The history of rice cultivation stretches further back than most crops—some research suggests that it was first domesticated as many as 13,500 years ago. Yet it wasn’t really until the health food movement of the 1960s and 1970s that brown rice even registered on most Americans’ radars. In fact, it still hasn’t totally shed that hippie-dippy image, always the underdog to the white rice that holds sway in everything from sushi to jambalaya.
Brown rice’s healthful reputation can be traced to the fact that it does indeed have more nutrients. Brown and white rice both start out from the same material: grains encased in a protective husk. After harvest, they both go through a milling process to reveal the brown rice beneath, which has an outer coating called the bran and a little opaque nugget known as the germ. This bran is rich in fiber while the germ is loaded with B vitamins and minerals like magnesium, zinc, and iron.
That bran layer doesn’t just give brown rice its signature earthy taste, but also affects how it cooks. Because the fiber in bran acts as a sort of protective barrier, it makes it difficult for moisture to pass through and get absorbed by the grain.
The other downside to the bran layer? It contains phytic acid, which can prohibit the absorption of nutrients and contribute to mineral deficiencies, as well as promote tooth decay—but only if eaten frequently. If you do eat brown rice regularly, soaking it overnight will help mitigate these effects.
You may have also heard about arsenic in rice; as with phytic acid, there is more present in brown rice than in white, but you’d have to eat a lot of rice for it to be a problem. Also, cooking it with more water than usual can help.
White rice doesn’t have the bran—it goes a step further and is “polished,” shedding the bran and the germ (which makes it a refined grain), leaving only the starchy endosperm, which doesn’t offer much nutrition-wise besides calories and carbohydrates. Stripped of the bran, the bare endosperm can soak up water easily, which is why white rice becomes tender and cooks much faster. If you look at our basic recipes for brown and white rice, for example, you’ll notice that white only takes about 15 minutes to cook, while brown takes up to 50 minutes, despite using more or less the same method.
White rice not only contains fewer vitamins and minerals, but has a higher GI (glycemic index) score than brown rice, meaning it can cause blood sugar spikes. If you have type 2 diabetes or at risk for developing it, you should be careful about the amount of white rice you eat.
If you’re on a special diet, it’s good to know that both white and brown rice are fairly high in carbs (hence the rise of cauliflower rice), but are gluten free.
If you’re looking for alternatives to rice, try one of these whole grain alternatives.
Once it’s cooked, yes. Brown rice is chewier and nuttier than white rice, but you can use it as the base of a salad, fried rice dish, or to soak up a curry or bulk up a stir-fry anywhere you would use any type of white rice. Leftover brown rice can be turned into rice pudding too.
If your recipe involves cooking the rice as part of the dish (like our Cheesy Baked Rice recipe), the cooking time and liquid content won’t be the same if you try to swap in brown rice, so use your best judgment.
Within the categories of brown rice and white rice, there are many more varieties—jasmine rice, basmati rice, and sticky rice, for instance, all come in both brown and white versions, but there are other differences that separate them, like the length of the grain.
See our guide to rice for more information (including on black rice and wild rice…which isn’t actually a grain at all).
Whether you go for brown or white, know that regardless, you’re eating one of the oldest, most widely consumed grains enjoyed by humankind. Here are seven recipes to celebrate that fact:
Here’s your go-to rice-cooking technique: By rinsing the grains before you cook them, you remove any excess starch, for an end product that’s light and fluffy without being overly sticky and gluey. Get our Basic Steamed White Rice recipe.
Brown rice demands a bit more patience—it takes about an hour from start to finish—but the result is always worth the wait, with big flavor and lots of healthful nutrients to feel good about. Get our Basic Steamed Brown Rice recipe.
3. Rice Pilaf
Pilaf gets extra flavor from being simmered in broth—and from being toasted in the pan before adding the liquid. If you don’t already, you should have a recipe like this in your back pocket; it’s a trusty all-purpose side dish that goes with just about everything. Get our Rice Pilaf recipe.
4. Spanish Rice
Whether it’s in burritos or alongside spicy favorites like chiles rellenos, a batch of Spanish rice is a no-fail way to round out a Mexican-inspired meal. Get our Spanish Rice recipe.
Fried rice may be a greasy takeout staple, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t health it up. By using brown rice and leafy Chinese broccoli, it becomes a powerhouse in both the flavor and the nutrition departments. Get our Gai Lan and Shiitake Stir Fried Brown Rice recipe.
Part of the beauty of brown rice is that, like other whole grains, it is hardy enough to be mixed into larger recipes without turning to mush. In these veggie burgers, it adds heft and substance, aided by veggies and spices to produce a patty that actually is worth biting into. Get our Brown Rice Veggie Burger recipe.
Because white rice is pretty much all starch, it’s your best pick for rice pudding—as it releases that starch into the milk it’s simmered in, it gets increasingly creamy and thick, sticking to the back of your spoon just the way you want it to. Get our Basic Rice Pudding recipe.