Brown or white rice - which is healthier?

White rice is a refined grain, which means

White rice is a refined grain, which means its fibrous outer covering has been removed through milling. (Credit: iStock)

Erica Marcus

Erica Marcus (face disguised) is Newsday's food writer. Erica Marcus

Marcus has covered food for Newsday since 1998.

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Should I eat brown rice instead of white?

I was recently speaking about food before a group of retired professionals in Roslyn, and after the talk, one of the men approached me with this question. His wife, he said, is from the Philippines and is an excellent cook. "But she always makes white rice. Shouldn't we be eating brown?"

White rice (like white flour) is a refined grain, which means its fibrous outer covering (the bran) has been removed through milling. The bran is where most of the grain's fiber and many of its vitamins and minerals reside. Brown rice, a whole grain, is still in possession of its bran and, thus, is arguably a healthier choice.

Any talk of rice these days should mention the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recent announcement that it contains previously unknown levels of naturally occurring arsenic. The FDA has said the levels are not high enough to be a short-term concern to consumers, and that it is looking into any long-term health risks. And guess what? Brown rice has higher levels than white. Instant rice, which I barely consider a food, has the lowest arsenic levels.

But back to brown rice. I'm a big fan of vitamins and minerals, and it is true that most Americans could use more fiber in their diets. But I am loathe to advise this man to ask his wife to make the switch from white to brown.

The Philippines and large swaths of Asia have been using white rice as their staple food for millennia. It is more than a culinary mainstay, it is a cultural touchstone. In her book "The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen" (Simon & Schuster, $32), Grace Young writes that, in Cantonese, "the common, everyday greeting, 'Nay sik zaw fan may?'" literally means "Have you had your rice yet?"

Food isn't just the sum of its nutrients. It has meaning. Brown rice is nice in certain culinary settings, but for my money it has no place in traditional Asian cuisines. It does not belong in sushi or in the little bowl you eat along with your Chinese eggplant in garlic sauce or in the big bowl containing your Korean bibimbap or as an accompaniment to your Filipino chicken adobo. You want fiber? Eat your vegetables.

What's the best way to cook brown rice? I can never get the proportion of water to rice correct.

I finally gave up on figuring out the rice-water proportions on all but the two types of rice I make most frequently at home: Uncle Ben's (1 to 2) and Kokuho Rose Japanese-style rice (1 1/2 to 2). Now, whether I am making brown rice, red rice, black rice, basmati rice, wild rice (not a true rice, but applicable here) or any rice not yet discovered, I follow this method:

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil as if you were making pasta. Add the rice, bring the water back to a boil and then reduce it to a strong simmer. Cook the rice until it is just barely short of done. (Small basmati rices take as little as 10 minutes, brown rice and wild rice can take up to an hour.) Have a colander ready in the sink and drain the rice, give it a good shake, and then put it right back into the hot pot and cover it. Let it sit for 10 minutes. (If you are using an electric stove, make sure you move the pot to a cool burner.) You should have perfectly done rice.