From Arkansas to India, rice is grown and harvested in almost all warm climates around the world. This humble little grain boasts over 40,000 varieties and is used in recipes from breakfast to dessert. Used in cultures around the world, it’s hard to think of a more universal ingredient — including, of course, in Chinese and Cantonese cuisine.
If you’ve been using that one go-to bag of rice for every meal you make, it might be time for you to step out and explore the possibilities that other rice varieties hold. Choosing the right kind of rice can help you make that perfect Chinese take-out rice (check-out our best tips), nail a replica Chipotle cilantro lime rice for homemade burritos, or even master risotto or sushi in your own kitchen!
The good news is that despite over 40,000 varieties, rice can generally be categorized into just three types: short grain, medium grain and long grain. The length of the grain usually indicates how sticky the rice will be once cooked. And the texture of the cooked rice largely determines what it’s used for.
Long grain rice
When cooked: less sticky, individual grains
Examples: Basmati, Jasmine, and most “regular” North American white and brown rice varieties
Long-grain rice is about four or five times as long as it is wide. There is some variation in how these varieties of rice cook, but in general, they are less starchy and therefore less sticky than their shorter cousins — that is, if you rinse them well!
The aromatic and nutty Jasmine rice tends to be a bit more sticky when cooked than other long-grain varieties, making it the perfect choice as a side dish to all your favourite Chinese food. Dishes like Chinese fried rice, pilaf, and rice-based salads all use long-grain rice, as the rice is not meant to stick together.
Medium grain rice
When cooked: creamier than long-grain, but not as starchy as short-grain
Examples: Arborio, Valencia, Calrose
Medium grain rice comes in at about two or three times as long as it is wide. These grains absorb a lot of water, and end up with a smooth and creamy texture, but not sticky. The most obvious use for medium-grain rice is in risotto, but they could also be used in bakes or casseroles.
Short grain rice
When cooked: sticky and clumpy
Examples: Japonica, sweet (or glutinous) rice, bomba
Short grain rice is basically round. These stubby little grains are high in starch and therefore have the stickiest texture of all the grains. They are useful for any dish where sticky texture is the point. The obvious example is sushi, but short-grain rices are also used in some rice pudding desserts and any recipe that calls for “sticky rice”.
Rice is nice — but not when substituted
Hopefully you’ve gathered that different types of rice end up with quite different results. Within each category — long, medium, and short— there are a large variety of choices and certainly exceptions to the rule. In a pinch, it might be possible to substitute a long-grain for a medium, or a medium-grain for a short, but go forward with caution — or an adventurous palette.
And most of all, stay safe!