Growing up Chinese means experiencing rice as the base of every meal. When I was a young girl, I assumed everyone’s family had an electric cooker on the kitchen counter with steamed white rice on the “keep warm” setting at all times. While my parents regularly cooked soups, braised meats, stir-fried veggies, and made a variety of other dishes, we always enjoyed those foods with small bowls of rice alongside. Not only until I became a young adult with roommates did I discover that not all people eat rice three times a day. In fact, I observed for the first time — at the age of 19, mind you — the seemingly odd practice of cooking rice in a pot on the stove rather than using an electric rice cooker, which seemed infinitely more convenient.
Now you might think that by the time I started cooking for myself I would have become thoroughly sick of rice, having eaten enough of the bland grains for an entire lifetime. Alas, no. Over the years, I have actually developed an appreciation for this incredibly versatile food and its unique ability to meld seamlessly with other ingredients, creating delicious harmony in easy ways while still managing to magically transform plain Jane dishes into extraordinary meals. Whether you like to cook basic white rice, nuttier brown with its plethora of nutrients, or pre-seasoned yellow rice, you’ll be pleased to know there are countless ways to reinvent the commonplace grains, turning them into dishes you can adapt, love, and count on for satisfying sustenance.
You might be surprised to discover that rice has the potential to be downright glorious when paired with everyday ingredients you’re likely to have in your pantry or fridge anyway. While the list of ingredients and recipes below is in no way comprehensive, I hope it provides you with a starting point and inspires you to take standard rice to the next level, elevating it in streamlined ways using just a handful of add-ins. Trust me. As a lifelong eater and (now) maker of rice, I can attest to its culinary versatility and indispensable place in the repertoire of any good cook. Read on, experiment, and enjoy.
Stock or broth
Plain steamed rice can be a bore. Luckily, cooking rice in a flavorful stock or broth instead of water can take your dinner from bland to enticingly savory pretty quickly. Whether you simmer rice in vegetable, chicken, seafood, or beef broth, you’ll be rewarded with a pot that boasts depth of flavor, tasting like it took way more effort to achieve. Don’t have stock or broth on hand? Try using water with your favorite brand of bouillon cubes to achieve a similar effect. This is my go-to flavor-enhancing technique for cooking rice, and I have a feeling it may become yours as well.
This recipe from Food.com is easy, streamlined, and simple to adapt. Rice is cooked in chicken broth along with butter for a rich dish that aims to please. Use whatever rice you have on hand, use margarine instead of butter — whatever you want!
Make a straightforward rice pilaf using stock with this recipe from Simply Recipes. Made with a handful of standard aromatics and stock of your choice, this dish is rustic enough for a weeknight din and sufficiently elegant to serve to dinner guests.
This recipe from Just a Pinch is all about the economy of cooking rice. Made with only water, rice, and bouillon, this dish still manages to achieve deep flavors. You can whip this up any time you want and with little notice, which is pretty awesome.
Rice is tasty with veggies on top, but did you know you can cook it all together in one pot for a convenient medley that’s even more alluring thanks to great, flavor-melding magic? Yep. If you’re cooking the rice on the stove, try adding diced peppers, carrots, eggplant, or whatever your heart desires to the water along with the grains. Then just let them simmer together. You can do this in an electric rice cooker, too. Add more delicate, leafier produce like spinach or chard closer to the end of the rice’s cooking time — and the same goes for frozen vegetables like peas, carrots, and store-bought mixes. I often add already cooked vegetables left over from a previous meal to my day’s rice to use them up and create a whole new dinner.
This recipe from Eating Well is colorful, flavorful, and easy. Multicolored bell peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini are cooked with rice for a one-pot dish that melds vibrant veggies with perfectly seasoned grains.
This Chinese takeout-inspired recipe from Serious Eats is pretty darn tasty if you ask this Chinese gal. The beloved duo of carrots and peas join forces with scallions, soy sauce, and sesame to produce an addictive dish of classic fried rice.
This recipe from Epicurious turns bibimbap into a dish easily whipped up at home. Skip the wait at your local Korean eatery and make this instead. Rice is served with a heap of veggies ranging from sprouts and zucchini to carrots and spinach.
Cooking is about smelling as much as it is about tasting. As such, I like to incorporate fresh or dried herbs into my rice during cooking so my kitchen can smell amazing to all who walk by. Herbs like rosemary, oregano, and thyme take your standard rice dish pretty far. They lend aroma and depth of flavor in a subtle way, which is always a good thing, right? Whichever herbs you choose to stir into your pot or rice, a simple bay leaf is always recommended when you want to infuse everything with that indefinable woodsy quality that complements just about anything.
Simple and aromatic, this recipe from Food & Wine is sophisticated and easy to make. A medley of fresh herbs like cilantro, parsley, dill, and tarragon is combined with basmati rice for a pot of weeknight grains that’s several notches above the rest.
Fresh herbs are the key ingredients in this rice recipe from Bon Appetit. Toasted garlic rice gets a flavor boost from fresh parsley, cilantro, mint, and marjoram. A squeeze of lime juice brightens up the whole dish.
While I can’t endorse the practice of walking around a kitchen without wearing proper footwear, this recipe from Barefeet in the Kitchen does make good use of the fragrant herb and rice combo. Classic Italian herbs like thyme, oregano, and basil save the day.
Slow-cooking risotto isn’t the only kind of rice that can benefit from the addition of cheese. Try adding your favorite grated cheese to a regular pot of rice to imbue it with tons of umami-rich flavor. Like cheesy pasta, cheesy rice is a universally appealing dish. Simple, flavorful, and oh so gooey, the finished dish is like a throwback to childhood every single time. Opt for grown-up cheeses like Gorgonzola or goat if you want. Choose a terrific sharp cheddar or Monterey Jack to feel like a kid again. Whatever cheeses you end up adding to your rice, you will not regret your decision.
Yes, you should make this cheesy baked rice dish from Chowhound at your earliest convenience. Cream, butter, and extra sharp white cheddar are combined with rice in a meal that tastes like the most comforting hug you’ve ever received.
Try this recipe from Food Network when you’re in the mood for casual Southwestern flavors in your rice dish. Peppers, Monterey Jack cheese, and cayenne give this rice casserole flavor notes akin to tacos, which is always the right direction to go in.
This recipe from Damn Delicious is a pared-down version of cheesy rice that includes some veggies so it’s healthy, right? One pot, super cheesy, and garlicky AF. This is my kind of rice dish.
Nuts, seeds, and dried fruits
For extra doses of protein and fiber, try adding nuts, seeds, or dried fruits to your rice. These trail mix-adjacent extras are a great way to give your plain rice a texture boost. You’ll love the unexpected bite you get in every forkful. Whether you stir in toasted pine nuts for some Mediterranean flair, add a handful of sesame seeds to play up the nutty flavors, or incorporate chopped dried fruits for a Persian-inspired take, your rice will be anything but ordinary. In addition to lending general intrigue to a pot of rice, nuts, seeds, and dried fruits accent the grains with pockets of sweet and salty flavor.
This take on traditional Persian jeweled rice comes from The New York Times. Fragrant basmati rice is speckled with “jewels” or fried currants, apricots, and berries along with nutty almonds and pistachios. The result is a rice dish that’s beautiful to behold and deliciously complex.
This recipe from Taste plays up classic Moroccan flavors by combining rice with a rich medley of nuts. Cashews, almonds, and pine nuts mingle with orange peels and currants to achieve nutty sweetness.
Walnuts and raisins aren’t just for snacking on during a hike. They pair excellently with rice in this recipe from Fine Cooking. Earthy brown rice is enhanced by the toasted walnuts and dried fruit in this multilayered dish that’s as hearty as it is nutritious.
Rule of thumb: eggs are good with everything, but they’re extra fabulous with rice. That’s an inalienable truth. Try adding lightly whisked eggs into your rice during cooking in a skillet or wok for instant fried rice. Add poached eggs for a runny yolk effect that leaves your fluffy grains soaked in liquid gold. Fried eggs? Why not. The reality is that you can add eggs to rice in any way you like and the dish will turn out to be delicious, comforting, and better than it was before you added the eggs. You can do no wrong.
This recipe from The Woks of Life is one of my favorite ways to pair eggs and rice. Egg fried rice is simple, sure, but it never fails to make people happy. Fact. Turmeric-flavored eggs give this dish its je ne sais quoi.
Bacon and egg can be a breakfast combo or it can be the perfect add-in for your next rice dish. This recipe from Epicurious is an all-day treat that incorporates bacon slices, eggs, and freshly cooked rice.
This recipe from Washoku combines a few of the most basic ingredients to produce the best midnight snack ever. Potatoes, rice, and eggs join forces, and the end result is sublime.
My love for the spiced-up pot of rice is boundless. Even the most novice cook has a few containers of spices tucked away in a drawer somewhere. Incorporating them into plain rice is a good way to experiment with aromas and flavors in order to see which ones suit you and which ones go well together. Play around with different combinations to achieve the effect you want. Warm spices like cinnamon, cloves, and anise give rice flavorful accents reminiscent of Moroccan cuisine. Garam masala, cumin, and turmeric transform it into an aromatic Indian-inspired dish that smells like your favorite curry. Allspice with a dash of dried thyme gives off Caribbean vibes. The possibilities are endless.
This recipe from BBC Good Food incorporates warm spices like cardamom, cinnamon, and turmeric into a pot of basmati rice. The result? An aromatic dish you’ll want to recreate often.
This dish from Veg Recipes of India is a great way to use up leftover rice. With just a few spices like garam masala, chili powder, and coriander, you can turn last night’s dinner into tonight’s culinary masterpiece.
Try this recipe from Spicy Southern Kitchen when you’re craving south-of-the-border flavors. This dish of Mexican rice gets its oomph from a blend of ancho chili powder and fragrant cumin.
Rice is a base that soaks up anything perfectly. As such, adding a creamy, savory, deeply flavorful sauce is likely a wonderful idea. The sauciness moistens every grain and turns regular rice into a decadent dish fit for a king. Super hearty and absolutely satisfying, smothered rice is tasty and extremely versatile, too. Try adding gravy for a deep, meaty flavor. Pesto lends bright color, herbaceous aroma, and nuttiness to an otherwise plain food. Zesty romesco made with garlic, nuts, and pepper lends kicky Spanish flair. You can make a sauce for the rice or use one you have hanging out in the fridge.
Check out this unfussy recipe from Real Cajun Recipes. This Louisiana combo of rice and gravy is wildly popular and for good reason. Rich gravy and fluffy rice make quite the tasty pair. Enjoy with chicken or any protein you like.
This recipe from The Yummy Life adds pesto’s savory magic to rice and transforms it. Heartier, chewy grains of brown rice are complemented by nutty pesto and pine nuts in a dish that tastes mouthwateringly seamless and natural.
This romesco rice recipe from Food52 is ridiculously dreamy. A from-scratch romesco is made with almonds, tomato, peppers, and garlic. Combined with easy white rice, the dish is resplendent.
All you’ve got in the pantry is rice? No problem. Hopefully, these ideas will help you find new ways to make your rice great.