Scientists categorize wild rice as a wetland growing grass known as Zizania aquatica and Zizania palustris. Native Americans relied upon it as crucial staple food and for other purposes. The wild rice plant can grow across the United States, even as far south as the Carolinas. However, it generally only does well and produces sufficient seed in more northerly, cooler climates like Minnesota. It prefers shallow, small lakes and slow flowing shallow streams where it serves as an important food source for both people and a wide variety of animals (1, 2).
Native Americans began cultivating wild rice thousands of years ago. Over time, the various tribes across the northern United States and Canada developed hundred of heirloom varieties. Given how nutritious wild rice is, it makes sense why ancestral North American cultures prized it so highly prized and cultivated it so carefully!
Wild Rice a Nutritional Powerhouse
As shown in the chart below, for many nutrients (with notable exceptions vitamin B12 and B6), wild rice is equal or superior to grass-fed beef! Note that muscle meat is actually the least nutritious portion of an animal. This is why traditional cultures consumed the whole animal including fat (tallow), organs, bone (marrow), and skin. This ensured maximum nutritional density in their diets (2 – chart used with permission).
No wonder native people groups, for whom wild rice was a staple, enjoyed such excellent health and physical formation. Dr. Weston A. Price demonstrated this with compelling pictures and data from his must-read nutritional classic Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.
The book Wild Rice and The Ojibway People written in 1900 attributes the following quotation to researcher Albert E. Jenkins:
Wild Rice is the most nutritive single food which the Indians of North America consume. The Indian diet of this grain, combined with maple sugar, and with bison, deer, and other meats, was probably richer than that of average American family of today.
If this was true 100 years ago, how much more so today? Wild rice is an easy, incredibly nutrient rich food to add to your diet. Best part, it is easy to source and cook. You just need to careful that you get the real thing!
Wild Rice Imposters
Unfortunately, like most traditional foods, wild rice has not escaped industrialization. The University of Minnesota created a hybrid “wild rice” by crossing native North American wild rice with Zizania latifolia, also known as Manchurian wild rice. This is the only known wild rice native to Asia.
This hybridization occurred because native wild rice presented a number of challenges for commoditization and large scale commercial production, including recalcitrant seeds and shattering. Recalcitrant seeds do not survive any loss of moisture (desiccation), and thus have to germinate almost immediately once separation from the plant occurs. Such seeds have an incredibly short storage life of just a few days, at most a week or so under perfect conditions. So hybrid varieties become crucial for commercial production and widespread distribution.
Commercialized wild rice is subject to all the vagaries of the industrial food chain. Unlike traditional wild rice, which was grown in rich lakes and varieties adapted to their various climes, these “paddy rices” are grown by creating artificial paddies with dikes and dams. This requires lots of heavy, mechanized equipment, tillage, application of industrial fertilizers, artificial flooding, draining, and more.
The following excerpt from a report on wild rice produced by the Department of Horticulture from Purdue University explains some of the dastardly details:
Liquid applications of ammonium fertilizers, dry urea or anhydrous ammonia are all common fertilizer in the rice paddy industry. It is very important to maximize nitrogen carryover for the following spring season. To prevent oxidation of ammonium forms of nitrogen (to nitrate), fall flooding must be implicated. An additional application of nitrogen can be applied in the early spring before A second flooding of the fields. To maximize yields, up to three top dresses of a dry urea fertilizer should be applied (3)
Harvesting of Wild Rice
In comparison to its hybridized cousins, traditional wild rice is hand harvested using “knockers,” or long sticks, usually by canoe, The knockers are not used to beat the plants, as proper harvesting is quite gentle. Rather, one knocker is used to collect and bend a set of plants over the canoe, while the other is used to rap the plants gently, which will then release the mature seeds into a collection container in the boat.
Because the seeds on a wild rice plant do not all ripen at the same time (considered extremely inconvenient from an industrialization perspective), what is left self-seeds for the following season along with any rice that is dropped during harvesting. Paddy rice is generally harvested by large scale machinery all at once.
Because of this industrialization, 90% of all wild rice is now grown in northern California and Minnesota (50% and 40% roughly each), and little of this is grown organically. Fortunately, Canadian wild rice is still almost exclusively grown in natural bodies of water, and many certified organic wild rices are produced in Canada from traditional varieties.
Scratching and Parching …
Most food manufacturers prepare wild rice for market via a process called scarification to make it more consumer friendly. Some small producers now do this as well. This mechanical scratching of the rice allows for quicker absorption of water and a shorter cooking time. This pre-processing does not adversely impact the rice’s nutritional value. Some traditional wild rice producers also now offer scarified and/or parched (roasted) rice as well.
Not all commercial wild rice growers are equal. Some use far more sustainable practices than others. Some grow wild rice organically. If you are unable to find or unable to afford a true wild rice, be sure to stick with at minimum an organic or similarly raised wild rice (sources).
Given the widespread issue of rice contamination with arsenic, even potentially including wild rice, it is also a good idea to ask your supplier about regular testing protocols. Lundberg Farms regularly tests and publishes arsenic testing results and has for the past five years.
Wild Rice Ranked from Best to Worst
Wild rices from lakes and streams and hand harvested from native growing regions are optimal (sources). This includes states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan as well as Canada.
The second best types of wild rice are organic and grown by the creation of bogs and dikes (sources). They can be heirloom or hybridized varieties. Most organic farms in the US cultivate hybridized varieties, but some organic Canadian varieties appear not to be.
Avoid conventionally grown, industrialized wild rices from large scale producers such as Uncle Ben’s.
How to Cook Wild Rice
Wild rice is an easy food to add to your diet. Most people are familiar with wild rice from holiday pilafs and similar dishes where it adds additional color, texture, and flavor.
The simplest method is to cook it and eat it alone after steaming or boiling. The process is similar to brown rice. Or, mix it into brown rice, other grains, soups and stews. Some quality brands do the mixing for you to make it simple (sources).
Just be sure to be close by while it is cooking, so you don’t accidentally end up with burned rice, a common problem.
Even substituting just one-quarter or one-third of regular rice for wild in a dish will add color and significant nutrition! Just remember that if you substitute white rice with wild, you will need to adjust cooking times. Wild rice takes a similar amount of time to cook as many brown rices, but much longer than white rices.
Once cooked, wild rice can be added to many other dishes, like smoothies. Wild rice can also be made into creamy and delicious rice milk.
Before cooking, wild rice can be ground into a flour like many other grains and grass seeds. Once soaked to eliminate anti-nutrients, the soaked flour can be mixed with eggs, blended and cooked. This combination makes for delicious crepe-like pancakes. Alternatively, the mixture can be added to your own pancake or waffle batters for a nutritional boost. Native Americans used wild rice flour to make foods similar to pancakes, cookies, and even cereals.
Does Wild Rice Need to be Sprouted or Soaked?
As alluded to above, wild rice does have anti-nutrient issues similar to rice and other grains, seeds and legumes. As such, it is best to soak rice even if it is a wild variety overnight before cooking. With regard to sprouting, true wild rice cannot be germinated practically speaking. The delicate nature is such that sprouting would need to occur within a few days of separation from the plant.
Making the traditional Ayurvedic remedy known as rice water from soaked wild rice is also more beneficial.
Is Wild Rice Paleo?
Although wild rice is technically not a grain, gut healing diets such as GAPS, SCD protocol, and Autoimmune Paleo do not allow it. This is due to its high starch content similar to other starchy seed foods like buckwheat. The starch molecule (even if beneficial resistant starch) is quite complex and can be difficult to digest if the gut is in the process of healing.
However, many Paleo folks I know eat wild rice while eschewing the less nutritious brown and white varieties. Ultimately, it is up to you whether you incorporate wild rice into your cooking regimen. Certainly, it is a traditional food of hunter-gatherer societies such as the Native Americans.
Substituting Wild Rice for Brown or White Rice in Recipes
Cooking Wild Rice vs Brown Rice
The simplest approach to adding wild rice to your family’s diet is to take a typical brown rice recipe and substitute 50% of the brown rice with wild. The amount of water and cooking time should stay the same. As mentioned earlier, some brands mix wild and brown rice together in a desirable and tasty ratio. This makes the cooking process more convenient with no measuring required (sources).
The same substitution would apply to recipes made with red rice.
Cooking Wild Rice vs White Rice
If it is a white rice recipe, things get a little more complicated as white rice cooks faster than brown. In that case, cook the wild and white rice separately and mix after both have been cooked at a 50-50 ratio.
The mixing also ensures the best chance for acceptance by your family as you transition from brown or white rice to a wilder, more nutritious alternative!
Wild rice has a nuttier, more complex flavor than even brown rice. But, the flavor is pleasant and satisfying. Once your family grows accustomed to it, you will feel great knowing how much more nutrition they are getting with every bite.
Where to Get Authentic Wild Rice
Have you ever gone to the store to purchase “wild blueberries?” Even though many products claim to use “wild blueberries,” those blueberries are anything but wild or organic. Some don’t even contain any actual blueberries! The same conundrum exists with wild rice. Many brands on the market are nothing more than mass produced commodity rices that use wild rice strains and seeds grown by and on industrial rice farms.
This is especially true of California wild rices, but also some from other states. Such rice is not true wild rice, but a hybridized variety out of the University of Minnesota often referred to as “paddy rice.” This rice is uniform in size and characteristics, unlike true wild rice. Beware as these varieties also lack the nutritional density of authentic wild rice.
True wild rices, while more expensive, are the only ones that will have the significantly superior nutrient profile. These are generally available from a limited number of direct sellers such as the Minnesota based Wilderness Family Naturals.
John Moody is an author, speaker, farmer, homesteader, and Real Food activist. Most importantly, he is husband to an amazing wife and five awesome kids. John speaks nationally at a wide range of events, along with writing for numerous publications and consulting for farmers, homesteaders, and food businesses.
He recently published his first book, The Frugal Homesteader: Living the Good Life on Less.