In most supermarkets you can buy food labeled “wild rice,” but there’s nothing wild about most of the packages on the shelves.
Grocery-store “wild” rice is a 20th-century invention. It’s a domesticated version of true wild rice, and it’s cultivated in man-made rice paddies, machine-harvested and processed, said Jeff Savage, an indigenous rice expert, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Elder, and lifelong rice harvester in Minnesota.
By contrast, “your natural, hand-harvested wild rice comes from lakes, streams, and rivers,” he says.
Indigenous to the Great Lakes region of the United States, this wild rice isn’t actually rice at all; it’s an aquatic grass with the scientific name Zizania palustris.
“We have a migration prophecy from several centuries ago,” Savage said. “We were told that we should migrate to where the food grows on the water. So it’s a sacred food to us, and it’s part of our identity. It’s a ceremonial food as well as something for daily consumption.”
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While there’s nothing technically wrong with paddy-grown “wild” rice, it’s not the same food as true wild rice, and calling it wild encourages confusion, say those who have been working to clarify the difference.
Paddy “wild” rice plants were scientifically altered to ripen all at the same time so that they could be machine-harvested; the rice paddies are repeatedly filled and drained of potentially pesticide- and fertilizer-treated water, and the harvested grain is processed much more intensively—including partially steam-cooking it (to harden grains and prevent profit-reducing breakage)—compared to the natural product.
These two kinds of rice don’t taste alike either: Paddy rice is chewier and fairly neutral-tasting; natural wild rice is tender with a delicate fragrance and distinctive taste. “Wild rice has a naturally nutty, smoky flavor,” Savage said.
So if you’re standing in the grocery store aisle surveying the selection of wild rice in front of you, here’s how to tell if you’re looking at cultivated paddy rice versus natural wild rice.
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Wild Rice Should Be Lighter in Color
That glossy deep black rice sure is pretty, but it’s not wild. Black glossy rice is cultivated “paddy rice,” as Savage and others call it. Natural wild rice is a soft greyish brown and the grains are variegated in color. (Savage noted that a few brands of cultivated rice “scarify”—scratch up—the glossy black surface to make it look more like true wild rice.)
Why is it black? Paddy rice is aged up to six days before it’s processed, which ferments and hardens the grain and turns the kernel black. Natural wild rice is not aged.
Paddy rice (left) is darker in color than true wild rice (right).
Real Wild Rice Doesn’t Say “Cultivated” on the Label
In Minnesota and Wisconsin, paddy-grown rice by law must be labeled “cultivated” or “paddy,” meaning that it’s intentionally planted and grown—your clue that it’s not actually wild. “Minnesota has to say ‘cultivated’ on the bag, and they can’t put a picture of an Indian and a canoe on it anymore,” Savage said. By Minnesota law, “A wild rice label that implies the wild rice is harvested or processed by Indians is misbranded unless the package contains only 100 percent natural lake or river wild rice harvested by Indians.”
Another clue: If it’s grown in California, it’s not wild. Those stricter labeling laws don’t apply to California-grown wild rice, but there isn’t any natural wild rice habitat in California; that state produces plentiful cultivated paddy rice, Savage said.
Check the Cooking Time
Because paddy rice is aged and processed (including parboiling, drying, and roasting) the grain becomes harder and takes nearly twice as long to cook as natural wild rice, Savage said. Typical cooking time is 45 minutes to an hour for cultivated paddy rice and as little as 15 to 20 minutes for true wild rice.
When cooked, true wild rice will nearly triple in volume; but not paddy rice. “The commercial product doesn’t fluff up and absorb as much water as the natural grain,” Savage said.
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True Wild Rice Is Typically Higher in Price
Hand-harvested from lakes and rivers, true wild rice can be very expensive, up to $25 to $30 per pound. Cultivated “wild” rice costs roughly half that and is often blended with other rices to make it even more affordable.
How to Cook Real (Not Cultivated) Wild Rice
Many recipes default to cultivated wild rice because it is more readily available. When using real wild rice in recipes that call for the cultivated variety, you’ll need to make some adjustments.
- Cut down on cooking time. Because natural wild rice cooks much more quickly, you’ll want to cut the recipe cooking time in half and check it early.
- Use less rice than the recipe calls for. Natural wild rice fluffs up to three times its size when cooked; cultivated wild rice does not expand as much. Consider cutting back on the quantity called for if using natural wild rice.
- When in doubt, use a rice cooker. “If you’re not familiar with cooking wild rice, you can do it in a rice cooker, just like white rice,” Savage said. This will take the guesswork out of cooking the rice.