Wild rice is one of the most visually striking foods in the grain section of your local market. Its grains are long and slender, easily twice the length of regular long-grain rice, with a sleek black or dark brown hull. Although it's not a true rice, it cooks much like red rice, brown rice or black Asian "forbidden" rice. Its cooking time is relatively long, but the method is the same as for other rices.
Wild Rice Basics
Wild rice isn't directly related to the true rices, though both are grasses that flourish in watery environments. Wild rice differs from other grains in having an unusually high water content when it's harvested, and it must be processed differently. It's first allowed to ripen for a period of a week or two, then heated to drive out the excess moisture. The rice's enzymes create new flavor molecules during the maturation stage, and the heating stage creates toasty, nutty flavors. Every wild rice producer does this slightly differently, so some brands are more richly flavored than others. Wild-harvested rice almost always has a more complex flavor than cultivated wild rice.
Cooking Wild Rice
Wild rice takes longer to cook than true rices. That's partly because of the high-temperature processing, and partly because its protective seedcoat contains natural waxes intended to repel moisture. Some processors use friction to score the grains, helping water penetrate more quickly. Wild rice can be cooked pasta-style in plenty of boiling water and then drained, or steamed like other rice on the stovetop until it absorbs its cooking water. The steaming method retains more vitamins, so that's the preferred technique for most home cooks. The rice usually cooks for 45 to 60 minutes, until it bursts out of its hull. It should be slightly chewy -- "al dente" -- but remain straight. If it curls into a ball, it's overcooked. Use three cups of water or broth per cup of wild rice, or up to an extra half-cup if you like it to have a tenderer texture.
The best wild rice has a complicated flavor that's difficult to describe. It has nutty, grassy, earthy and tea-like notes, and many brands have a faint smokiness as well from the drying stage. It's a natural complement to duck and goose, which share the same wild environment. It's also good with turkey, venison and other forms of game. Mushrooms, especially wild mushrooms, share many of the flavor notes found in wild rice and make a good accompaniment for it. Cooked wild rice can also be combined with cooked long-grain or basmati rice, adding an exotic flavor and appearance without placing as much pressure on your grocery budget.
The Nutritional Payoff
Although cooking wild rice requires more time -- and therefore, more planning -- than true rice, it brings distinct nutritional benefits. It's lower in calories than brown or white long-grain rice, and it's both higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates. It's a better source of folate and choline than brown rice, and unlike true rices it also contains lutein. It's also a better source of copper, zinc and potassium than the true rices, and has a similar combination of B vitamins. Most intriguingly, wild rice may be a notable source of antioxidants. Research performed at the University of Minnesota and Canada's University of Manitoba found high levels of antioxidant activity in wild rice.