A comprehensive guide to making fried rice that’s better than takeout

By Stacey Ballis
Updated: June 25, 2019

Fried rice is one of those things that seems to be super easy. It has such simple ingredients, so how hard could it be? And then you decide to wing it and end up with rice that is overly greasy and sodden. You keep adding soy sauce till the color looks right but the dish is inedibly salty. 

But don’t give up! Because once you know the tricks, you can make fried rice at home that is as good as takeout. And you don’t need any special equipment. 

Get the recipe: Fried Rice

I have always made pretty passable fried rice, thanks to a college housemate of half-Chinese descent who gave me some basic skills. But for this, I tapped my dear friend Eddie Lee, who owns a local Chicago joint called Landbirds that only sells two things: Korean chicken wings and fried rice. Because if you’re only going to have literally two things on your menu, they both better be amazing. Which they are. 

So, Eddie gave me a little fried rice tutorial that has been a game changer, and now I’m going to share the wealth. Strangely, for something that truly is very simple, this process is going to look very long. But stick with me, friends, because I am just being super specific here in order to empower you to be able to do this on the fly. I promise, read it once and it will make total sense and you will be a fried rice master in no time at all.

The Rice

Many recipes will tell you that you have to use day-old rice chilled in the fridge. And while that is preferable, you can make successful fried rice with fresh rice. The key? Don’t use it straight out of the pot or rice cooker. Spread it out in a thin layer on a sheet pan and leave it uncovered to let it steam off a little bit so that it will be able to crisp up in the pan. Fifteen minutes should be enough for it to cool to room temp and dry out slightly. If you are using leftover rice, break it up into small clumps and individual grains in a bowl with your hands or a pair of forks. Plain white rice is easiest, since it allows you to really see when the color gets to the right level, but don’t sweat it if you prefer brown rice—both will work.

Get the recipe: How to Cook Perfect Rice

The Pans

Notice I said pans, plural. This was the first tip that totally blew my mind. Eddie says the key to great (and fast) fried rice at home is to use two pans, one for the aromatics, protein, and vegetables, and one for the rice. This allows you to get the most out of all of your ingredients. It also ensures that your proteins and vegetables get properly seasoned before being mixed with the rice, and then makes sure that the rice becomes properly seasoned, because as you mix in the protein and vegetables, they carry that flavor with them throughout the rice. 

Think about going to a Hibachi restaurant. They are using separate areas of the griddle to make the two parts of the rice before melding them together. You are just doing the same technique but in two pans instead of a large flat-top.

Don’t forget that rice is like a sponge, so if you add sauces or flavors directly to rice, it soaks in fast to the area where it was added, and you’ll have uneven flavor in your finished dish. This technique allows you to get every bite perfect. I use a wok for the rice and a nonstick skillet for the protein and vegetables. But you can use a large Dutch oven or wide straight sided pan for the rice. You don’t have to use a wok. I prefer to not use nonstick for the rice, because I want to get some of the rice crispy and that is harder in nonstick, but if you don’t care, don’t worry about using nonstick for both.

The Oil

So, fried rice is just that, fried. Many people think that the golden-brown color in the rice comes from soy sauce and sesame oil. And while both of those ingredients do add a bit of color, most of the color actually comes from properly cooking the rice on its own to a golden color before adding the rest of the ingredients. So, the oil is important. Eddie uses plain (not toasted) sesame oil. I use peanut oil. Benihana? They use butter. Any fairly neutral oil, ghee, coconut oil or butter will work, and you can experiment to see what you like best. I don’t recommend olive oil since its smoke point is too low and can make your rice a little bitter.

Read more: Your Definitive Guide to Oil Smoke Points

The Aromatics

These are the flavors that go into the vegetable/protein pan to begin to build flavor. They can be as simple or as complex as you like. For me? The one thing every fried rice needs is some sort of onion, whether that is plain chopped yellow onion, scallion, shallot, or even leek, it is an essential. In a pinch, chopped chives can be added with great results. 

The rest is up to what is hanging around my pantry. If I have some fresh ginger lying around, I’ll grate some of that. If I am feeling sassy, red pepper flakes or a swirl of chili oil might go in. Some sesame seeds can add nice pop. I don’t particularly like garlic in mine, but if you love it, use it. You are going to bloom these flavors in the oil before cooking (or reheating) your protein and vegetables.

The Seasoning

Fried rice doesn’t so much have a sauce as it has some liquid seasoning that helps bring flavor to the party. Soy sauce is key for adding both umami and salt. And toasted sesame oil adds nuttiness and depth. I will often add a dash or two of Thai Golden Mountain Seasoning, because I have it around. Eddie likes to add a splash of kimchi juice for a bit of punch, I’m a lightweight with spice, but will sometimes add a dash of rice wine vinegar for that little acid backnote.

The Add-Ins

Photo: Aaron Kirk; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland; Food Styling: Adam Dolge

Protein

Here is where fried rice is so genius. It can be solely rice and aromatics and seasoning, and be totally satisfying. But you can do a real fridge clean-out and make a meal in a bowl. Leftover meats of all types can go in here. Shred up that leftover rotisserie chicken, chop the heel end of that pork roast, slice up the last three pieces of any deli meat.  

Between Eddie and me, we have made this with everything from hot dogs to bologna to ribs to duck to a leftover burger crumbled up! Don’t have precooked meat or fowl or encased meats lying about? You can cook up your protein in about the same amount of time as you would reheat leftovers so the technique remains the same. Bacon is great in this. And many people make it with Spam. Use whatever you like. To prep either cooked or raw protein, just shred or dice into small dice and set aside.

Get the recipe: Perfect Chicken Breast

Vegetables

Pretty much any cooked leftover vegetable that was not seasoned or sauced can be used here. Ditto raw vegetables, or a combo. Carrots are pretty common, as are peas, sliced snow peas, bean sprouts or green beans. Canned vegetables like baby corn, water chestnuts or bamboo shoots are also fine additions. If you are trying to cut carbs and want to bulk the dish up with riced cauliflower, it works really well. To prep, if frozen, leave frozen. Cooked or raw, just slice or dice into a size and shape that you like.

The Method

Let’s talk about amounts. Some people like a lot of rice with little treasures of occasional bits of protein or vegetables. Some people want half rice, half add-ins. So, the key to this is to make it the way you like it.

If you like it rice-forward, shoot for two to three parts rice to one part mix-ins. For more of a meal, equal parts are a good ratio.  Less than this and the rice gets lost.  If you are using cauliflower rice to bulk up, I like no more than half cauliflower rice to real rice or it becomes a stir fried vegetable dish, which is delicious, but not fried rice.

Take your wok or Dutch oven or large straight sided skillet and place over high heat for the rice.  Take your large nonstick skillet and place it over medium-high heat. To the rice pan, add a generous amount of whatever oil you are using. It should coat the whole bottom of a flat pan or make a puddle in your wok.  

If you are using butter, add a bit of a neutral oil like peanut or canola to help prevent burning.  Add a smaller amount of the same to the nonstick skillet. When the oil in the rice pan is shimmering, add the rice, and stir quickly to coat all the grains with the oil, then let cook while you add the aromatics to the other pan, stirring to mix well. Give the rice a stir about every minute or so. When the aromatics become fragrant add your protein and stir so that it is well coated in the flavored oil. Then just do a side by side dance or enlist a partner to man one of the pans. Give the rice a toss, give the protein a stir. First one, then the other, then pause. One, two, three, one, two, three. 

For the rice, you are looking for it to change from white to a golden color, and to have some grains that get a bit of crisp on them. For the protein, you want raw stuff cooked through and cooked stuff reheated, and maybe a little crispy on the edges. When the protein looks close to done, add the vegetables, stir through then add the seasoning. When you are eyeballing stuff like soy sauce, give a light sprinkle over the top of the whole pan, as if you were salting it, because you are. For toasted sesame oil or chili oil, which are more intense flavors, give a single swirl around the outer edge to start. Then stir these through fully and taste to see if you need more of anything. You want this mixture highly seasoned, because it has to season the rice as well, but it shouldn’t be overly salty or spicy, just at the top end of your palate. You’ll adjust the finished dish before serving.

When your rice has its great color on it, add the seasoned protein/vegetable mix to the pan and stir it through until it is well combined. Taste for seasoning and add more soy, toasted sesame oil, chili oil or the like in small amounts until you get the flavor you like!

To Egg or Not to Egg?

Photo by MielPhotos2008 via Getty Images

Some people love a bit of egg in their rice (ME!) some don’t. It isn’t essential, but it can be a nice addition. I don’t love big chunks of scrambled egg in mine, but more little bits. If you are going to add egg, here are some tips…

Beat the eggs in a bowl with a few drops of soy sauce. If you want larger curds, move the finished rice to the sides of the pan or wok, creating a hole in the middle, drop in a teaspoon more oil, scramble the eggs in this hole to the side curd you want, then mix it all through. For me, I drizzle the seasoned egg over the top, let it sit on top of the finished rice for a few seconds until it starts to get a little opaque, then stir it through for small bits of egg throughout.

Get the recipe: Scrambled Eggs

Garnish

Adding a little something fresh on top of your rice can make for a nice bit of brighter flavor or texture. You could use toasted sesame seeds or fried shallots for crunch, sliced raw scallion or raw bean sprouts for freshness, sliced fresh chili for fresh heat, or a final splash of chili oil or kimchi juice or squeeze of lime for punch. There are a million ways to customize your bowl to your taste.

 

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