Real Food Encyclopedia | Wild Rice

Wild rice is a delicious, ancient grain that has been enjoyed by eaters since prehistoric times. Curiously, however, it is not actually rice but an aquatic grass — and in all but the rarest of circumstances, is not wild. Truly wild rice grows predominately in the Great Lakes region of the United States where it has been a revered staple crop of Native American tribes for generations such as the Chippewa, who call it “manoomin.” But most of the “wild” rice that we eat is actually a cultivated variety grown mainly in California, which was developed by rice farmer Vince Vanderford in the 1970s.

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Fun Facts about Wild Rice: 

  • Other edible grasses include corn, wheat, barley, millet, oats, sugar cane, sorghum, rye and bamboo.
  • Wild rice can be ground into flour to make bread and pancakes.
  • In Minnesota, wild rice harvesters must be licensed to gather the grain and must harvest in the traditional, Native American way.
  • In Asia, wild rice is grown for its stalk, not its grain, and is eaten as a vegetable.

What to Look for When Buying Wild Rice

To source lake rice, look for point of origin labeling. Such rice will be identified as grown in the Great Lakes region and will be described as “lake rice.” Paddy rice should be labeled as “cultivated” or “farmed” rice.

Uncultivated lake and cultivated wild rice are visually similar. The grains of each are green when harvested and turn dark when processed. The color of lake rice can range from pitch black to brown or even purplish. Its grains can be very long and thin or relatively short and plump. Paddy rice is more consistent. Its grains are very dark brown to black and thin and needle-like in appearance.

The flavor of wild has been described as earthy and tea-like. Fans of wild rice claim to be able to taste the difference between lake and paddy rice.

Sustainability of Wild Rice

As we discuss in our more general entry on rice, all production of the grain faces environmental issues, including heavy pesticide application, water use and methane production. Due to its aquatic growing conditions, wild rice — whether it is cultivated paddy rice or uncultivated lake rice — is greatly impacted by impurities in the water where it grows. It is sensitive to sulfite runoff from mining and wastewater treatment plants.

Many of the California paddies are located downstream from former gold mines that used mercury to retrieve the precious metal. Naturally occurring bacteria act on the residual mercury, creating bio-toxic methylmercury. The flooding of California fields causes these bacteria to proliferate, raising methylmercury levels in the rice. While the levels are considered toxic to wildlife, no studies have been done to evaluate the impact on human health.

Lack of water is also a concern. In California, as climate change causes more and worse droughts, the huge rice industry there is under threat of running out of water. An additional threat to lake rice is genetic drift, the cross-pollination of the DNA of cultivated varieties with native plants. Minnesota is home to around sixty thousand acres of wild rice waters that are bordered by twenty thousand acres of cultivated rice. Native American harvesters fear that their indigenous grasses will be contaminated by air-borne pollen or seed transported by water fowl, forever altering their ancestral heritage.

Wild Rice Seasonality and Geography

Lake rice is harvested over a several week span that begins sometime in late August or early September, depending on when the grains are ripe. Cultivated rice ripens all at the same time in the late summer to early fall.

Wild Rice and Cultivation

Wild rice is no easy crop to grow. Truly wild rice, also called “lake rice,” as its name indicates, is grown in lakes, tidal rivers and bays, where the water is between two and four feet deep. The traditional Native American harvesting technique is to harvest the rice by canoe. Two harvesters man the boat: one person steers the canoe under the tall reed-like grasses while the other harvester uses a pole to bend the grass over the boat and thrash it with a stick to release the grass seeds into the bottom of the canoe. Truly wild rice ripens unevenly so several passes must be made over the same area during the harvest season to gather all of the available grain.

Even though it has been cultivated for scalable production, commercially produced wild rice still requires an aquatic environment to grow. Large paddies are dug, the seed is planted and the fields are flooded at precise intervals so that the water level rises with the height of the grass as it matures. So called “paddy rice” has been cultivated to ripen simultaneously so that it can be harvested by a specially designed combine all in one pass. At the time of harvest, the paddies are drained, allowed to dry for a time so the machinery can move through them and then the seed is reaped.

Both lake and paddy wild rice can be temperamental crops. Water levels must keep pace with the growth rate of the rice. If too low, the towering rice can topple without the support of the water, and if too little, the rice can drown. Although a bigger threat for lake rice, shattering — when rice grains ripen too quickly and fall into the water — diminishes both cultivated and wild crops. All wild rice harvests can vary in quality with the occasional batch coming up bitter or unpleasantly tough in texture, no matter how long they are cooked.

Wild rice on the stalk looks nothing like the final product. It is green when harvested and must then be heat treated to cure it. Native Americans parched the rice in large pots. Commercial processors use mechanical methods to toast the green rice. The hulls are then removed to reveal the black kernel, which is what we get when we buy wild rice in the market.

How to Cook Wild Rice

Storing Fresh Wild Rice

Wild rice keeps best in a cool, dark place. Seal it in airtight containers to protect its flavor and prevent contamination by pests.

Cooking With Wild Rice

Cook your wild rice with a one to three ratio of rice to liquid (water or broth). Bring liquid to a boil; add rice, enough salt to make the water taste like the sea and a pat of butter or a glug of olive oil. Stir it once, cover, reduce to low and simmer until all of the liquid has been absorbed and the grains are starting to burst, about 30-60 minutes, depending on the age of the rice and whether it has been scarified — scratched on the surface to more readily absorb water.

Wild rice makes a great side dish either on its own or blended with other rices or grains. It also refrigerates well and makes a fantastic addition to salads.

Wild Rice Nutrition

In 2013 the FDA released a report confirming that our domestic rice supply is a considerable vector for arsenic exposure. While not technically rice, wild rice was included in the study and was confirmed to contain more arsenic than white rice per serving, but not as high as brown rice. Long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic is associated with higher rates of skin, bladder and lung cancers, as well as heart disease. To lessen exposure to arsenic through rice consumption, it is advised to limit the consumption of rice; vary the types of grains in your diet; rinse rice thoroughly before cooking; and boil rice like pasta in a generous amount of water and drain when done cooking, rather than steaming in a small amount of water.

That being said, wild rice is higher in protein than most other whole grains, and is a good source of antioxidants, fiber, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, zinc, Vitamin B-6 and niacin.