Traditional rice can often take 20 minutes or longer to prepare, but a quick-cooking version called instant rice can go from box to plate in 5 minutes or less. Instant rice is actually standard rice that has been precooked, then carefully dehydrated in a commercial oven until the moisture content is 12 percent or less. The instant rice is then packaged for retail sales, or added to other dehydrated ingredients and seasonings to make flavored rice dishes.
Instant rice is not modified from its original grain form, only cooked and dehydrated. Traditional rice takes so long to cook because the boiling water must penetrate each rice grain's center for perfect doneness. This would be the equivalent of boiling a thick vegetable like a potato. A boiled potato is only done when the center has been boiled soft, which can take a considerable amount of time to accomplish. Until a rice grain has turned completely gelatinous in texture, it will remain slightly crunchy and unpleasant to eat.
The precooking and dehydration process creates tiny fissures and cracks in the instant rice grains, which makes it easier for boiling water to reach the center. Instant rice also cooks much faster than traditional rice because the added water reconstitutes the dehydrated grains. Some brands of instant rice can be completely reconstituted in as little as two or three minutes, but food experts suggest that instant rice should ideally take at least five minutes to prepare for maximum flavor.
Critics of instant rice suggest that traditional rice is much more flavorful and nutritious than the dehydrated variety. Rice cookers designed for home use can take the guesswork and labor out of traditional rice preparation, and many meals already take more than twenty minutes to prepare, so instant rice is not strictly necessary as a time saver. Instant rice may be a better solution when time is limited or using a rice cooker is not an option. Packaged dry soups often contain instant rice to reduce cooking time and still produce a viable product.
There is no reason not to use instant rice whenever traditional rice is not available or cooking space is limited. Instant rice can often be added directly to homemade soups or other recipes instead of being cooked in a separate pot and added later like traditional rice. Always store instant rice in a dry area away from any sources of moisture or humidity. The dehydrated grains will absorb moisture and could spoil in the box.