All About Brown Rice

Unlike white rice, brown rice isn’t as much of a blank canvas. It’s sweet, earthy, and even nutty. You just need to cook it right.

Published Apr. 10, 2019.

Rice, a seed from the plant Oryza sativa, originally produced in China thousands of years ago, is today routinely found on dinner plates around the world. The varieties of rice, and ways to cook it, can seem endless.

When rice is harvested, every grain of every cultivar is covered with a protective husk. Once the husk is mechanically removed, you are left with brown rice, which includes the fiber-rich bran, oil- and enzyme-heavy aleurone layers, and fatty germ, as well as the starchy endosperm. White rice is milled to remove the bran and germ, and polished to remove the aleurone layer, leaving only the endosperm. Keeping all of these elements intact means that, sure, brown rice can be harder to cook, but brown rice also contains more nutrition—and more flavor.

While we think of brown rice as a single ingredient, the reality is more complex. There are thousands of different cultivars grown around the world, though the majority of the rice that we buy at the store falls into two main categories: the longer, firmer indica rice and the shorter, stickier japonica. Within the cultivars, there are even more categories: long-, medium-, and short-grain rice, labels that, not surprisingly, describe the ratio of length to width of each grain. Each type varies significantly in texture when cooked, differences that depend primarily on the amount and composition of starch present.

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Starch in rice is composed of two molecules, the smaller amylose and much larger amylopectin. Many studies have shown that amylose is the most important factor in determining the texture of cooked rice. Long-grain rice has the highest level of amylose (22 to 28 percent of the total starch), while medium-grain rice contains less (15 to 18 percent) and most short-grain varieties contain little to none. Starch granules in long-grain rice cook up firm, dry, and fluffy. Short-grain rice, also known as waxy or glutinous rice, forms soft, sticky rice and is prized for making sushi. It is sticky in part because the starch granules of short-grain rice begin to absorb water, swell, and gelatinize at a lower temperature than the two other types of rice. Medium-grain rice falls in the middle.

The particular cultivar and the ratio of starches determines whether rice cooks up fluffy and separate or sticky and soft. Yes, the cooking method can affect the texture of the cooked rice, but a lot of the variation is baked into the recipe once you make your selection at the market.

Baking brown rice in the oven is a foolproof way to cook it. The controlled, indirect heat of an oven best simulates a rice cooker, eliminating the risk of scorching.

The health food movement of the 1960s and '70s wasn't kind to brown rice. Back then, brown rice, frequently found in macrobiotic restaurants, was often served as a starchy, unseasoned mess. But it doesn't have to be that way. Because brown rice still contains the nutritious (and flavorful) bran, it absorbs water much more slowly than white rice does. Many older recipes cook brown rice the same way as white rice—and either just add more time or more water. The problem with the “more time” method is pretty obvious—if you keep simmering a pot of rice for 45 minutes you will end up with seriously burned rice on the bottom while the grains at the top of the pot are still crunchy. And it turns out brown rice doesn't need to absorb more water than white rice to cook up fluffy and separate, though more will evaporate over the longer cook time needed to penetrate the bran layer. Our favorite way to cook brown rice? In your oven. We bake brown rice in the oven with varying amounts of water, depending on the vessel, for a range of dishes: Foolproof Oven-Baked Brown Rice, Mexican Brown Rice, and Brown Rice Paella.

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