The Kitchen Scientist

Do You Really Need to Wash Rice? Nik Sharma Has Thoughts.

September 20, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

If you're like us, every time you hear about a kitchen hack—whether it's advice from grandma or trending on TikTok—you wonder: But does it actually work? In The Kitchen Scientist, we're asking author Nik Sharma (whose new book, The Flavor Equation, comes out in October!) to put it to the test.


It’s almost an unconscious act for most of us. Before we cook many ingredients, we inevitably make our way to the kitchen sink to wash them. This does a lot of things: It rids the food’s surface from grit, dirt, chemicals, and bugs. But in some instances, washing also helps improve the quality of a dish, especially when rice is involved.

I always wash my rice before soaking to get rid of all the unwanted things mentioned above—but also, more importantly, to get rid of any starch that’s present on the surface. That extra bit of starch will affect the outcome of whatever I’m cooking with that rice, be it a creamy rice pudding or pilaf.

Before we get into the whys and hows, let’s take a closer look at starch and rice.

Starch 101

Starch is one of the most common carbohydrates present in plants. It acts as a storage unit, made up of many units of glucose (a simple sugar/carbohydrate that is metabolized to produce energy). Every grain of rice contains granules of starch, plus a small amount of proteins and lipids.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“The Japanese wash their rice (a semi-short grain uruchimai) well and SAVE the RUN-OFF WATER called TOGI-JIRU. The togi-jiru (cloudy, starchy water from washing rice) has many, many uses. Some culinary uses include tender-prepping root vegetables such as daikon by par-boiling in togi-jiru until translucent and a toothpick will not meet resistance. The togi-jiru has natural rice oils that seal in nutrients (they don't get lost to the par-boiling water that does not get consumed) but helps break-down fibers to make the vegetable more tender AND more porous to allow transfer of flavor from the next liquid it comes in contact with (usually a dashi-like liquid). Non-culinary uses of togi-jiru include deodorizing hands (great for after handling garlic) and pots & pans (great for washing out a pot after a strong-flavored curry or chili has been made in it). The sediment that forms in a jar of togi-jiru can be saved (refrigerated is best) for about a week and added to each time your wash rice (in Japan that is daily). The sediment is creamy (like hand-lotion) and indeed also helps to heal dish-washing-hands. Plants (especially herbs) also love to be watered with togi-jiru.”
— Andoh
Comment

Two types of starch are present in rice: amylose and amylopectin. Their quantities vary by the type of rice, which affects the final texture of the cooked grains. Varieties of rice with less amylose and more amylopectin, such as sticky rice, tend to be just that—stickier. Types like basmati, which contains a significantly larger percentage of amylose, but lower amounts of amylopectin, produce cooked rice that is less sticky and more firm.

Here’s a rough breakdown:

  • Sticky rice (like Thai glutinous rice) contains nearly 0% amylose
  • Short-grain or waxy rice (like arborio) contain 1% amylose
  • Long-grain rice (like basmati and jasmine) contain at least 73% amylose

When rice is heated in water, the granules of starch inside the grain undergo physical and chemical changes, absorbing water and beginning to swell. The exact temperature at which starch begins to thicken varies quite a bit, depending on the plant and how the starch was processed (short-grain rice ranges from 131°F to 149°F; long-grain from 140°F to 176°F). Eventually, the chemical bond between amylose and amylopectin breaks.

Amylose, being a smaller molecule, easily escapes the granule, leaking out and forming a gel with the cooking water. Once the rice cools, the amylose crystallizes in a process called retrogradation (the same process responsible for this Genius Recipe telling you to overcook your pasta for pasta salad). The greater the amylose, the firmer and drier the cooled rice, which is why basmati appears firmer after cooking. Sticky rice, on the other hand, contains practically no amylose, so there is nothing to form a crystalline structure.

Compared to amylose, amylopectin is a very large molecule. When rice is cooked, this starch forms a very viscous liquid, increasing the overall stickiness. Unlike amylose, it lacks the tendency to retrograde. As a result, a short-grain rice variety like arborio, which contains a greater percentage of amylopectin, is ideal for risotto, where the cooking liquid becomes creamy, a result we love.

So, Why Wash Rice?

When you open up a container or bag of rice, those grains of rice have made quite the journey. During this time of processing, packing, travel, and storage, they constantly rub against each other. This friction between the dry grains of rice creates starch dust that coats the grains.

If the grains aren’t washed before cooking, this residual starch will gelatinize in the hot cooking water and make the cooked grains of rice stick to each other. In some instances, such as sticky rice varieties like glutinous rice and arborio rice, this can lead to a very gummy texture.

In the case of dishes like biryanis and pilafs/pulaos that use long-grain rice like basmati—and are judged in quality by how separate the cooked rice grains are—washing away the dust off becomes very important. The clarity of the runoff water indicates that most of the starch dust is rinsed away and the rice is ready to be soaked.

In kanji/congee, usually a short-grain rice, such as short-grain sushi rice (I even use arborio at times), is cooked in water or stock to form a thick, soupy liquid. While the starch dust might help thicken your soup, the rice should still be washed before cooking to remove any dirt, chemicals, and bugs that might be present. The innate properties of sticky rice (low percentage of amylose, higher amount of amylopectin) thicken the liquid with ease, so losing any of that starch dust during washing is not a concern. Also worth noting: Acids and excessive mechanical force can reduce the viscosity of amylopectin, so add any acidic ingredients, like lemon juice, at the end, and be gentle when whisking or stirring.

Some studies demonstrate that washing rice can significantly reduce the amount of heavy metals that accumulate in the plant (toxic heavy metals like lead, arsenic, and cadmium, if present in soil, can collect in plants). Some brands of rice are labeled as “enriched” and will come with a note to not rinse before cooking. This rice comes precleaned and is also enriched with various types of nutrients, like minerals and vitamins. I rarely buy this type of rice. The fortification of rice is done after the grains are dehusked and polished, and washing the rice in water takes away these nutrients. There is also another type of enrichment, in which genes are modified or introduced to improve the nutrient content of rice and even tackle health issues.

What About Soaking?

Soaking rice prior to cooking—usually 30 minutes is sufficient—provides a few benefits: First, it shortens cooking time as the grains absorb water. Soaking hydrates the grains and consequently the amylose and amylopectin inside the starch granules absorb water and swell. When it comes to types of rice that are noted for their fragrance, like basmati and jasmine, the aroma improves if the rice is soaked prior to cooking. This is because soaking, shortens the amount of time needed for cooking, resulting in a reduced loss of the aromatic substances (2-acetyl pyrroline) that naturally occurs during the cooking process.

Steps to Stellar Rice

When I prepare rice for cooking, be it long-grain or short-grain, I follow the same steps:

  1. Pick through the grains, removing any visible grit.
  2. Place the rice in a fine-mesh strainer of the appropriate size and rinse under cold running tap water, till the runoff is no longer cloudy. I prefer this method of washing rice because it gives a better visual endpoint to gauge when to stop (and the mesh prevents any grains from ending up in the kitchen sink). Note: Avoid rubbing the rice too much with your hands when rinsing—this creates more friction between the grains and you’ll be washing the rice forever as the run-off will continue to be cloudy.
  3. Soak the rice for 30 minutes in enough room temperature water to cover it by an inch. If you decide to soak the rice overnight, remember to watch the rice as it cooks, since your cooking time will decrease more significantly.
  4. Drain the soaking water.
  5. Cook the rice in a fresh batch of water or stock, as dictated by the recipe’s instructions.

How do you prepare rice at home? Do you rinse the grains before cooking? Do you soak the rice and for how long? And what type of rice do you use most often?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Ruby_lady
    Ruby_lady
  • Lynn
    Lynn
  • Agatha Brown
    Agatha Brown
  • Kris Michael
    Kris Michael
  • Lyle D. Gunderson
    Lyle D. Gunderson
Nik Sharma is a molecular biologist turned cookbook author and food photographer who writes a monthly column for Serious Eats and the San Francisco Chronicle and is a contributor to the New York Times. His first cookbook, Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food, was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation award and an International Association of Culinary Professionals award. Nik resides in Los Angeles, California and writes the award-winning blog, A Brown Table. Nik's new book, The Flavor Equation will be released in October 2020.

78 Comments

Ruby_lady September 29, 2020
I took an Asian cooking class when I was first married. I’m 72 now so it was quite a while ago. The instructor who had spent a lot of time living in Vietnam and other Asian countries taught us to always, always wash our rice he said To develop the habit now and never vary from it. He said he couldn’t stress it enough to 100% wash your rice. I have always followed his advice and have always had great results.
 
Lynn September 29, 2020
I follow instructions on amount of liquid to add to an amount of rice .(mostly to mark the liquid verses rice proportions).Then I wash the rice generously .After drained , I add water to reach the spatial proportion (dry rice plus water) previously noted.
I prefer to end with liquid evaporated and not a soggy mess .
 
Agatha B. September 28, 2020
I have always washed rice. Recently though, in addition, I have started soaking and using the draining method. I find I quite like this. I have tended to like my rice a little friendly, but am not against eating rice whose grains don't hug each other. I should add that for me a meal is not complete without some rice in it, so I am always interested in other perspectives and how others prepare. Thanks.
 
Kris M. September 26, 2020
I go by the instructions on the label. If it says to wash and/or soak, I do it. If it doesn't, I sort it dry and cook it. Unless it looks dusty. Always turns out good.
 
Lyle D. September 26, 2020
Before I started washing rice, I got a thick, tan, foamy layer of gunk at the top of the rice cooker when it was done. Washing rice prevents this, so that alone justifies the practice, as far as I'm concerned.
 
KateZ September 26, 2020
Try not to eat rice because of arsenic problem. See nutrition facts.org.
 
Teri September 26, 2020
WASH YOUR RICE!!!!!
I'm 62. and at age 47, I thought I had the onset of Alzheimers. I saw several medical professionals and my labs were clean. But symptoms were bad, forgetfulness, lethargy, foggy-headed, bad concentration ........
I had extensive (24hour urine labs) hormone labs done to see if menopause was the issue; nope, not hormones. My D.O. thought it may be toxic metals and did a (6 hour urine collection) lab to see.
BINGO!
My ARSENIC was off the scale, it was so high that she ran the test again to confirm.
YUP! ARSENIC!!! So, she went over all the foods and beverages, life habits, employment ... and found RICE was a huge contributor because it was a staple for us.
She also said NON-ORGANIC CHICKEN is huge in arsenic.
And being I drink nearly 98% water, she tested our WELL by the same high standard lab.
Our WELL WATER was very high in arsenic. (Arsenic ebb and flows with the water levels of the earth, so the percentages will change).
So now, it's ONLY organic chicken and organic at any time we can.
We bought a REVERSE OSMOSIS for our well water.
And she suggested we cut back on rice as even ORGANIC RICE still has arsenic because IT GROWS IN WATER FIELDS!
She suggested if we make rice to WASH & RINSE AGAIN & AGAIN until the water is clear.
She treated me with CHELATION to push the toxic metals out, it took about a year of treatments, and each treatment is $90 and not covered by insurance.
So, WASH YOUR RICE!!
 
Janet M. September 26, 2020
I never soak, but do rinse, ie fill the pan with water, swish the rice around with my hand, drain, and rinse a second time. Foreign particles usually disappear with the first rinse, since there's plenty of water to bring them to the top. If second rinse appears almost clear, I don't bother with a 3rd. My family doesn't want "fluffy" rice either, but distinct dryish grains. I cook with about 1 2/3 c water to 1 c rice, and it only takes about 15 minutes for fully cooked, tender rice. Risotto or Chinese sticky rice are different stories.
 
Virginia H. September 26, 2020
For many years I did not wash rice or if I did it was a quick water in and out. My children loved sticky rice and did not want the "fluffy kind". We always had a lot of rice on hand from a friend (story: he had an issue of survival in Dutch Indonesia WWll). Now, I do wash rice and try to soak it, and discovered cooking time was less while I do other prep work. However, when making risotto, I check it but I forego washing in order to toast it. Soggy rice won't toast. Right?
 
Brandie M. September 26, 2020
When I moved to the mainland I found out long grain is fluffy and short or medium grain is sticky rice. Back home we always just bought Cal-rose (sticky rice). Can't answer about the toasting rice as I've never tried it.
 
Takefive September 26, 2020
I had been told to rinse rice as a child but I never do. I cook all kinds of rice- sushi, Arborio, basmati, brown, black, red, jasmine; and I have never had a problem with my rice being hunky or sticky. I cook my rice in a pot on stovetop and have never burned or had sticky rice and I guess I’ve been lucky since I hear so many people need rice cookers or instapots to cook it properly. My mother always rinsed and cooked hers in the oven but I have not been able to do it that way. I always just follow the water ratio suggested which is generally 1:2 rice to water, being to boil, cover turn to low, no stirring and done in 20 mins unless rice has hull and then more like 30. 🤷🏻‍♀️
 
Haddy September 26, 2020
Is it true that washing rice and using the draining method I’d best for diabetics ? Is the starch really less when you do ?
 
Julia September 26, 2020
I remember my Mom telling us kids years ago, back in the '60's, that you were suppose to wash the rice first, but she didn't bother. The rice was great. And I'd rarely read it in the instructions with rice. I tried years ago, but quickly returned to not rinsing. Then recently, I tried rinsing, but it just doesn't seem necessary. Sometimes, I let the rice sit awhile in the water in the skillet I have it in. The way I do the rice is one part rice, a little more then 2 parts water. Butter. Bring to boil with lid on. Turn the heat to very low. Simmer for 15 minutes. Turn heat off. Lid stays on. Sit for fifteen minutes. Like the smell of that jasmine rice. Then I fluff it with a fork.
 
Kim S. September 26, 2020
Are the methods described any different with brown rice instead of white? The brown includes the husk, bran and germ, which are mostly absent in white rice. How does that alter the kitchen chemistry? I pretty much know that a brown rice of any variety will not make a good risotto, but I've never been confident that a brown rice would shine at the other end of the spectrum to make a good biryani. Kudos to the author for providing the simple descriptions of the essential chemical processes at play with such a staple ingredient.
 
Krysia September 25, 2020
I have two long-time friends from two very different rice eating cultures, and neither would dream of eating unwashed rice.

For Chinese rice, the rice is washed until the water runs clear, them drained. My friend told me this is to rinse off the talc that is used to polish the rice.

For Persian rice, Basmati rice is washed in lukewarm water and drained about five times, until the water runs clear. It is then soaked in lukewarm water for several hours before draining and cooking.

The only rice I do not at least rinse before cooking is Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice. Certain recipes call for this type of rice, and it cooks up with the grains staying separate from each other.
 
Andoh September 25, 2020
The Japanese wash their rice (a semi-short grain uruchimai) well and SAVE the RUN-OFF WATER called TOGI-JIRU. The togi-jiru (cloudy, starchy water from washing rice) has many, many uses. Some culinary uses include tender-prepping root vegetables such as daikon by par-boiling in togi-jiru until translucent and a toothpick will not meet resistance. The togi-jiru has natural rice oils that seal in nutrients (they don't get lost to the par-boiling water that does not get consumed) but helps break-down fibers to make the vegetable more tender AND more porous to allow transfer of flavor from the next liquid it comes in contact with (usually a dashi-like liquid). Non-culinary uses of togi-jiru include deodorizing hands (great for after handling garlic) and pots & pans (great for washing out a pot after a strong-flavored curry or chili has been made in it). The sediment that forms in a jar of togi-jiru can be saved (refrigerated is best) for about a week and added to each time your wash rice (in Japan that is daily). The sediment is creamy (like hand-lotion) and indeed also helps to heal dish-washing-hands. Plants (especially herbs) also love to be watered with togi-jiru.
 
Virginia H. September 26, 2020
I water my orchids with it.
 
susannapaperoranges September 25, 2020
What if you use a pressure cooker or rice cooker? It soaking necessary?
 
Cheryl September 25, 2020
I’d like to know about IP as well- I rinse but don’t soak. I feel like my rice is always sticky- any suggestions welcomed. I rinse- and sauté in a little oil before adding broth- cook on low 12 minutes in insta pot. Enjoyed this article- always learning!
 
Bob September 26, 2020
I am admittedly a rice savage. But combine buying "good" Japanese rice online with cooking at 4 minutes on low setting in the InstantPot has made us regular rice eaters.
 
Lyle D. September 26, 2020
I use a rice cooker, and now I always rinse the rice before cooking it. Otherwise, I often get a layer of tan, foamy gunk at the top. BTW, a rice cooker is a great way to get consistent rice that survives even when I'm distracted of busy with other menu items.
 
Anne J. September 25, 2020
And as I didnt address the real topic I was so shocked by putting rice in gumbo, I rinse my rice until the water runs pretty clear and I agitate it slightly with my fingers. I then soak it for 15 to 30 minutes, I use the knuckle test for water, and it always works out. I’ve been cooking rice for over 40 years and was taught the above process by a friend who was Chinese but came from Malaysia. I do clean and check for “not rice” when I’m making jambalaya but I don’t really rinse or soak, in it goes. For risotto and milky creamy rice pudding I rinse but don’t soak, the process of cooking takes care of that chemistry I guess.
And that is really what cooking is, guess work. Clever guess work
 
Chef G. September 25, 2020
That was a fantastic article. I always rinse to get dust off, just as you do, in a fine mesh strainer without rubbing the grains. I use a rice cooker and 1.5 c water to 1 c rice. I mostly cook Carolina Gold from Anson Mills, but occasionally with cook jasmine. Thanks for explaining the how & why.
 
dgarey September 25, 2020
Rinsing rice definitely improves outcome, once I started I realized why sometimes my rice was gunky before rinsing. As I am a water hoarder I rinse over a dishpan and use the water for house plants.
 
Susan R. September 25, 2020
Curious—for those who soak before cooking, do you then reduce the amount of water you use to less than the usual 2:1 ratio?