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In July, Malaysian comedian Nigel Ng released a YouTube video titled “DISGUSTED by this Egg Fried Rice Video” under his comedic moniker Uncle Roger in which he slammed Hersha Patel, a BBC Food presenter, for the way she cooked Chinese-style egg fried rice.
Ng was horrified that Patel boiled the rice in excess water, much like you’d cook pasta, and then drained the rice through a colander to wash off the starch, which is known as the draining method of cooking rice. Uncle Roger expressed comedic horror over what he saw as Patel’s inability to cook rice, prompting a viral internet storm of shock, outrage and charges of a “hate crime” against the grain.
The ordeal also sparked a larger conversation about the various methods of cooking rice.
As an Indian, having grown up eating rice every day cooked by way of the draining method, I’ve personally always been horrified as to how other cultures simply throw rice and lentils out of a bag and into a pot, without so much as washing it. More importantly, without soaking it.
Soaking rice before cooking it actually assimilates its nutritional qualities, meaning it helps the gastrointestinal tract better absorb vitamins and minerals from the rice, according to renowned Indian nutritionist and advocate of regional indigenous foods Rujuta Diwekar. Soaked rice also cooks faster and produces a beautiful bloomed texture, allowing it to retain the aromatic elements of the rice.
Soaking removes phytic acid, which prevents your body from fully absorbing the nutrients in rice.
Phytic acid is a natural substance found in plant seeds that impairs the body’s absorption of iron, zinc and calcium. It’s found at especially high levels in seeds, grains, legumes, beans and nuts.
“Phytic acid is found in plants, forming the storage unit of phosphorus in seeds,” macrobiotic nutritionist and chef Shonali Sabherwal, recently recognized as the best nutritionist by Vogue India in the Vogue Beauty Awards 2020, told HuffPost. “It stops absorption of minerals and soaking [rice in water] removes the phytic acid. Those with zinc and iron deficiency need to be more careful about it.”
Sabherwal pointed out that the impairment of mineral absorption is limited to that meal and does not affect any future meals. Nor does it cause any systemic impairments preventing the body from absorbing nutrition from any other foods after such a meal.
There’s no need to avoid eating rice, Sabherwal said. “Don’t avoid an entire food group. But use cooking methods that enhance its nutrition,” such as soaking, which has proven to be effective in reducing phytic acid levels and increasing the bioaccessibility of zinc and iron from food grains, including rice.
Certain types of rice are better suited for soaking than others.
In India, you will find myriad varieties of rice, based on the terroir of the region, commonly cooked in a variety of methods: in pressure cookers, boiled in large pots of salted water like pasta, and drained or cooked with measured amounts of water per the absorption method. There is no right or wrong method, but rather a preferred one.
The desired texture and dish you’re preparing dictates the specific variety of rice and the cooking technique. For example, pulaos or pilafs, made with long grain basmati or other aged fragrant rice, tend to use the absorption method, and soaking is avoided to preserve the integrity of the grain. For plain rice, the boiling and draining method after soaking the rice is commonly acceptable.
There are as many ways to prep and cook rice as there are varieties of the grain and the cultures that eat it. Each variety of rice has a different shape, size (long grain, medium grain or short grain), starch and fiber content, and all are used in different contexts and recipes to achieve various textural and flavor outcomes. It is these factors that determine the amount of liquid and time needed to soak the rice, and to cook the rice to perfection. Based on the quality and kind of rice, and depending on whether it is aged or not, the ideal soaking time could be anywhere from 15 minutes to 12 hours.
How long to soak rice?
Much of the rice prep in Indian kitchens typically begins with washing and picking the rice several times, swirled in water by hand to wash away the starch and any foreign matter.
Every type of rice and recipe calls for specific instructions, but this is generally how long to soak rice:
- Unmilled or unhusked whole grain brown, black, red, wild or other unpolished rice: Soak 6-12 hours
- Polished brown rice: Soak 4-6 hours
- Thai sticky rice: Soak overnight
- Basmati, jasmine and sushi rice: Soak 15-30 minutes, unless the recipe specifically recommends otherwise
- Short grain starchy and glutinous rice (arborio): Don’t soak
- Ordinary polished white rice: Soak 0-15 minutes (recommended but not necessary)
More reasons Indian cooks soak their rice.
The practice of soaking, codified in ancient culinary texts and through verbal traditions, continues to hold solid in Indian kitchens.
“The Manasollasa (an early 12th-century encyclopedic Sanskrit text) mentions that one of the ways in which rice achieves a soft yet open texture is by draining off the excess liquid when the rice is cooked al dente and keeping the rice covered for a while for the steam to finish the cooking process,” Saee Koranne Khandekar, author of the Marathi cuisine cookbook “Pangat,” told HuffPost. “The text also mentions thorough washing and soaking as essential steps, again perhaps because in the 12th century, only hand-pounded rice was being eaten.”
Marina Balakrishnan, a Keralite food specialty chef based in Mumbai, explained that grains really cook perfectly to their core only when well hydrated from a soak. “Soaking speeds up the cooking process, the grain absorbs the water and the heat softens the grain,” Balakrishnan said. “My grandmother used to say that soaking rice increases the flavor of the grain. Also, when it is soaked for less time, I find it tastes a little grainy even after cooking.”
Sabherwal and Balakrishnan agree that the types of rice that deeply benefit in texture from a good soak are the heartier whole grain, brown, black and red rice, along with other unpolished grains. But since phytic acid is present in all rice, it is only the soaking of the rice that ensures its removal for optimum absorption of minerals by the body.
Culinarily and nutritionally, the arguments certainly fall in favor of this extra labor of love ― so soak your rice and grains. Think of it as bonus nutrients and minerals, without the pills.