall (0.4 m to 5 m).
Rice is considered a “self-supporting” semiaquatic plant because its seeds can germinate in both aerobic (with oxygen) and anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions, it can adapt to both wetland and dry ground environments, and it needs no nitrogen fertilizer applied to the soil. Because most Rice is grown in water it doesn’t require chemical weed control. Rice is also a self-fertilizing plant.
In the Northern Hemisphere Rice planting typically begins in the spring in warmer locales. Texas and southwest Louisiana tend to start planting in early March. The Mississippi Delta plants in April, as does California.
The Rice plants will take 4-5 months to mature. As they mature, they change color from green to amber to the hue of dry straw. At maturity the stalks will be 3 feet tall (1 m) with long panicles at the top of the plant, from which the Rice (in its husk) will dangle.
Rice is one of the most important commercial food crops in the world. Roughly 535 million tons of Rice are harvested each year. Humans consumed, on average, 143 pounds of Rice per capita in 1987.
92%-95% of Rice production occurs in Asia and roughly 50% of worldwide production is farmed by China and India. Over 300 million acres of Asian land is used for Rice and is a staple for nearly half of the world’s people. This makes sense on the basis of mean grain yield: Rice produces more food energy and protein per acre than Wheat or Corn. The major drawback is that Rice has, among the cereal grains, the lowest water-use efficiency, meaning it is too thirsty for some dry land, non-irrigated applications.
Because of the different Rice types and climate variability there are 4 distinct types of Rice growing “eco-systems”: irrigated, rainfed lowland, upland, and flood-prone/deep water.
Most of the East Asian Rice farming is irrigated and accounts for 75% of world-wide production. Irrigated rice is farmed in “bunded” (embanked) paddy fields. Irrigated Rice fields may produce multiple harvests in a given season.
Rainfed Lowland Rice farming relies on rain-flooded fields (almost 20 inches deep) and produces a single harvest. Rainfed lowland farming is practiced in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Thailand, East India, and Indonesia.
Upland Rice farming is the primary type of Rice farming practiced in Latin America and West Africa. Upland fields are generally dry, unbunded, and directly seeded. Rice crops are usually sown in one of several ways: interspersed with another crop, intermittently with another crop, or shifted every few years to a new location.
Flood-prone Rice ecosystems, characterized by periods of extreme flooding from June to November and then drought, are prevalent in South and Southeast Asia. Rice varieties are chosen for their submersion tolerance.
Rice farming does not require a lot of startup investment or initial inputs and raw materials, beyond the rice seeds or rice seedlings, which is why it is so popular in the developing world. Herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer, though not necessary, can increase yields.
Before planting, the only ground work needed is to prepare the paddies or level a terraced hillside. The process begins when water-soaked Rice seeds are planted. They can be planted directly into the paddy or raised to seedlings and then transplanted. Sowing is accomplished by hand by drilling seeds into the ground or by sowing them from an airplane flying over the flooded paddies.
The Rice fields are drained when the Rice begins to ripen, which is about 3 months after planting. Harvesting, either by hand or machine, begins once the Rice plants start to droop from the heavy grains and the stems turn yellow. After harvest, the next step is usually sun-drying the Rice on racks to decrease the moisture content down to 18-22%.
The dried Rice, now called Rough Rice, is collected and taken to a processing plant where it is cleaned and hulled by hand rolling or grinding the Rice between rollers. Hulled Rice is known as Brown Rice and is ready at this point. White Rice is further milled to remove the outer Bran layers. Essentially, the bran is rubbed off by the spinning core of a machine. The light colored Rice is then cooled and polished by a brush machine. Finally, the Rice kernels are run over a wire mesh screen to weed out broken Rice grains. The polished Rice may be coated with a glucose coating to increase its shine.
The waste products from Rice production are also used. Harvested Rice plants become straw for bedding. Rice Bran Oil is a secondary product and the hulls are used to make mulch to recondition the land.
In the United States close to 3 million acres in six states (Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Texas, Louisiana, and California) produce almost our entire 19 billion pound Rice crop. These states compose 3 broad regions: The Mississippi River Delta, The Gulf Coast, and The Sacramento River Valley in California. Each region tends to specialize in a specific type of Rice. Long Grain Rice, which accounts for almost 70.9% of U.S. production, is grown in The South. Medium Grain Rice is the preferred Rice type in California (and some of the South) and accounts for almost 26.6% of U.S. production. Short Grain Rice accounts for only about 1-2.5% of U.S. production and is principally grown in California.
All U.S. rice is produced in irrigated fields, achieving some of the highest yields in the world. Virtually all of the U.S. Rice crop is sold as a Whole-Kernel milled product, except for exports of Rough Rice and rice seed sales. Roughly half of all the U.S. Rice crop is exported.
About 80% of our domestic Rice harvest is consumed at home and that consumption is increasing: In 1975 we consumed on average 9.1 pounds of Rice and in 1987 average consumption had risen to 17.6 pounds per capita in the U.S.
Rice is categorized into “Grades” (official U.S. Standards set by the Secretary of Agriculture) by the Rice growers before it moves on to the Rice dealers. White Rice, Brown Rice, and even Broken Rice each have their own grading systems that are principally based on the cleanliness of the Rice, purity (whether or not they are intermixed with other varieties), and the wholeness of the Rice Kernels.
With White Rice, for example, there are 6 standard grades: Extra Fancy Rice (U.S. No. 1), Fancy Rice (U.S. No. 2), Extra Choice Rice (U.S. No. 3), Choice Rice (U.S. No. 4), Medium Rice (U.S. No. 5), and Sample Grade Rice.
There are 4 broad categories of Rice that are traded globally today (Indica Rice, Japonica Rice, Aromatic Rice,and Glutinous Rice). Japonica Rice and Indica Rice are the most common, but there are thousands of Rice types and many of them are classified by more than one criterion. All of the thousands of Rice sub-species are typically categorized on one or more dimensions by:
If you follow the links above you will find each of the commonly traded varieties grouped under the appropriate categories and sub-categories. For example, Indica Rice is a Starchy Rice and a Long Grain Rice. Japonica Rice can be a Short Grain Rice, Medium Grain Rice, or Long Grain Rice and will either be a Starchy Rice or a Sticky Rice depending on the grain length. Jasmine Rice is an Aromatic Rice, a Long Grain Rice, and a Starchy Rice.
Wild Rice is not actually a Rice at all but a grass seed (from the genus Zizania) with a squeaky shell and a robust taste.
Rice is generally available as both White Rice and Brown Rice. It can be found in prepackaged containers. In American groceries Rice is typically bagged in 1 pound (.5 kg) and 5 pound (2.3 kg) containers. In Asian Markets it can come in 10 pound (4.5 kg) and 20 pound (9.1 kg) bags. Don’t be afraid of the larger, more economical quantities if buying White Rice (more below). If you are buying Brown Rice, think about how much Brown Rice you plan to eat in 6 weeks before going in for a large size (more below).
Rice can also be sold in bulk bins, which may be a good way to go if you want to try a new variety or just eat Rice occasionally. You can also create your own blend by taking a little bit from each bin. We would not usually buy Brown Rice from a bulk bin because the grain is still encased in the Rice Bran (which contains Rice Bran Oil that can easily go Rancid). We are more open to buying White Rice from a bulk bin, but would want to make sure that the merchant has high volume and that the Rice bin is, and has been, properly covered. You don’t want any surprises in your purchase.
Even though White Rice is a dried grain and has very good storage qualities, we still suggest checking the expiration date: fresher Rice makes for better eating. For Brown Rice it is imperative that you check the expiration date: it can easily go bad if stored too long; it is the Rice Bran Oil and Rancidity that is of concern.
While selecting your Rice (in bulk or in packages), keep an eye out for any signs of moisture which can ruin Rice. Also, try and buy as few broken grains of Rice as possible. Your final dish will likely be a mess of overdone and underdone Rice if you cook with broken grains and whole grains: broken grains are smaller than whole grains and the two sizes won’t cook together uniformly.
Finally, if you are conflicted, for budgetary or philosophical reasons, about buying Organic, you may want to give in here and buy Organic Rice. The reason is that research indicates that domestic non-organic White Rice contains 1.4 to 5 times more arsenic than organic White Rice from Europe, India or Bangladesh.
How you store Rice depends, first of all, on whether it is White Rice or Brown Rice. The only difference between the two is that White Rice has been milled to remove the Rice Bran which allows it to better handle storage. Brown Rice retains the Rice Bran (and airtight Rice Bran Oil which will easily go Rancid). Consequently, Brown Rice has a shorter shelf life than White Rice and requires a little different handling and philosophy to maximize your yield and value.
How you store Brown Rice revolves around how quickly you plan to use it. If you plan to use it all in a few weeks, store the Brown Rice in an airtight container in a cool dark place like your pantry. Sealed, it may last 3-6 months but will be best for only a few weeks. If you open your package from the pantry, store the unused portion in the refrigerator or freezer for a better shelf life.
In the refrigerator, your Brown Rice will last for 6-12 months in an airtight container. Frozen, you should get 12-18 months (for best quality).
Because it is a dried Grain, an unopened container of White Rice will keep almost indefinitely in a pantry at room temperature, in the refrigerator, or frozen. Once opened, the only real risks to the shelf life are moisture and pests, including bugs and rats. Keeping the container sealed and airtight can protect against both of these.
Cooked, let the Rice cool to room temperature before storing it in the refrigerator. Cooked Rice will last about 4-7 days in the refrigerator but it is best to use it within 2 days.
Rice must be cooked in order for its nutrients to be absorbed by the body. Cooking also makes the grains more palatable. In theory it should be pretty easy to describe how to cook Rice: They’re all the same little grains, and most people heat it with water somehow, right? That’s a starting point, but not the whole story.
The world has thousands of varieties of Rice. If you check your pantry you may find a few different strains of Rice in there right now. The problem with offering a one-size-fits-all explanation is that each strain has a different Starch profile, which complicates how they react when cooked. Put another way, the grains may look similar but actually they vary significantly in the amounts of Amylose (the Stiff Starch) and Amylopectin (the Sticky Starch) that each contain. Luckily, we can categorize the Rice strains into three broad groups to help us understand how to use them.
The categories are Long Grain Rice, Medium Grain Rice, and Short Grain Rice. Know your Rice cultivar, but in general, when cooked, Long Grain Rice has the most Amylose and is the stiffest Rice type. Medium Grain Rice has moderate amounts of both Amylose and Amylopectin and is therefore “medium” on both the stiffness and stickiness scales. Short Grain Rice has a minimal amount of Amylose but a preponderance of Amylopectin and is consequently the stickiest (and least stiff) when cooked. Knowing about starch profiles (stiffness or stickiness) means that we can determine which Rice types are best for each of the different Rice dishes we wish to cook.
If you want a Side Dish of Rice with individual, separated grains pick a White Long Grain Rice (more about White Rice vs. Brown Rice is explained below). If you want a smooth Risotto with some creaminess and some separated grains try a Medium Grain Rice. For a Rice Pudding where the individual grains almost disappear into a sticky whole, try a Short Grain Rice. Within each category there are, again, exceptions and variations in the ratios of Amylose and Amylopectin which means some Long Grain Rice types (like Thai Sticky Rice) can be sticky and some Medium Grain Rice types may be stickier or stiffer than other types.
The other major difference between Rice types that most people fixate on is whether the Rice is a White Rice or a Brown Rice. The difference between Brown Rice and White Rice is actually not a difference of species or type but only a difference in processing. Any Rice grain can be either White Rice or Brown Rice depending on how it is handled at the mill.
All cultivated Rice has the silica-rich Rice Hull (also known as the husk or chaff) removed in processing. The Rice Hulls are used for fertilizer, stuffing for cushions, insulation, Dietary Fiber supplements, etc. Removing the Rice Hull leaves the Kernel that is the white Endosperm encased in the typically brown Rice Bran, which is, by definition, Brown Rice; it’s also known as the “caryopsis.” Some Rice Bran can be black/purple or red in color, which gives us Black Rice types or Red Rice types.
If the Brown Rice is further processed (“milled” or “polished”) to remove the Rice Bran, only the Rice Endosperm, which we all call “White Rice,” remains. By definition then, White Rice is Rice with the Rice Hull and Rice Bran removed.
There are also some other “in-between” methods of milling/processing Rice that result in Converted Rice (par-cooked in the husk), Instant Rice (pre-cooked), and Reconstituted Rice (cooked and dehydrated).
Now that we have discussed the three main Rice types, and discussed White Rice vs. Brown Rice, we can return to the concept of cooking Rice. Boiling and/or Simmering Rice in some sort of liquid are the most popular methods of preparing Rice for consumption. Using a cooking liquid has three major overlapping benefits. It allows the Rice to cook, to absorb moisture/swell, and to retain any added flavorings. That being said, there are still a lot of ways to accomplish the seemingly straightforward tasks described just above.
Simmering Starchy Rice for stiffer Rice and Simmering/Steaming Stickier Rice for Medium Grain Rice and Short Grain Rice. Steaming Sticky Rice is an additional technique that would be helpful to learn, but since it is principally a technique associated with Asian Cuisine we have not yet created that exercise.
Simmered or Simmered/Steamed Rice can be served at table as a cushion upon which to rest an entrée, as a Side Dish, a component in a Bound Salad, etc. With a bit of variation in the cooking method and some new cooking techniques, Rice can also be prepared as Rice Pilaf, Paella, Fried Rice, Risotto, Jambalaya, etc. By the way, if you are confused about the differences between these dishes then visit our What is the Difference Between Paella, Pilaf, Risotto and Jambalaya Page.
Consumer preference for cooked Rice varies from region to region and culture to culture. Americans often add Salt and Whole Butter to Rice when Boiling/Simmering it for use at dinner. The peoples of South East Asia eat Boiled Rice at all three meals while the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans make a porridge (thick gruel) or Congee (thin soup) when eating Rice for Breakfast. The same preferences also apply to the selection of Rice. Some folks prefer Japonica Rice, others prefer Indica Rice or Glutinous Rice, etc.
Rice can also be used to make a large number of derivative products such as Snack Foods, Breakfast Cereals, Noodles, Cakes, Beer, Fermented Products, Rice Bran Oil, Rice Wine, Rice Wine Vinegar, Rice Flour and even infant food, cattle feed, construction materials or lens cleaners. Rice straw is used to make paper and can also be woven into mats, hats, and other products.
Allow 2-4 oz of Rice per person.
Each different type of Rice has its own nutritional profile but we can discuss here the general nutritional properties of Rice which has a relatively low Protein content (only 8% in Brown Rice and less in White Rice vs. 10% for Wheat) but a high Carbohydrate count. Brown Rice protein utilization as good if not better than that of Wheat. It is also superior in Lysine content as compared to Corn, Wheat, and Sorghum.
A working adult doing physical labor could exist on diet of White Rice for an extended period though their Riboflavin and Thiamine content would be low and would need to be supplemented. Growing children would need to have a pure Rice diet supplemented with other protein sources.
Removing the fiber-rich Rice Bran, to create White Rice, results in a gigantic loss of Dietary Fiber and nearly a 50% loss of the Vitamin B and Iron. In fact, White Rice has the lowest fiber content of any other cereal grain, which actually makes it a good choice as a first baby food.
Rice is low in sodium and fat and is cholesterol free.