Chefs will tell you candidly that the purpose of fried rice is to fill you up.
This function, however, shouldn’t overshadow the appeal of its range and versatility—that careful balance of spice, oil, and acid that can be transformed into a one-stop, all-in-one meal.
“There are any number of chefs you talk to, including regular Thai cooks, who say, look, when I’m hungry, I eat fried rice—I could eat it five times a week,” says Andy Ricker of Pok Pok.
To others, fried rice is so popular because it’s “a blank canvas of sorts,” says Kris Yenbamroong of L.A.’s Night+Market. “It’s essentially a technique you can apply to a myriad of ingredients and flavor.”
That’s why we recruited both Thai-food stalwarts to help us add some needed punch to those take-out rice cartons tucked away in the back of your refrigerator. Here, they offer tips about pairing ingredients, seasoning, and resisting the temptation to pollute your version with too many busy ingredients.
Their most important advice: embrace the simplicity. “There shouldn’t be any kind of worry, like, ‘is that all there is to it?’” says Ricker. “We’re not trying to sell anyone on fried rice. We’re making it to eat it.”
1. The rice
“The best rice is day-old rice,” says Ricker. “Cook the day before and put in the fridge so that it [dries] out a little; you want to break up all the grains. It’s easier to deal with and it gives you a nice consistency. Plus, it soaks up the sauce and the oil really nicely.” You can fry any type of rice, or any grain for that matter, but white Jasmine is a solid standby. Of course, leftover rice from your latest takeout meal is a great option too.
2. Preparing the rice
If you don’t happen to have leftover rice lying around, there’s a workaround. First, cook rice as you usually do—though Yenbamroong suggests using slightly less water than usual to keep the rice dry. I like to boil 2 cups of rice in a pot of salted, boiling water for the time specified on the package, then drain off the water, top the pot with a dish cloth and the lid, and let sit for 10 minutes.
Either way, once your rice is cooked, scoop it out into a thin layer on a baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, or up to several hours, until the rice is cool and less sticky. Then, proceed with fried-rice making.
3. Aromatics and vegetables
Start by gathering aromatics, onions, and garlic. “We use some form of onion—shallots or green onions, or both. They add a lot of sweetness and flavor,” says Ricker. Mince a few cloves of garlic to go in with the onions.
You don’t have to use any other vegetables beyond this assortment of garlic and onions. If the fridge is empty, move right onto the egg and the meat. If you like veggies, though, chop up a cup or so of your favorite—carrots, green beans, bok choy. “There’s not really a vegetable I can think of that doesn’t work well with fried rice,” says Yenbamroong. “You can go the route of seasonal market vegetables, or you can go low-brow with canned peas and carrots, a personal favorite of mine. Combining the two sensibilities is also fun.” Some Thai-style fried rice even features tomatoes.
4. The egg
When it comes to eggs, there are two different approaches, of which you are required to pick one. A slightly spongy omelet or the crackly edges of a fried egg soaked in sauce and flavor may be your calling. To make this omelet-style version, pour a whisked egg into the hot wok after you’ve stir-fried the onion and garlic. “Make sure you have enough oil, and know the balance between when to leave it, and when to stir it around,” says Yenbamroong. “Cook it enough so that it can incorporate into the rice a distinct ingredient rather than a coating.” In other words, closer to an omelet than to spaghetti carbonara.
In Ricker’s method, you crack an egg right into the wok’s hot oil, then flip it and push it up the side before you add the aromatics. It’s okay if the yolk breaks during this process; before you mix the egg back in, you’ll break it apart with your spatula anyway.
“My favorite is pork,” says Ricker. “You can do ground or sliced.” Chicken and beef, sliced thin, work too. The idea is to choose something that cooks quickly but won’t fall apart when you push it all around the pan,” says Yenbamroong. If you have leftover marinated pork butt from a barbecue, you owe it to yourself to save it for fried rice. So long as you respect the essential simplicity of the dish, you can go wherever you like with it. “You could put foie gras in it if you want,” says Ricker—“whatever you think will be good for you.” “If it tastes good, it tastes good,” echoes Yenbamroong. Use about 4 ounces of meat—a small handful.
Because they’re quick-cooking or already cooked, shrimp and crab are good alternatives for a non-meat option. “Our fanciest one is crab,” says Ricker. Thai-style crab fried rice is about as non-fussy as it gets: just aromatics, rice, crab, egg, and chili. Be wary of timing with seafood. “Remember—stuff like shrimp takes less time than chicken or pork. Don’t overcook your protein,” says Yenbemroong. Be prepared to move fast if there’s shrimp in the pan.
For Thai-style fried rice, use fish sauce (~1 tablespoon), soy sauce (~1 teaspoon), and sugar (~1 teaspoon). The white sugar is “very important” says Yenbamroong. A little white pepper is nice too. You can also use oyster sauce, or really any sauce you favor. Just make sure to show some restraint. “The key is not over-seasoning when you’re cooking,” says Ricker. “If it’s a dark brown color, you’ve put in too much seasoning.”
8. Mise en place
Once the oil’s in the wok, fried-rice cookery moves fast—you’ll generally be eating in less than five minutes. That means it’s imperative to have all ingredients prepped, ready, and close to the stove when you start. Get out all your small bowls and plates and put your onions, garlic, egg, sauce, meat, and spatula by the burner.
Mise en place is also the right moment for a gut check: do you have too many ingredients? Do all the flavors go together? “The thing that makes fried rice so awesome and accessible is also oftentimes its downfall,” says Yenbamroong. “Just because it’s simple and everyone can do it, doesn’t mean it’s always going to be good. So if there’s one thing I can recommend in terms of combining ingredients, it’s to keep it simple. Pare down the mise en place, and if you’ve laid out more than six ingredients, cut out one or two of them.”
Grab a wok if you have one. If not, you’ll want your biggest skillet. Winning at fried rice means mastering the heat of your stove. You might take a few attempts to hit your stride. Don’t worry: the bits that stick to the bottom of the pan taste great when you pry them off. The right heat should also prevent you from having to pour ladles of oil to prevent sticking. If you have a nonstick wok and a wooden spatula over fairly high heat, you really need very little oil, says Ricker. Still, don’t turn up the heat too high. You don’t need a commercial wok burner in order to make good fried rice. All it takes is a pretty hot pan.
To cook the rice, heat your pan over high—but not super high—heat for a couple minutes. Pour in about a tablespoon of oil—it’ll smoke. Then, add the egg if you’re attempting a fried egg. Next, cook the aromatics just until they’re fragrant. Now, throw in your egg if you’re aiming for omelet-style, push it to the side, and then add any uncooked protein or vegetables. Stir-fry until it’s almost done. (You can put already-cooked pork or steak in at this point too, since they hold up well.) Finally, throw in the rice, along with any pre-cooked and delicate protein, like crab meat. As soon as you add in the rice, increase the temperature. “The laws of physics say that when you add a cold thing to a hot pan, it cools the pan down. When you add two cups of rice to the pan you’re not going to regain the heat until you turn the flame up,” explains Ricker. Lastly, toss the rice lightly with sauce and some green onions, and then pull from the heat.
Try not to cook more than about 2 cups of rice at a time. If you’re making rice for a few people, fry in batches. But once you’ve played short-order cook, you’ll probably remember that fried rice is most of all a dish for one—a midday quick lunch or snack. “It’s not meant to take the place of a sit-down meal with your family,” says Ricker.
Ricker garnishes his rice with Thai chiles soaked in fish sauce, cilantro, fresh green onions, and sliced cucumbers. “For a fresh counterpoint to a starchy, umami-packed dish, it’s nice to have a vegetable that’s not cooked,” he says. Note, however, that these aren’t garnishes just for appearance. They’re there to be eaten for flavor.
RELATED: 5 Variations on DIY Fried Rice