Everyone loves fried rice, even if it’s not great, so you can start knowing you’ll get on base either way. But with a couple of techniques, you can really swing for the fences: a platter of piping hot, oil-kissed rice, aromatic with ginger and garlic, tangled with textures like chewy bits of pork, egg, slippery bits of onion and whispers of flavor from glugs of fish sauce and sweet scallions. And, of course, fried rice is a great way to use up odds and ends from the fridge, so you can make it with whatever you have on hand. Just make sure you follow these guidelines for greatness.
Use leftover cold rice
One of the keys to making chewy, you-can’t-get-enough fried rice (and never again having to see the mushy, sticky stuff) is to start with perfectly cooked rice that’s spent a cold, dark night in the fridge. Since you want to fry the rice, not steam it, you need grains that are stiff and dry, not wet and sticky. The other thing is that the starch that’s in long- and medium- grain rice stiffens when cold (that’s why rice gets so hard in the fridge). For fried rice, that’s great, because it prevents the starch from smearing around in the pan.
Add a variety of textures and flavors
There are lots of recipes for fried rice, but remember, the dish was invented as a way to use up leftovers or stuff you’ve got in the pantry. Below, I’ll give you my favorite recipe, but if you’re assembling your own, here are some things to keep in mind.
- Aromatics: Traditionally you use ginger, garlic, and scallion to start the party—stir frying them releases their aroma and infuses the oil that will coat the rice. It’s hard to argue against these classics, but let your imagination run wild! Dried chiles, onion, shallots, spices—anything with a minimal amount of moisture whose flavor you’d want to waft through the dish.
- Seasoning meat: Chinese sausage, often called “lap chong” or some similar-sounding variation, is truly a secret ingredient. It’s a dried sausage that’s sweet and salty and dotted with teeny bits of fat that glisten when cooked. It’s Chinese charcuterie, and I’m telling you, it’s impossible to stop eating. You can find it at any Chinese grocery store. Otherwise use thick-cut bacon, diced ham, or a few big spoonfuls of diced Chinese BBQ pork (thanks, @mynameisken2)– even just a little cured or full-flavored meat goes a long way.
- Vegetables: I think snap peas are a great addition because they’re sweet and crunchy. Of course, onion and carrot are standards. But most any vegetable, cut into tiny pieces, is great – the stems of broccoli, edamame, turnips, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, you name it. I’ve never tried it, but people (@czilka, @spiceboxtravels and @cocopuff1212) swear that kimchi is a killer addition, too.
- Egg: There’s not much so say here, except that you want it.
- Seasonings: I prefer salting with salt instead of soy sauce because it keeps the rice white and isn’t overpowering, as soy sauce can be. But I do love the Southeast Asian method of using fish sauce; the high heat cooks off any fishiness and leaves you with incredible savoriness. And finishing with fresh basil makes the whole thing a little fancy and gives the rice a lovely perfume.
Whatever you decide to add just make an effort to vary the textures, colors and flavors—don’t add too many salty things, soft things, green things, etc. Variety in the ingredients makes every bite different.
Use a big pan and lotsa hot oil
It’s called fried rice, not “rice warmed up in oil,” so really get it in there and cook it. Check the super close-up photo below—the grain on the left has been “fried” so that it blisters just a little bit; on the right, the grain was cooked without enough heat or oil. The well-cooked rice has a much better, chewy, dry texture. The keys are plenty of heat, and be generous with the oil so that every single grain of rice has a chance to dance in it.
To fry, you need high heat and lots of room, so you want to use a big-ass pan. A non-stick pan might make your life a little easier, but it’s not imperative. In my NYC shoebox rental, achieving high heat means letting a heavy pan sit on a dinky gas burner for quite a while. But if you have one of those stovetops that has a “super burner” that boils water in the blink of an eye, making fried rice is the perfect time to let it shine. The oil should be hot (not quite smoking) when the rice hits the pan.
Keep it Dry
You want a minimal amount of moisture in the dish; moisture gets in the way of frying, and too much can get absorbed by the rice, turning it mushy. That means if you add wet ingredients like soy sauce or fish sauce, so do after the rice is already really hot, and add it a little bit at a time so it cooks off.
And Without Further Ado…the most amazing fried rice I know:
Grandma Chen’s Fried Rice
Making fried rice isn’t hard, but tossing everything into an oil-slicked wok and giving it a stir won’t cut it. The order you cook each component in fried rice is the difference between a muddy, one-note mess and a dish that showcases flavor and texture like no other. Whether you use these ingredients or your own mix, make sure you follow the order of operations here.
5 tablespoons of peanut or canola oil, divided
3 eggs, beaten
3 links lap chong (Chinese Sausage), cut in ¼” dice
2 inches of fresh ginger, finely grated
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
½ cup of snow peas, diced
4 cups cold rice
1 teaspoon of kosher salt, or to taste
10-12 shakes of fish sauce, or to taste
2 teaspoons of rice wine vinegar
5 basil leaves, roughly chopped
3 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
1. Cook the Egg - Give the beaten egg what I like to call a “scramble-fry.” Heat about one tablespoon of oil in the pan over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, dump in the egg and stir constantly until puffed and cooked. Remove from the pan and set aside for later. Wipe out or clean the pan.
2. Raw Vegetables (other than aromatics) – If you’re using raw vegetables in addition to the onions, garlic and ginger, now’s the time to sauté them. Add another tablespoon of oil, let it get shimmery-hot over high heat, and toss the raw vegetables over high heat and season with a pinch of salt. When crisp-tender, remove from the pan and set aside with the eggs. If there are browned bits, wipe them out with a wadded-up paper towel.
3. Meat – Lap chong is fully cooked and just needs heating. Add a splash of oil to the pan and the cooked meat to the pan and get it nice and hot. If you’re using raw meat like bacon, fully cook it. Remove the meat, leaving any rendered fat in the pan.
4. Aromatics – Now add the remaining oil. When it shimmers, add the chopped onion and sauté it until it starts to soften. Add the ginger and garlic and sauté until they smell great.
5. Rice –When the ginger and garlic are starting to turn golden, add the rice all at once. Gently poke the rice to separate chunks, tossing it to and fro to make sure every grain touches the hot oil and the aromatics are well-incorporated. Stir-fry until the rice is very hot and looks dry and separate. If you don’t have a really hot burner, it’s ok to let the rice sit for a few seconds at a time before stirring; less agitation is actually better than more as long as nothing is scorching. Season with a few pinches of salt, keeping in mind that the fish sauce in the next step will also add saltiness.
6. Mix in ingredients and wet seasonings - Toss in the cooked egg, vegetables and meat, and mix well over the heat. Clear a spot in the center of the pan for the wet seasonings. Pour the glugs of fish sauce and rice wine vinegar into the pan. Let them bubble and sizzle away for a bit before stirring the rice into it. Keep cooking and tossing rice until it’s dry again.
7. Finishing touches – Add the sliced scallions and chopped basil. Mix well. Serve very hot.