Let’s not argue: You should be washing your rice. The main reason for doing so is that it sloughs off dust, debris, and any excess starch, which can contribute to a gummy texture and hinder the formation of distinct grains. (For this reason, some cooks avoid washing rice for dishes like risotto, in which distinct grains aren’t the goal. And there’s a reasonable argument against too rigorous a washing, because good nutrients and protein can come off too.) But rice enthusiasts generally agree that for best results, you should wash your rice.
Here is another reason. As cooks from rice-loving cultures around the world have long known, rice water is a useful byproduct in both cooking and housekeeping. To be clear, the rice water from those first and second washes — when it runs the cloudiest and milkiest — is what you should reserve for keeping house (more about that in a minute). It’s the water from subsequent washes that you’ll want for cooking.
“The best way to explain it is, you know how chefs use pasta water with the sauce?” says JinJoo Lee, the blogger behind Kimchimari. That’s the role rice water can play. Lee recalls seeing her mom use rice water in the Korean soybean paste stew doenjang jjigae and carried the technique on into her own cooking. “I think it adds a bit of thickness because of the rice particles, and then also, there is that hint of the nutty rice flavor in the background,” Lee says. “It makes the liquids a little more robust and it holds the flavors together. It’s not a huge difference, but it certainly adds that quality.” And why not make use of it? If you’re making rice, you’re making plenty of rice water too.
Lee uses rice water in anchovy broth-based stews like doenjang jjigae and kimchi jjigae, which don’t have meat to flavor the cooking liquid. Rice water would be redundant in meat stews, as meat provides both flavor and thickening power — although Lee doesn’t think it would hurt to use it. Similarly, rice water also appears in traditional Filipino cooking as a way to create a thick, nutritious broth in the absence of animal gelatin, particularly in the tamarind soup known as sinigang.
In addition to adding flavor and texture, rice water is great at absorbing smells and flavors from fish, Lee says. When using salted, dried yellow croaker fish for Korean cooking, for example, soaking the fish in rice water helps leech out excess salt. Rice water can also help draw out the smells people sometimes find off-putting with fresh, cold-water fish like mackerel and sardines: Just let the fish soak for up to 30 minutes. Lee notes that rice water can also be used to cook fish jorim, braises with “not a lot of liquid” that become a sauce as you cook.
The water from rice’s first or second washes isn’t worth tossing, even if you aren’t going to cook with it. It can nourish plants (as some people do with pasta water), or be used to rinse or soak dishes. Grace Young writes in the cookbook The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen that rice water is often saved for cleaning cast iron or carbon steel woks; slightly abrasive because of its starch, it cleans woks without stripping them of their seasoning. Because it absorbs oil, Lee adds, rice water can allow you to use less soap. And according to Lifehacker, adding rice water to your laundry can make your sheets softer.
That the water from washing rice will ever run clear can seem like another one of those little recipe deceptions — wash after wash, the runoff still retains its milkiness. But instead of seeing that cloudy liquid as a frustrating step toward dinner, maybe we can learn to see it as a welcome gift, ready to be repurposed.