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 high smoke point oil such as canola oil or rice bran oil
- 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 medium bowl, sprinkle the shrimp with salt, pepper, and cornstarch, and toss to coat. Set aside to sit for ten minutes at room temperature.
2 Heat a large sauté pan or wok (a seasoned cast iron pan or hard anodized aluminum works well, they're relatively stick free and can take the heat) on high heat. When the pan is very hot (a drop of water instantly sizzles when it hits the pan), swirl in a tablespoon of the oil to coat the pan.
3 Add the shrimp to the pan, spreading them out quickly in a single layer on the pan. Let them fry in the pan without moving them, for 30 seconds. Flip them over and let them fry on the other side for another 30 seconds or until they are mostly cooked through. Use a slotted spoon to scoop the shrimp out of the pan to a plate, leaving as much oil in the pan as possible.
4 Return the pan to the burner and lower the heat to medium. Add the beaten eggs and stir them quickly to scramble them while they cook. When the eggs are almost cooked through, still a bit runny, remove them from the pan to the plate with the cooked shrimp.
5 Clean out the pan or wok with paper towels and return it to the burner. Heat the pan on high and when it is hot, swirl in the remaining tablespoon of oil. When the oil is shimmering hot (almost smoking), add the green onions and sauté for 15 seconds. Then add the leftover cooked rice to the pan and stir with the green onions to mix well. Spread the rice onion mixture over the surface of the pan and let it fry, without moving it, until you hear the rice sizzle, about 1 to 2 minutes. Use a spatula to toss the rice, and spread it over the pan again.
6 Sprinkle soy sauce around the rice and toss to combine. Add the carrots, peas, shrimp, eggs, and sesame oil, stirring to combine well. Let everything heat up again until sizzling hot. Add more soy sauce to taste.