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Wild Rice

Unlock the flavor and texture with just the right amount of cooking

Fine Cooking Issue 60
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Wild rice isn’t actually rice. It isn’t even wild. But what’s certain is that this native American grass is delicious—nutty and woodsy in fragrance and flavor. We love it tossed with dried fruits, citrus, or sautéed wild mushrooms. And it’s a natural with poultry and game.  

Too often, however, wild rice is served underdone—or overdone. Undercooked wild rice is dull in flavor, hard to chew, and looks unappealing, too. Overcooked wild rice is mushy and tasteless. Cooking wild rice properly is critical, and our cooking method and guidelines for testing doneness will help to ensure that you get it right.

Test and taste for doneness

There’s nothing exact about cooking wild rice. Unlike cooking long-grain white rice, there’s no set ratio of water to rice, nor is there a relatively fixed cooking time. But it is simple to cook. What we do is rinse the rice, put it in a pot, cover it with an inch of water, bring it to a boil, and simmer it gently, covered.

You can tell it’s done when most of the grains have “popped”—the grains split open to reveal a creamy interior, and the ends curl in slightly. Be aware that the grains pop at different rates, so wait until the majority has done so; this can take anywhere from 40 minutes to slightly more than an hour. Tasting for doneness is also imperative. Wild rice is toothy by nature, but it isn’t fully cooked until it’s also tender.

Underdone wild rice will be swelled but will not have cracked open to reveal the grain’s white interior. When overcooked, the grains will have cracked open wide and “butterflied” back, concealing most of the grain’s dark exterior.

Don’t expect wild rice to absorb all the water by the time it’s done cooking. Excess water in the pot doesn’t affect the flavor or texture of the rice—when it’s done, it’s done, and any extra liquid can be drained off. Wild rice will also tolerate all types of meddling: Uncover the pot to peek at it as much as you like; stir it as it simmers; taste it as it cooks. The rice won’t suffer.   

Another advantage is that a little goes a long way. This grain may seem costly (ranging from $2.50 to $10 per pound), but it swells to up to four times its size as it cooks. One pound yields ten to twelve cups, or twenty to twenty-four servings. It’s no wonder Scandinavians who settled in Minnesota nicknamed wild rice “pocket money.”


Truly wild wild rice

Most of the wild rice you’ll find in stores is commercially grown in paddies, often in California. There is a movement, however, among Native Americans living in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Canada to preserve the tradition of harvesting “authentic” wild rice that grows naturally in shallow lake shores in the region. This rice is harvested by hand, rather than by machine; harvesters knock the grains into canoes with poles. The rice is cured and often dried over a wood fire, which gives it a pleasantly smoky flavor. Its grains are lighter and more mottled in color, and we find the flavor to be more complex. It also cooks much faster than commercial wild rice. The labor-intensive processing means production is limited, and so this type of wild rice is unfamiliar to most people outside of the upper Midwest, but it is available online from Northland Native American Products. This type of wild rice will work in all the recipes here, just plan on a shorter cooking time.


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