The first time I attempted to cook fried rice on my own, I was 15 and my parents and little brother were in Europe on vacation. I stayed home to attend summer school and to enjoy a little freedom living on my own for a couple of weeks.
Since my Mom was the queen in the kitchen, I didn’t really cook too much back then. My job was just to eat and enjoy her wonderful home cooked meals. But that week, after 3 days of instant ramen, I was longing for something a little more substantial. Too lazy to bike to the market, I decided on fried rice. I steamed a batch of rice and found enough bits of vegetables to make the dish.
It was a total disaster. Mushy, soggy and goopy. Back to Top Ramen for another 10 days.
When the family returned, I told Mom about my fried rice misfortune and she laughed, “You better start learning from me before you go off to college or you’ll starve!” And a crash course in fried rice followed the next day.
So here I am to teach you what I learned from my Mom. These are her secrets to light, fluffy and flavorful fried rice, no matter what ingredients you use.
Use previously chilled leftover rice
To get the perfect fried rice, you’ll want to use yesterday’s rice as it’s had a chance to dry out a bit in the refrigerator. The heat of the pan and the liquid seasoning (soy sauce) will re-steam and hydrate the leftover rice. If you try to use freshly cooked, hot rice (like I did years ago,) you’ll end up with too much moisture in the rice and will make a heavy mess in the pan.
High heat is essential
But high heat doesn’t mean that you need super high BTU’s or a gas stove. All it takes is a bit of patience to let your pan or wok heat up. The high heat ensures that whatever ingredients that you put into the pan gets fried quickly and that each grain of rice gets hot to the core.
A common mistake of stir frying is to constantly poke, prod, turn and flip every second. In a restaurant kitchen where flames are so powerful they can singe your brows, chefs have to keep things moving. But in home kitchens, our stovetops need a little more time to do their work to heat up and cook our food. If you keep poking at the rice, the grains will break, release more starch and turn the entire thing goopy. It will never have a chance to fry correctly…not enough “wok time” as my Mom likes to say. The best thing is to do is to spread out the rice, use the entire cooking surface of the pan and just leave it alone. Put your spatula down and back away from the stove for a minute. Give the rice a chance to heat up. Then flip, toss and redistribute the rice, again spreading it out and leaving it alone to cook another side.
Fry ingredients separately
Fried rice has many different ingredients, and in my home it’s usually just a mixture of whatever vegetables, meats or seafood I can scrounge up from the refrigerator or freezer. But whatever the ingredients, you want to make sure that you can taste each individual one. To do this, you’ve got to fry your meat or seafood first, remove from the wok or pan when 80% cooked through and then toss it back in towards the end of the stir fry to finish cooking. Because if you try to fry all of the ingredients at the same time in the same pan, they’ll all compete for “wok time” and everything will end up tasting exactly the same!
Shrimp Fried Rice Recipe
Make sure to use leftover, day old rice when making fried rice. Freshly made rice will make a fried rice that's mushy.
- 8 ounces small raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil, divided
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 2 stalks green onion, minced
- 4 cups leftover rice, grains separated well
- 3/4 cup frozen peas and carrots, defrosted
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce (use gluten-free soy sauce if you are making a gluten-free version)
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 In a bowl, toss the shrimp with the salt, pepper and cornstarch. Let marinate for 10 minutes at room temperature. Heat a wok or large sauté pan on high heat. When the pan is hot enough for a bead of water to instantly sizzle and evaporate, add just 1 tablespoon of the cooking oil and swirl to coat pan.
2 Add the shrimp, quickly spreading out around the cooking surface area so that they are not overlapping. Let fry, untouched for 30 seconds. Flip over and let the other side fry for 30 seconds, or until about 80% cooked through. Remove the shrimp from the pan onto a plate, leaving as much oil in the pan as possible.
3 Turn the heat to medium, let the pan heat up again. Add the eggs, stirring in a quick motion to break up and scramble the eggs. When the eggs are almost cooked through (they should still be slightly runny in the middle), dish out of the pan into the same plate as the cooked shrimp.
4 Use paper towels to wipe the same wok or sauté pan clean and return to high heat with the remaining 1 tablespoon of cooking oil, swirling to coat. When the oil is very hot, add the green onions and fry until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add in the rice and stir well to mix in the green onions throughout. Spread the rice all around the wok surface area and let the rice heat up, untouched until you hear the bottoms of the grains sizzle, about 1-2 minutes. Use the spatula to toss the rice, again spreading the rice out over the surface of wok.
5 Drizzle the soy sauce all around the rice and toss. Add the peas and carrots, the cooked eggs, shrimp and sesame oil, tossing to mix the rice evenly with all of the ingredients. Let everything heat back up again, until the rice grains are so hot they practically dance! Taste and add an additional 1 teaspoon of soy sauce if needed.