The Food Lab: Follow These Rules For the Best Fried Rice

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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Great fried rice should have individual grains that just barely clump together when picked up with chopsticks or a spoon. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I've been holding off on doing a full fried rice story for several years now. I'm not really sure why. Fried rice is a great way to use up leftovers, it is infinitely variable, and there are plenty of variables worth testing out. Couple that with the number of rules that everyone says you simply must follow (you must use day-old rice, you must use medium grain, etc.), and it seems like the perfect subject for some hardcore testing and mythbusting.

I figure it's time we got started.

Fried rice comes in many styles. In China (and more authentic Chinese restaurants in the States), it's typically lightly seasoned with salt and perhaps a little soy sauce or another sauce, along with scant amounts of aromatics and meat. In the Chinese-American tradition, you'll find it made with bigger chunks of meat, and much more sauce. It's the former style that I mostly grew up eating and that's the style that I'm interested in for now.

Rule #1: Use the Right Rice (Almost Any Rice)

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Perfect fried rice is all about texture. I was looking for rice that has distinct grains, each with a slightly chewy fried exterior and a tender bite. I wanted grains that were separate enough from each other that you can taste and appreciate their texture, but still sticky enough that you can pick up small clumps with a pair of chopsticks or a spoon.

Fried rice recipes typically call for Chinese-style medium-grain rice, though Thai-style versions use fragrant Jasmine and Japanese-style fried rice can even be made with short grain sushi rice. I tried making fried rice with all of those, as well as with long-grain rice (standard Carolina and basmati rice) and par-boiled rice (like Uncle Ben's). I did not do any testing on brown, wild, or black rice varieties.

I was expecting disasters from at least a couple of batches, but surprisingly, they all produced decent results. Longer-grain rice varieties tended to be the most troublesome as they fell apart a little bit during stir-frying and lack the plumpness that gives fried rice its signature chewy-tender texture.

These are my favorite types of rice for frying:

  • Jasmine: A medium-grain Thai variety that has the perfect balance of stickiness (for easy eating) and individual grains (for superior texture). Jasmine rice brings its own aroma to the game, so should be used in very light stir-fries where its flavor can shine.
  • Medium grain white rice: The variety you'll most commonly see in Chinese restaurants. Like Jasmine, medium rice grains boast a great balance: They're strong individuals but also good team players. White rice has less of a floral aroma than Jasmine which makes it a little more versatile.
  • Sushi rice: Japanese-style sushi rice has a very short grain and tends to be stickier/starchier than medium grain rices. This makes it a little bit more difficult to stir-fry without clumping, but the resultant texture is the chewiest of the lot, which can be a good thing.

Rule #2: Plan in Advance if You Can, But Don't Worry if You Don't

I'd always heard that fried rice is best made with day-old rice and that fresh rice will turn to mush if you try to fry it. But is this really true? And if so, what is it about the resting period that makes older rice superior to fresh rice?

As rice sits after cooking, a couple things happen. First, there's evaporation: the rice gets dryer. Second, we've got starch retrogradation: gelatinized starches that have swollen up and softened during cooking will recrystallize as they cool, turning the rice firm and less sticky. The same things happen with bread, and in the past I've found that most recipes that call for "stale" bread are actually really more interested in "dry" bread (see my stuffing recipe, for instance).

I wasn't sure what I was looking for with rice, stale or dry. So I tried it. Over and over and over again. To test dryness I used batches of rice that I set under a table fan at room temperature which would hopefully rapidly dry out the rice without giving it much of a chance to turn stale. To test staleness, I stored batches of rice for lengths of time varying from half an hour to 12 hours, very tightly covered on plates in the fridge, allowing their starches to recrystallize without drying out. I also stored rice the way most of us do: in not-well-sealed Chinese takeout containers. Presumably these batches would get both dry and stale.

I then stir-fried the batches one after the other in a little vegetable oil.

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My results showed some very interesting twists. First off, all of the batches of rice that were under a fan (dried and not staled) worked out well. None of the very tightly wrapped batches worked, which indicates that dryness is an essential factor for fried rice. The batches that were stored loosely wrapped actually became more difficult to fry properly for times ranging between 1 hour and around 6 hours of storage. More than that, and they got easier and easier; by hour 12 they were ideal.

But here's the thing: even freshly cooked rice worked great. In fact, it worked better than rice that had been stored loosely covered in the refrigerator for 1 to 6 hours. What gives? Most of my other tests indicate that dryness matters, but surely fresh rice is the moistest of the lot?

Well, not necessarily. Freshly cooked rice spread out on a plate will steam a great deal as its surface moisture is evaporated. That's the important part. It's the surface moisture that is going to cause your rice to rapidly suppress the temperature of the wok. It's the surface moisture that's going to cause your rice to stick together.

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Fresh rice works just fine for frying.

That explains why fresh rice and rice that's been placed underneath a fan work well. With rice placed in the refrigerator, on the other hand, you slow down the evaporation process. Meanwhile, internal moisture from the grains will start to move outwards, adding moisture to the surface of each grain and making them more difficult to fry. Eventually that surface moisture will evaporate again and the rice will become easier to fry.

Here are my recommendations for rice treatment, in order of preference:

  • Fanned rice: Rice that has been cooked, spread onto a tray, then placed under a fan for about an hour comes out dry but not stale, exactly what you want.
  • Fresh cooked: So long as you spread the rice out on a plate or tray while it's still hot and give it a few minutes to evaporate off some surface moisture, you can make excellent fried rice with fresh rice.
  • Day old rice: Day old rice tends to clump, so you'll need to break it up by hand before stir-frying. It's also dryer internally than fresh rice so you have to be faster with the stir-fry in order to ensure that it doesn't become overly hard. That said, if you happen to have day-old rice, it'll make excellent fried rice.

Rule #3: Rinse the Rice

This was an obvious one: excess starchiness is what causes rice to clump. Nobody likes clumpy fried rice. If you are cooking your rice from raw in order to make fried rice, make sure to rinse off excess starch first. A quick dunk and shake in a bowl of cold water or a 30-second rinse under a cold tap while agitating the rice is plenty.

Rule #4: Break up the Rice

If you're using rice that has had a chance to clump or go stale, break it up before it goes into the wok. This will ensure that the rice separates into individual grains without breaking or getting crushed.

I did consider whether or not oiling the rice while still cold before it hit the wok was a good idea. It's not: cold oil doesn't spread as well as hot oil so you end up using way more than you'd typically need. Best to break up the rice by hand and leave the oil for the wok.

Once the rice is broken up, you're ready to cook. Fried rice is more forgiving than most stir-fries (unlike meat or green vegetables, it's not easy to overcook rice), but it's still a fast process. Make sure you have your other ingredients ready to go before putting the wok on the flame.

Speaking of which...

Rule #5: Use a Wok

While it's true that woks were not designed to be used on Western-style gas ranges with their rings of burners, they are still a far superior vessel for stir-frying than a skillet or saucepan. Not only does a wok offer different zones of heat (allowing you to push ingredients away from the center when adding new ones), but it also makes tossing and flipping a snap. This is essential for achieving wok hei, the smoky flavor you get from the vaporization and combustion of oil as the rice is tossed in the air.

I use a flat-bottomed wok so I don't have to worry about accidentally tipping it off the burner. This one is inexpensive and made of carbon steel, which will darken to a slick, shiny, non-stick black finish with use.

The one caveat: woks work best with gas cooktops where the flame rises and heats up the sides of the wok as well as the base. If you're using a stovetop with induction or a heating coil, your best bet is to use a flat heavy non-stick or cast iron skillet. Your rice won't come out with any wok hei, but such is the life of an electric cooktop-owner.

Rule #6: Keep Things Hot. Very Hot.

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Here is where I've made the most fried rice mistakes in my life: not getting the pan hot enough and cooking too much rice at a time. Try it and see what happens. Then come back here after you've scraped out the solid clump of mushy rice from the center of your wok.

Cooking fried rice is not all that different from, say, searing chunks of beef for a stew: you want to make sure that the pan is ripping hot before you add the rice in so that the exterior has a chance to brown and acquire some texture before the rice exudes too much internal moisture and ends up steaming instead of frying.

In a Chinese restaurant with its jet-engine wok burners, this is pretty easy. Even a large batch of rice will sear just fine. Our Western burners are typically around 1/10th the heat output of wok burners. To compensate for this, I use two strategies.

First: heat. I add vegetable oil to the wok (there is no truth in the old "hot wok cold oil" mantra), then heat it up before adding the rice. I'm talking turn-on-the-fan-and-unplug-the-smoke-detectors hot. The second trick is to cook in batches, adding no more than about a cup of rice at a time to the wok, stirring and tossing it as soon as it goes in to get it nicely coated in oil. You're looking for rice that is starting to take on a toasty golden brown color with a tight skin around each grain. This will most likely take a little bit longer than you expect it to, so be patient and keep tossing and stirring.

As each batch of rice is cooked, I transfer it to a bowl and set it aside. Once all the rice is cooked, I add it all back to the wok together.

Rule #7: Go Easy With the Add-Ins

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Just like a plate of pasta is really about the pasta itself, not the sauce, fried rice is all about the rice. The mix-ins should all be flavor enhancers, not stars unto themselves. In this case, I'm keeping it simple with some diced onion, carrot, garlic, and scallion. If I were adding meat, I'd either use pre-cooked meat (such as diced ham or shredded chicken), or I'd rapidly sear it in the center of the wok before adding my other aromatic ingredients.

Once they've had a chance to warm up a bit in the center, I start to toss them with the rice, stir-frying everything together.

Rule #8: Go Easy With the Sauce

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Some fried rice recipes call for massive amounts of soy sauce, oyster sauce, or hoisin sauce. This has never made much sense to me. Why go through the trouble of making sure your rice grains are dry and individual if you're going to then turn around and sog them all up with extra sauce again?

So long as you are using good technique and high quality rice, you don't need a ton of sauce. For this batch I'm using a single teaspoon of soy sauce along with a single teaspoon of sesame oil: just enough to get it fragrant but not to dominate the flavor. Oyster sauce, fish sauce, or other Asian sauces like kecap manis (the Indonesian sweet soy sauce used in nasi goreng) all work here. Feel free to suit your own tastes (some poor misguided souls even like to stir-fry their rice with ketchup and Worcestershire sauce).

Rule #9: Season Rice With Salt

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That teaspoon of soy sauce will add some salt to the mix, but it's not enough to season the whole wok-ful. I prefer to season my rice with plain salt instead of more soy sauce as salt will not add excess moisture nor distract from other more subtle flavors in the rice.

Rule #10: The Egg

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OK, this one technically isn't a rule, per se, but eggs are so common to fried rice that it may as well be. There are many methods of adding eggs to fried rice but I find that the simplest is best: push the rice aside, add a little oil to the bottom of the wok, crack an egg into it, then scramble it right in the center of the wok, using the top of your spatula to break it up into small pieces, eventually tossing them with the rice for even distribution.

Rule #11: Add Fresh Green Elements

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Just as I'd add herbs to my tomato sauce before tossing it with pasta, I like to add fresh green elements to my fried rice before serving it. This can be anything from thinly sliced scallion greens to chopped cilantro, basil, mint, or chives, or in this case, that steam table Chinese classic: green peas. I use frozen peas straight out of the freezer (99% of the time, frozen peas are better than fresh peas anyway).

Rule #12: Toss Well

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We're nearly there. The final step is to just give everything a few more good tosses. By the time you're done, every grain of rice in the pan should be separate from the others, and each spoonful should have an even distribution of all of the mix-ins.

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This is fried rice that actually tastes like rice, not just a mushy vehicle to transport sauce into your mouth.

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This is fried rice the way it's meant to be.