Rice is a daily staple for nearly half of the world's 7 billion people according to the International Rice Research Institute. Most of it (say, about 90 percent) is consumed in Asia, but it's trending up in other countries, including the U.S. It's gluten-free and dead-simple to cook if you know the basic varieties and methods. Go ahead and eat more rice—3 billion people can't be wrong.
The Question of White or Brown
The husk, bran, and germ are removed from white rice, which is grown in long-, medium-, and short-grain varieties. Milling makes the grain more tender than brown rice, and it has a longer shelf life. Get our Basic Steamed White Rice recipe.
Brown rice is grown in long-, medium-, and short-grain varieties. It takes about twice as long to cook as white rice because the bran surrounding the kernel is left intact, which also gives the rice a chewier texture, a nuttier flavor, and more nutrients. Get our Basic Steamed Brown Rice recipe.
The Question of Rice Length
Rice is typically classified by the size of the grain in three basic categories: long, medium, and short grain. Long-grain rice tends to stay fluffy, with separate grains that don't stick together. Medium-grain rice is more plump and short, and has a slightly sticky consistency. Short-grain rice is almost round, and the grains stick together when cooked.
Basmati is aromatic long-grain rice that stays dry, separate, and fluffy when cooked. Use it in Indian biryanis or curries like our Chicken Tikka Masala recipe or our Kimchi and Shrimp Fried Rice recipe.
Black rice (a.k.a. forbidden rice, Chinese black rice) is another long-grain rice that turns purple when cooked. The outer layer is packed with nutrients and has one of the highest anthocyanin antioxidant levels of any food. It's a knockout side dish when cooked in seasoned broth, or use it in a show-stopper dessert like this Indian Black Rice Pudding recipe.
Carolina rice is the most common variety of long-grain used in North America, specifically in Southern recipes. It stays fluffy and separate when cooked and is the rice of choice in dishes like gumbo, dirty rice, basic steamed rice, or Gonzales, Louisiana, Mayor John A. Berthelot's Almost World Famous Jambalaya recipe, a two-time Jambalaya Festival winner.
Jasmine rice, or Thai fragrant rice, has a signature sweet aroma and flavor when cooked. These long grains are tender and have a slightly clingy texture best suited for serving with stir-fries, Thai curries, or a dish like this Coconut Jasmine Rice with Bok Choy and Cashews recipe.
Popcorn rice is another long-grain popular in the U.S. that's a cross between bBasmati and American long-grain rice varieties. Serve it with gumbo or try a calas recipe (fried rice fritters).
Bomba and Valencia are the go-to medium-grain rice for our Frying Pan Paella Mixta recipe or any paella for that matter because they absorb twice as much water as long-grain rice without getting sticky.
Himalayan (a.k.a. Bhutanese) red rice is medium in length and retains part of its outer layer after milling, which gives it a distinct color and strong, nutty flavor. Use it in a warm rice salad, such as this Bhutanese Red Rice Pilaf recipe.
Glutinous rice (a.k.a. sticky rice, sweet rice) is a plump short-grain rice loaded with starch, which gives the grain its trademark sticky texture. It's often used in Asian and Southeast Asian dishes, particularly sweets, such as this Thai Coconut Sticky Rice with Mango recipe or our Champorado recipe (Filipino Chocolate Rice Pudding).
Risotto rice is a category of short-grain rice that goes by a few names, typically tied to the place or region where it is grown, including Piedmont rice, Arborio, Carnaroli, Roma, Baldo, and Padano. Never rinse this rice: The powder-fine starch on the grain gives risotto dishes their creamy consistency. Get our Basic Risotto recipe.
The Question of Rinsing and Soaking
Rinsing removes the surface starch on rice, which is recommended to prevent long- and medium-grain rice from sticking together. If you're cooking a shorter-grain rice that's supposed to be sticky and creamy, such as risotto or sushi rice, don't rinse it. Soaking rice cuts the cooking time and is typically recommended for basmati and brown rice.
The Question of Ratios
The oversimplified rice-to-water ratio is 1 cup of white rice to 1 1/2 cups of water or 1 cup of brown rice to 2 1/2 cups of water. But the ratio varies by the type of rice and even the brand. If the stakes are high (i.e., the rice needs to be dinner-party perfect), cook a small test batch beforehand. Or, measure using the method taught by Louisiana mamas (and my neighbor's Japanese wife): Add the rice to the pot or cooker. With the tip of your index finger touching just the top layer of rice, add enough water to reach your first knuckle. The water line should hit about an inch above the rice. Don't forget to season the water; add about 1/2 teaspoon of salt per cup of rice.
The Question of Uncle Ben's
Converted rice like Uncle Ben's brand is parboiled before it is milled, which allows some vitamins and minerals to be absorbed into the kernel before the bran and germ are removed. It cooks faster than white or brown rice, has the tender texture of white rice, and a mildly nutty flavor similar to brown rice.
The Question of Wild Rice
Wild rice isn't technically rice at all—it is a long, slender grain (grass seed) and has a distinct texture and nutty flavor.
Colleen Rush is a food and travel writer who eats, drinks, cooks, and writes mostly in New Orleans, but also ... everywhere else. She is the author of "The Mere Mortal's Guide to Fine Dining" (Broadway Books, 2006), and coauthor of "Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons" (Running Press, 2009) and the upcoming "Low & Slow 2: The Art of Barbecue, Smoke Roasting, and Basic Curing" (Running Press, 2015). Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.