How to Add More Flavor to White Rice, According to Chefs

Updated: Oct. 02, 2023

It's one of the most basic ingredients in the world—but it doesn't have to taste that way.


There are few ingredients with the impressive versatility of white rice, which is why it’s considered a staple in many cuisines around the world. “White rice is the perfect side, especially when you are eating something super flavorful or spicy,” says celebrity chef and restaurateur Leah Cohen, who is a judge on The Great American Recipe, alumna Top Chef contestant and owner of two New York City restaurants. “But there are also times when I like to spice things up and throw in some extra flavor.”

White rice-based dishes make for filling and flavorful meals, but if you don’t have time for a full-blown feast, a simple dinner of protein and rice can fall flat. That’s where added seasonings and aromatics come in. The next time you need something a little extra to make that cooked rice pop, try one of these tips.

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Choose Your White Rice Wisely

There are several types of white rice, including sushi, white long grain, jasmine and basmati. Do a taste test to see which type you enjoy most. For James Beard Awards Best Chef California semifinalist Heena Patel, it’s basmati. “White basmati rice is my preference as it’s a versatile grain that complements the array of flavors found in Gujarati cuisine,” she says. “Its long, slender grains and aromatic nature enhance the dining experience.”

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Rinse and Soak the Rice First

Don’t just dump the rice straight out of the bag and into your cooking vessel—you must learn how to wash rice first or it just won’t be as delicious. “Before cooking, rinse the basmati rice in cold water until the water runs clean to remove excess starch that will make the rice clump together when you cook it,” says Patel. “Then soak it in water for 15 to 30 minutes before cooking.”

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Use Stock Instead of Water

“This is one of the easiest ways to add some flavor and nutritional value to rice,” says Moroccan chef Zouhair Bellout, culinary director of Reynolds Lake Oconee. “Instead of water, use either vegetable or chicken stock. Homemade is ideal, but plenty of premade boxed stocks exist for convenience. Add stock to the hot pan with vegetables and toasted rice.” He explains that toasting the rice first adds a layer of nutty flavor and creates more depth.

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Add Garlic

We can all agree that garlic makes everything better, right? “Garlic rice is a Filipino staple and a great opportunity to level up white rice with unique umami, salty flavor,” says Cohen. She says to first saute a good amount of minced garlic in a neutral-flavored oil. Then, once it’s light golden brown, add in shrimp paste, cooked rice and season with salt. “While adding shrimp paste isn’t very common, it’s my favorite way to eat garlic rice and how I prepare it in my restaurants; it’s what adds the savory flavor,” she explains.

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Bay Leaves

Drop in a Bay Leaf

“I always start my rice with a healthy amount of garlic and olive oil, and lightly sweat the garlic until aromatic,” says Angelo Sosa, Top Chef alumnus and executive chef of Tia Carmen. “Next, I add the rice, salt and a fresh bay leaf and lightly toast prior to covering with water and simmering.” He then lowers the heat, adds a lid and steams for 20 minutes on low heat. Angelo rests the rice for an additional five minutes with no heat. “Unveiling the beautiful rice, you’ll be swept away with the fragrance of the bay leaf and nutty aromas of the rice.”

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Shrimp Spanish Rice
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Turn It Into Arroz Rojo (Mexican-Style Rice)

You love that delicious red rice when you visit a Mexican restaurant, but have you tried making it at home? It’s surprisingly easy, and Top Chef alumna Maria Mazon, owner and executive chef of BOCA, grew up eating it. Heck, her grandmother even served it with slices of banana (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!).

“Like every Latino household, we use powdered spices—garlic powder and onion powder,” she says. “But you can also use julienned onions and fresh garlic if you prefer. Saute them until translucent. Add tomato puree and tomato paste to chicken stock, and add that mixture into the rice. Add a little Mexican oregano, salt, fresh ground pepper and a squeeze of lime or lemon juice. Then, let it bubble. Cover and turn off the heat.”

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Add Turmeric

Boost the flavor and add in some health benefits with turmeric rice. “I do not put oil or salt in rice while it is cooking, but if you are making normal white rice, add a teaspoon of turmeric powder and three big slices of washed ginger (you don’t have to peel it) to the water,” says James Beard and Emmy-award-winning Iron Chef Ming Tsai. “Just that touch of turmeric makes it so much more delicious. If you really want to jazz it up, add two to three drops of natural liquid smoke.”

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Cardamom pods
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Season with Cardamom

“Once I boil the rice and strain it, I love to add a pinch or two of crushed cardamom before serving,” says chef Shamim Popal of Michelin Bib Gourmand Afghan bistro, Lapis. “This is a seasoning we use quite often, and I’ve found that it adds a unique depth and flavor to any rice dish.”

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Add Spices and Bouillon to the Water

To add more flavor to white rice, Stephanie Izard, winner of Iron Chef and Top Chef and recipient of James Beard Best Chef: Great Lakes, suggests adding your favorite spice mix and some chicken bouillon to the water to make a tasty spiced broth. “Then add in some beans from your pantry—like chickpeas, pigeon peas or black beans,” she says. “Extra bonus: Once the rice is cooled, form it into little patties (you can use a muffin tin to get the right shape) and sear it on both sides to make tacu-tacu, a Peruvian dish designed to use up leftover rice.”

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Add Some Oil

If you’re a fan of adding butter to your freshly cooked rice, how about adding oil earlier in the process instead? “Adding a tablespoon of olive oil or coconut oil before cooking the rice will bring out more sweetness of the rice and make it shine,” says chef Jae Choi of Yakitori Jinbei and Jinbei West.

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Use Fresh Herbs and Chicken Stock

“My favorite way of cooking white rice is adding minced garlic and small diced onions to the pot with fresh thyme and butter,” says Jamaican chef Troy Tingling, chef and owner of Soulfly Chicken in Miami.

He suggests sauteing the onions for about two minutes, then add in washed rice and continue to saute for another two to three minutes on medium heat. Next, add chicken stock instead of salted water and let the rice boil on high heat for two minutes. Then, lower the heat and allow the rice to steam. “The rice will smell so fragrant from the thyme and garlic, with the thyme enhancing the flavor to another level,” he says.

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Elevate Rice with Ginger and Coconut Milk

Do you love coconut rice? “When I’m feeling spicy, I like to use ginger and coconut milk to turn plain rice into an elevated side dish,” says Tingling, explaining that those two ingredients make the rice creamy and flavorful. Add your washed rice to a pot along with minced garlic, butter and fresh minced ginger, and saute for two to three minutes on medium heat. Then, add coconut milk and boil on high heat for two minutes, before lowering heat and allowing the rice to simmer.

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Fresh Cilantro
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Toast Herbs and Spices Before or After Cooking

“To give your rice that extra flavor, try dicing herbs like oregano or cilantro into very small pieces and sprinkle them on top of the rice for about five minutes and cover with a lid,” says Cuban chef Luis Pous, partner and executive chef at Calle Dragones Miami. Doing this will allow the herbs to loosen up and release their fresh aromas.

He adds that if you’re using spices, like cumin, sprinkle them into the pot with oil before incorporating the rice and water. Let the spices simmer on medium-high heat for about five minutes. Then, add white rice and stir it around the pot to absorb the oils. Once the oil is absorbed, pour the water over the rice. Let it all cook for 15 to 20 minutes, give the rice a toss, and serve.

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Chinese Fried Rice with Vegetable and Egg
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Turn Leftovers into Fried Rice

Instead of letting it go to waste, you can easily turn your leftover white rice into fried rice by throwing in vegetables or other leftovers, like chicken. “The key to adding extra flavor is using a high-quality oyster sauce and soy sauce—my preferred brand is Lee Kum Kee—while stir-frying the rice,” says Cohen. “These ingredients add the slightly sweet and salty umami flavor I’m looking for when cooking.”

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Add Cheese to Make a Risotto

Fancy a cozy risotto? “Use a short-grained white rice, like arborio,” says Chef Marcos Juarez, of Hidden Omakase. “This technique requires your full attention. Toast the rice in a little oil, onions and garlic. Then, ladle hot broth little by little while stirring. When the rice is fully cooked, fold in butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano to a perfect consistency—not too thick and not too loose and wet.”

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Rice Pudding
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Make It a Dessert

You may be used to savory rice dishes, but rice can be sweet too. “While rice pudding is often made with short-grain rice for its high-starch content and stickiness, it’s traditional to use basmati in Indian-style rice pudding, known as kheer,” says James Beard Award-winning chef JJ Johnson, founder of the rice restaurant chain FieldTrip and author of The Simple Art of Rice.

“The classic version of an Indian rice pudding includes nothing more than rice, sugar and milk, but I like to add coconut milk for a layer of flavor and luxurious thickness.” For his impressive, yet easy, orange cardamom basmati rice pudding, simply cook the rice, milk and coconut milk until the rice is tender and the mixture is thick and creamy (about 15-20 minutes after reducing heat from a boil), then stir in sugar, vanilla extract, ground cardamom, orange zest and sea salt.