Issue No. 75: Really Wild Wild Rice

Real wild rice has a light, nutty, delicately earthy flavor. When you eat real wild rice, you’re about as close to the taste of centuries past as you’re going to get. Other comparable foods (such as wheat, oats, rice, barley, and corn) have evolved over the years through human intervention and breeding or even genetic modification. But the true wild rice we get today—apart from annual variations in flavor—is essentially the same food North Americans ate two or three hundred years ago.

A short history of wild rice.

For many millennia wild rice was the single most valuable food of the tribes of the Upper Midwest and central Canada. Essentially, wild rice was to those regions what corn was to the American Southwest or what rice is to Asia: a much revered and economically important food that was a part of both everyday eating and nearly every spiritually significant event.

Dating from the 1930s, Minnesota state law requires that real wild rice be harvested using traditional techniques, which are pretty much unchanged from two to three hundred years ago (more on those in a minute). The domestication of wild rice began in the 1960s. The cultivated product can go by its industry moniker, “paddy rice.” In 1968, paddy rice production in Minnesota was negligible; by 1971 it surpassed the harvest of real wild rice. About 85 percent of the stuff consumers spot on the shelves is now grown in cultivated, man-managed, machine harvested fields that are about as wild as suburban subdivisions.

Wild rice isn’t rice at all.

It’s actually an aquatic grass, more biologically akin to wheat than rice. To grow, it needs clear fresh water, two and a half to three feet deep. The water must move at a steady but moderate clip; the rice won’t grow in stagnant settings, nor can it survive swiftly moving currents. Wild rice reseeds itself each autumn when unharvested seeds slip back into the water. The seeds have a specific gravity greater than water and hence sink almost straight to the bottom. Seed growth starts when the weather warms in the spring. The first green shoots slice through the water’s surface in June and continue to grow until the stalks reach heights of three to eight feet above lake levels.

Paddy rice is machine-planted in the autumn; in the spring, the fields are flooded so that the plants can start growing. Water levels are then mechanically maintained. In August, the fields are drained, allowing them to dry so that they can be harvested with combines. Unlike real wild rice, most paddy rice is grown using conventional agricultural techniques, meaning it relies on commercial insecticides to control pests. Because the seeds of paddy rice all ripen at the same time, it’s far easier to harvest than the wild plant.

Still wild after all these years: the harvest.

The harvesting of true wild rice is traditionally the province of Native Americans. The harvest takes place sometime between mid-August and mid-September. To harvest the rice, two people head out onto the lake or river in a canoe. One of them is called the poler—he stands at the rear of the canoe and uses a long forked stick to push the boat slowly through the rice beds. Canoe paddles are of little use once you get into the rice beds because the plants are so close together that there’s not enough open water in which to use them. While the poler pushes, the other ricer squats or kneels in the belly of the canoe and uses a pair of three-foot-long wooden sticks, known as “knockers,” to gather the grains. The ricer uses one of the knockers to pull an armful of stalks over the edge of the boat. He then taps the second knocker lightly once or twice over the top of the stalks to dislodge the ripe grains, which fall into the canoe. Unripe grains remain on the stalk. Ricers may return to the same spot for a couple of days or even a week straight, continuing to gather newly ripened grains each time.

I don’t want to romanticize traditional harvesting. Like most agricultural activities, hand-harvesting true wild rice is very hard to do. In a day, an experienced pair of ricers might bring in between two and three hundred pounds of raw rice. Having only riced once, I can assure you that whatever price you and I pay for wild rice, we’ve got the easy end of the deal. In late August, northern Minnesota is hot and humid. When there’s no wind, the moisture in the air weighs heavily. The husks of the rice grains are so sharp that they get caught in clothes, hair, and just about anything else. “They stick in you like spears,” one ricer told me with a wince.

After harvesting, the fresh rice has to be cured and then parched to preserve it.

The curing, or initial air drying, must take place within three or four days to avoid the risk of mildew or mold. Curing can run from twenty-four to seventy-two hours. Next is parching. Parching does for raw wild rice what roasting does for green coffee. During the parching, the rice is stirred or tumbled over high heat, loosening its hull and reducing its moisture content. Since the sixteenth century and beyond, many native North Americans parched in European iron or brass pots. Today most parching is done in rotating oil drums. But a small amount of true wild rice is still cured the old-fashioned way, by hand-parching—including the rice we sell. Using short wooden paddles, two people push the rice back and forth across a heavy heated pot for twenty to sixty minutes. Ultimately, this process will decrease weight and, hence, increase price. Perhaps most important to those interested in flavor, the open wood fires impart a wonderful, subtle smokiness to the rice. Don’t rinse this rice, or you’ll lose the smokiness.

Even after parching, the grain’s long barbed husks are intact. To remove them, the rice is cooled, then threshed, or hulled. Traditional thrushing involved sinking a two-foot-wide, round wooden “bucket” of parched rice into a shallow hole in the ground. Wearing clean moccasins, men would “tread” the rice to loosen the hulls, much as medieval grape crushers would mash the fruit by foot for winemaking. Alternatively the rice could be hulled by hammering it with long wooden pestles. Once the hulls were loosened, the rice was then poured onto blankets, letting the loose chaff blow away in the wind as the grains fell.

These days the work is done with some combination of traditional hand techniques and (more often than not) improvised modern equipment. Revolving propane-fired drums are used to dry and thresh the rice; vibrating separators may be used to sort out foreign objects and remove the hulls.

By the time the entire process has been completed, the rice will lose roughly half of its original weight.

Cooking wild rice.

With real wild rice, the lighter the color of the rice, the less cooking time it will take. Wild rice is done when it’s al dente—tender but still somewhat firm—and the grains have burst wide open. If they’ve merely begun to puff, they’re not done yet. Some can be ready in as little as fifteen or twenty minutes. None of the really wild wild rice I’ve sampled has needed more than sixty minutes.

The ratio of liquid to rice will vary from rice to rice. Generally, the ratio is five parts liquid to one part rice. If you don’t see package directions to the contrary, I’d start at four to one and see how it goes. Bring it to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the grains burst open (a bit like popcorn) and the rice is tender but firm. If there’s any liquid left in the pan when the rice is done, just pour it off and give the “dry” rice a minute or two over low heat to cook out the excess moisture. Salt to taste and serve as a side dish or in salads and soups.