There are few dishes that are made better with leftover ingredients, but fried rice is one of them. Not only is it a great way to use up the odds and ends of leftover vegetables and proteins, it’s actually better to use day-old white rice. In fact, it’s critical.
Unlike freshly cooked rice, which forms soft, mushy clumps when stir-fried, chilled leftover white rice undergoes a process called retrogradation, in which the starch molecules form crystalline structures that make the grains firm enough to withstand the second round of cooking. (It’s the same process that firms up leftover pasta.) That process gives white rice a dry, firm texture that would be disappointing in other rice dishes, but is perfect for fried rice.
So what do you do when you want great fried rice but don’t have leftover rice?
There’s no reliable way to speed up the process of retrogradation (believe us, we tried everything), but we found a workaround: making faux leftover rice by cooking it in a way that results in the texture of day-old white rice but doesn’t require overnight refrigeration.
Here are the steps we took to do it:
1. Rinse rice: Rinsing the rice under cold water until the water runs clear removes excess starch from the grains.
2. Saute in oil: Heat some oil in a large saucepan, then add rice and stir to coat the grains with oil. This forms a greasy barrier around each grain.
3. Add less water than normal: The standard 3:2 ratio of water to rice saturates the grains too much, but ⅓ cup less liquid in the mix results in ideal texture.
4. Cook pilaf-style: Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until all the liquid is absorbed.
5. Let rest: Off heat, remove the lid and place a dish towel folded in half over the saucepan; replace the lid and let stand until the rice is just tender. Adding a dish towel under the lid will help absorb any excess moisture.
6. Let cool: Spread cooked rice onto a rimmed baking sheet and let it cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. (Spreading the rice on a baking sheet helps it cool more rapidly to room temperature.) Transfer the sheet to the refrigerator and let the rice chill for 20 minutes.
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At this point, the rice is ready to be turned into fried rice. It should be ideally dry, with minimal clumps. If there are any large clumps, break them up before adding the rice to the skillet, and continue to break up smaller clumps as you stir-fry.
It may seem like an extra step, but we promise it's worth it. Using leftover white rice—or this faux leftover white rice—is truly the key to superlative fried rice.
(And if you’re wondering about brown rice, you can go ahead and use freshly cooked in fried rice. The bran layer prevents freshly cooked brown rice grains from releasing their starch and clumping together.)