Rice varieties and how to use them

I enjoy horrifying my children by telling them how tragically limited the food choices were when I was young. 

Three types of apples: red, green and yellow; no such thing as a capsicum or spinach, fruit salad and ham came out of tins (not the same tin, mind you) and rice only came in white and brown, and even then, brown was only for suspiciously hippy types. 

But now our supermarket shelves are heaving under different types of rice, and it can all get a tad confusing. Here’s our guide to what the different types of rice are, and where to use them for the best effect.

There are three main types of rice: short, medium and long grain. Mostly what we used in the past was white long grain, and while this can be a universal go-to, using a specific rice for good purpose can elevate your meals. 

Short grain

Let’s start with short grain rice. Not surprisingly, it’s shorter than the others, but so much so that it sometimes looks almost round. 

Short grain loves liquid and is high in starch and as a result will soak up anything around it and get a bit sticky. It is ideal for sushi, paella, rice pudding and rice balls.

You may have had dire rice pudding in your younger years that was a horrid mess of hot milk, sugar and long grain rice, but if the thought of that brings back bad memories, get yourself a recipe using short grain rice and try again. The difference will amaze you. 

Medium grain rice

Carrying on the theme, medium rice is in the middle. Look, I’m not going to lie – medium grain rice is a bit contentious and is often lumped into short grain. 

The best-known medium rices are those used for risotto: arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano. You’ll find the first one in supermarkets and the other two in speciality stores. There are a few others, but the import quantities into Australia are so small, you will probably only come across them by accident. 

Do not under any circumstances buy something you can get at the major chains called ‘risotto-style rice’. This is a vastly inferior product, with the only advantage being that it’s cheap. Give yourself a bit of a slap if you even consider it.

If you want the science behind it, take a good look at risotto rice next to any other rice. You will notice risotto has two obvious layers. That inner bit is called ‘chalk’, which seems a silly name, but it’s what gives risotto its ‘bite’ or firm mouthfeel, even after it has been cooked for a while. Cook any other rice for as long as you do risotto rice and you have probably made clag.

Risotto rice also has more of a starch called amylose which absorbs more moisture while cooking, which is what you want in a risotto. 

Risotto rice can also make a pretty mean rice pudding if you can’t find short grain rice. 

Other medium grain rice include japonica and black rice. But once again, these are quite hard to find.

Japonica is ideal for sushi and many other Japanese dishes such as onigiri (rice balls) and Japanese rice cakes.

Black rice is pretty niche; you sometimes see it in larger supermarkets, but if you want to give it a try, you’ll probably have to hunt it down in a specialty shop. It’s great as a side dish if you want a bit more ‘chunk’ in your meals, but also goes well in salads, rice pudding (especially good if made with coconut milk instead of milk) and as a replacement for grains in soups and stews.

And please note black rice can stain – not just your apron, but also utensils and stone benches. Take care and wipe any spills immediately. 

Long grain

Yes, we got there, we are now at long grain which is of course, longer. 

As well as your standard long grain rice, jasmine and basmati fall into this category. 

Long grain rice has the lowest starch level of any rice, so they don’t stick together like other grains. 

Jasmine rice has a distinctive aroma and as such goes well with lighter Asian dishes such as Thai food and fish.

Basmati rice is usually aged, which gives it its complex flavour and deeper hue. When cooked, its relatively dry, fluffy texture makes it ideal for absorbing flavour as found in curries and biryanis.

What’s the difference between brown and white?

It’s the same rice, whatever the variety, it’s just the white rice has been processed a bit more and the outer layers have been removed. Those outer layers include a lot of fibre and provide a ‘nuttier’ flavour. 

If you like brown rice, you can use it in almost every dish you do white rice, with two notable exceptions. The first is any dish that requires the rice to stick together such as a rice ball, and risotto, which needs that ‘open’ surface to absorb the liquid.

Random rice varieties

Red rice is another type of rice with a red hull instead of brown. It’s great in spicy foods such as Mexican, Thai and Japanese. 

Wild rice is not actually a rice – it’s a seed from a group of grasses originally from the North American continent. 

That doesn’t stop it being delicious, and its nutty, chewy flavour is great in salads, sauteed with mushrooms and as part of a meat stuffing. 

Final advice: do not buy those bags of mixed rice – you will face nothing but disappointment. As different grains take different times to cook, you will end up with some mushy and some rigidly hard, or all mushy by the time you get them all cooked. They look good in jars in your pantry, but that’s about it. 

Do you make a point of using different rice for different recipes? Why not share your opinion in the comments section below?

Also read: Save yourself from bad rice

Jan Fisher
Jan Fisherhttp://www.yourlifechoices.com.au/author/JanFisher
Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.
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