Wild Rice

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Wild rice is not a species of the true tropical rice genus Oryza. It’s a distant relative, a cool-climate water grass that produces unusually long grains, to three-quarters of an inch (2 cm), with a dark seedcoat and a complex, distinctive flavor. Zizania palustris is a native of the upper midwestern Great Lakes region of North America, where it grows in shallow lakes and marshes and was gathered in canoes by the Ojibway and other native peoples. It’s the only cereal from North America to have become important as a human food. Wild rice is unusual among the cereals for containing double the usual amount of moisture at maturity, around 40% of the kernel weight. It thus requires more elaborate processing than true rice in order to be stored. It’s first matured in moist piles for a week or two, during which immature grains continue to ripen and microbes grow on the grain surfaces, generating flavor and weakening the husks. Then it is parched over a fire to dry the grain, flavor it, and make the husk brittle; and finally it’s threshed to remove the husk.