This is sort of an intro-to-fried-rice recipe. Fried rice is a gigantic family of dishes, with different versions all around the world. The vast majority of these are pretty inexpensive and quick to prepare, which means they get cooked often and modified often. You can pretty much use any produce, fresh or frozen, raw or cooked. You can even use leftover rice. This particular recipe is an intentionally simplified version, so that I can focus on the theory and technique. For veggies I’ve just used my two stir fry favorites, napa cabbage and mushrooms, but you can use anything. In future posts I’ll explore some more exotic flavor combinations.
1.5 cups long grain white rice (I’ve used Jasmine rice)
roughly diced aromatic (This recipe uses an onion.. but you can use scallions, shallots, leeks, etc.)
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1.5 cups napa cabbage, in 1cm slices
1.5 cups white mushrooms, in .5cm slices
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp black soy sauce
3 tbsp rice wine (I used shao xing)
veggie oil (I like sunflower for high heat)
There is some debate about the state of the rice before it gets fried. How old it is, how warm it is, and how much moisture it still contains all affect how it will cook. The conclusion that I’ve come to is that you can get away with pretty much anything for all of these. The final texture may be different, and it may cook slower or faster, but it always seems to work. Lots of folks like to use day old rice straight out of the fridge, but that’s not something I’ve ever really gotten into. It’s certainly fine, and if you’re using leftover rice it’s nice to not have to do anything to it. I wouldn’t refrigerate or age rice just to fry it though. If I’m making rice just to stir fry, I prefer to cook it fresh, and give it like 10 minutes to come down in temperature a little bit.
So, you can either boil the rice or steam it. I use a rice cooker, which is really just boiling, except it doesn’t require any effort or attentiveness whatsoever. If you don’t have a rice cooker, you can boil it in a pot on the stove. 1.5 cups of rice will need just shy of 2 cups of water. Put the rice and water into a cold pot, stir it once, put a lid on it, and turn the heat on high. As soon as the water comes to a boil, turn the heat down to low and let it simmer for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, take it off the heat and let it hang out with the lid on for another 5 minutes or so. Do not at any point during the cooking open the lid, or stir the rice, or think scary thoughts about what can happen inside a pot you haven’t looked at for 25 minutes. The rice will sense your fear and turn to glue! Just let it sit peacefully and do it’s bit and it will come out just fine. While the rice is cooking, I do all the other prep for the recipe, and if I’m feeling particularly coordinated, I’ll even start stirfrying veggies as the rice is finishing.
Once the rice is cooked, I like to put it in a big mixing bowl and gently fluff it to let it steam off some moisture and come down in temperature a little bit. I use a stainless steel bowl because it doesn’t trap the heat, but it’s not necessary. When you’re moving the rice around, the key is to never exert force in a direction that rubs the grains against each other (again because of the glue effect). You always want a motion that moves them apart. It seems to be easiest to scoop from underneath as if you were folding cake batter.
Sauce for fried rice varies tremendously, but there are a few common themes that seem to show up a lot. Soy sauce is almost always involved, and when it’s cut back or omitted, regular salt takes its place. Most soy sauce on its own is too concentrated to properly coat the rice, so there’s most often some other liquid. Water is the simplest solution, and will work just fine, but much more often rice wine is used. That in itself is ambiguous, as there are hundreds of rice wines. Some recipes will even use citrus juice and other flavors to thin the soy sauce. The last factor that’s almost always present as a point of balance is sweetness. You can certainly just add sugar, but there are also sweet rice wines and sweet soy sauces that can be used.
For this recipe, I’m using 3 tbsp of regular Chinese soy sauce, with 3 tbsp of Shao Xing rice wine as the base for the sauce. Instead of using sugar, I’ve chosen a Thai style black soy sauce. (pictured to the left) If you’ve never had this stuff it’s worth looking for. It’s not as salty as regular soy sauce, but it’s very sweet and pours like syrup. I really like it in stirfry sauces because it seems to caramelize in a nicer way than regular sugar. If you can’t find black soy sauce, you can use Mirin instead of the Shao Xing. Mirin is sweetened, and I actually like to pair it with Tamari in fried rice.
Really the options are endless, just make sure you have a substantial savory component, and a slight sweet component. I usually keep a couple different soy sauces and rice wines in the fridge, so that I have options and I’m not making the same stir fry over and over. It’s actually quite popular to not mix the sauce before hand, and instead just drizzle the components into the pan one at a time during cooking. This gives you the option of “seeing how it goes” and adjusting your ratios on the fly to compensate. The reason I’ve taken to mixing the sauce in advance is that by now I pretty much know what I like. Having it measured out frees me from having to think about how much I’m using later on. If you’re trying new ideas or new sauces though, there’s definitely an advantage to continually drizzling and tasting.
In order to best use the limited heat and limited space of your stove and pan, I’d recommend stirfrying the veggies on their own first, and adding them back to the rice at the end. This is pretty much how I approach any stirfry dish, possibly because I have an electric stove. If you’ve got a gigantic wok atop some ridiculous propane situation, feel free to do the veggies at the same time as the onions.
For folks with normal equipment, heat a wok or large fry pan on high heat, and add a little bit of oil. Ideally you want to use the smallest amount of oil you can get away with. For this reason I like to use a non-stick pan, as it lets you use less. Getting the pan absolutely as hot as possible also reduces the amount of oil required. This is my reason for using sunflower oil actually. Sunflower oil has a very high smoke point, which lets you get your pan to a higher temperature. So, heat the oil until it smokes, and then add the cabbage.
Quickly toss it to get it coated evenly with oil, and then allow it to sit and sizzle for a few seconds. Repeat tossing and waiting until the cabbage is well seared on a few surfaces and heated through. Because I’ve cut the cabbage into smaller pieces in this recipe than I have in previous stir fry posts, it will take longer to cook than it did in those recipes. Usually when I make fried rice, I don’t like the veggie pieces to be too big, but that’s totally a personal preference thing. When you’re happy with the color of your cabbage, set it aside.
Return the pan to the heat and add a little more oil. (Probably more than you needed for the cabbage) When the oil is smoking, add the mushrooms and quickly toss to coat. Add a little splash of water to the pan and again toss to coat. The water steams the mushrooms briefly in order to heat their own internal water, since they can take a while to get going without the help. Once they begin to heat up they’ll carry on cooking just fine without any more additions. Alternately toss and wait as you did with the cabbage, and after a couple minutes the sound of the cooking will change. The bubbly sound of the water will slow down, and they’ll begin to brown much more quickly. They’re done when you decide they’re done.. I like mine golden brown, but, once they’ve started to color you can really call them finished at any time. Set them aside for later.
Frying the Rice:
Bring the pan back to the high heat and add some oil. Once the oil is smoking, add the onion and toss to get it coated.
Stirfry the onion until it begins to brown. You should probably move on when the onion is about half as cooked as you’d like it.
Add the rice, along with a little bit more oil, and stir it to coat as evenly as possible. When you’re frying rice, there are a few different variables that you need to keep in mind. As the cooking progresses, observe carefully so that you can keep your head around all the various factors, and continually adjust your technique to compensate.
Everything you need to watch while you’re cooking has to do with determining the distribution of water in each individual grain of rice. When the rice first hits the pan, the water is evenly distributed and low in temperature. The first sounds you hear come from the water on the surface of the grain quickly boiling off when it hits the heat. As you stir the rice around in the beginning, you gradually dry the outside surface of each grain slightly, and begin heating the water contained within. As the internal water comes to the surface, the pan settles into a fairly consistent sizzle.
The water distribution also affects how the rice responds when you stir it. As I mentioned earlier, when it’s freshly cooked, you need to be very careful when you stir. This is because there is so much water on the outside of the rice that the grains are easy to damage. When you first add the rice to the hot pan, the same is true, and you should stir as gently and as infrequently as possible. Once the water starts moving and the fry settles down, you can stir fry it as you would anything else. Thoroughly toss, and then wait for everything to sizzle for a while before you repeat. If you use more oil, it prevents the rice grains from sticking to each other when they’re wet, and makes them easier to cook. This can quickly lead to a greasy dish however. It’s always my goal to make this dish with as little oil as I can, so that it doesn’t distract from the flavor. Cutting back on the oil you give to the rice itself is the most effective way to reduce the perception of greasiness, but also the most difficult. Next time you have a really amazing restaurant fried rice, note how little oil is actually left on the grains.
When enough water has worked its way out of the rice, the surface of the grains will be able to be heated above boiling temperature, and they’ll begin to color. At this point, move everything to the outside edge of the pan so that you have a space in the middle to work with.
Pour a little puddle of sesame oil in the center of the pan, and to it add the chopped garlic. After just a few seconds, the garlic will begin to color, and you can toss everything until it’s well combined.
Continue to stir fry the rice and garlic until you’ve worked out enough water to put a decent texture on most of the rice. You won’t be able to get it all to color, you’re just looking for enough cooked surfaces to affect the final texture. It’s important here not to go too far, as you have the potential to dry out the rice. If you listen closely as the cooking progresses, you should be able to hear the water content gradually decreasing. As there is less water, the outside surface of the rice grains will be able to cook faster and faster, and the idea is to begin adding sauce before that process gets away from you.
Drizzle a little bit of the sauce on, quickly toss, and then allow to sizzle. When you add the sauce, the water steams off and helps to keep the rice hydrated. The idea is to ration the sauce so that you can keep the water content in the pan fairly stable. Add a little, wait for it to steam… when you feel you’re about back where you started, add some more. It usually takes me about 4 or 5 splashes to go through all the sauce. (Save the last splash for when you add the veggies) Also, remember that you’re depending on the sugar in the sauce to caramelize, so don’t stir too often. It’s important that once a grain of rice has absorbed the sauce, it has some time against the pan for the flavor to develop.
Add in your cooked veggies along with the rest of the sauce, and stir to combine. Wait for everyone to get to about the same temperature and then serve!