The Easiest Way to Boost the Flavor of Rice and Grains

published Jan 11, 2016
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(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

From chewy farro to a simple pot of rice, barely a day goes by that we’re not cooking or consuming some kind of grain. Still, as with any staple, we can grow weary of the same old flavors day in and day out. Isn’t there an easy way to shake things up in the grain pot? Something that doesn’t involve more chopping or fancy ingredients? You bet there is!

It’s All in the Liquid

The answer is simple: Swap out all or part of the water for another liquid! That’s right. You don’t always have to use plain ol’ water to cook your grains. Try adding tea, broth, or even carrot or tomato juice to the pot for a huge flavor boost without much added effort.

There are a few things to keep in mind when performing this culinary switcheroo. The first is that you may want to retain at least some of the water, especially when using vegetable juices or broths that are particularly strong or salty. The liquid will cook down some and become concentrated in the grain, so too much flavor or salt can become overwhelming.

It’s also important to match the flavors of your alternative liquid with the dish you are making. Orange juice added to couscous would go beautifully with chicken and mint pesto, for instance, whereas kombu broth might be a little too fishy to serve with a lamb dish.

Carrot or Other Vegetable Juice

Cookbook author Eric Gower replaces 1/3 of the water with carrot juice when cooking rice. “It adds a lovely reddish-orange hue to the rice, and gives it an incomparable body and hint of sweetness,” he explains. Now that many people have a home juicer, it’s not hard to experiment with this method using other vegetables such as beets (pretty!) or celery. Eric also likes to cook red lentils in carrot juice using the same ratio.

Fruit Juice

Fruit juices can be used to cook grains, especially orange juice since it has a nice sweet-to-acidic balance, and orange is a natural paring with many savory dishes. Couscous, bulgur, and farro do well with orange juice. Cooking porridge oats in apple juice is also fairly common.

Stocks and Broths

Using stocks and broths is a tried-and-true way to add flavor to your grains — think classic pilaf, for instance, or paella or risotto. You can use homemade broth or even a stock cube, but if your broth is especially salty or flavorful, you may want to cut it with some water.


Slipping a piece of kombu (seaweed) into the pot while cooking rice is a wonderful way to add a “touch of the sea” and rich umami depth to both brown and white varieties. It also works with other grains, such as cracked wheat. Many people point to the health benefit of soaking and cooking grains with kombu, which is reported to reduce their acidity.


Traditional black and green tea, as well as rooibos and herb, are all excellent choices for cooking grains. Bright and grassy green tea and matcha go very well with rice; rooibos with red quinoa; smoky lapsang souchong with farro or wild rice. Numi makes a line of savory teas that would add additional flavors to grains (see their website for recipes using quinoa and cracked wheat for tabbouleh.)

Spices and Other Aromatics

Maybe the only thing you have on hand is plain ol’ water, but that doesn’t mean the potential for extra flavor is lost. Try tossing in whole spices such as cinnamon, fresh ginger, peppercorns, or allspice. Or cut a small onion in half and add it to the pot. A few whole garlic cloves and a branch of fresh thyme or rosemary would also work. All these items should be removed before serving, of course, but keeping them whole will make that task super-easy.

Wine or Beer

While cooking grains exclusively in wine or beer might be a bit much, a splash or two in the cooking water can add a nice, complex depth to your grains. When using wine, be sure to remember that red wine will give your dish a purplish hue, which may or may not be desirable. Beers should be of the lighter variety, as dark, deeply hopped brews may be too assertive.

Coconut Milk

Rice is a classic grain to cook with a combination of coconut milk and water, but did you know that quinoa is also delicious when cooked in this delightfully creamy liquid? Use a ratio of 1/2 water and 1/2 canned coconut milk for best results.