Kardea Brown’s Top 6 Tips for the Perfect Pot of Gullah Red Rice

published Feb 7, 2023
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Diptych of Kardea Brown book cover on top and red rice on bottom.
Credit: Top to bottom: Courtesy of Amistad/Harper Collins Publishers; Sully Sullivan

Making a decent pot of rice on the stovetop is more nuanced than you might think. Sure, there’s your typical pot of fluffy, long-grain rice, but depending on your tastes, culture, and experiences, your definition of the perfect pot of rice will likely vary. 

Kardea Brown, of Food Network’s Delicious Miss Brown, has her fair share of recipes that show off the true versatility of rice. But her Gullah red rice in particular is a flavorful way to completely transform your typical bag of rice.

In fact, red rice is one of those dishes that’s likely become muscle memory for the acclaimed Food Network star. It’s arguably one of the most iconic and traditional foods of Gullah-Geechee origins, and Brown’s recipe for it has 70+ positive reviews. Gullah red rice is also known to have ties to the traditional West African dish, jollof rice.

The Importance of Rice in Gullah-Geechee Culture

Rice as whole has a very storied history and, in many ways, represents the legacy of Black American foodways — especially as it relates Gullah-Geechee culture. Rice was a staple grain — often called a cash crop — that was cultivated and harvested by many enslaved people from West Africa during and following the Transatlantic slave trade. This is largely because the practice of cultivating rice was unfamiliar to colonizers of 18th-century America.

The Gullah-Geechee people are descendants of enslaved peoples from West Africa who were brought to the coastlines of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida, an area known as the Sea Islands. Just like with shellfish, okra, and benne, rice has become a large part of Gullah food. When it comes to red rice, though, the grain is the star of the show.

Credit: Sully Sullivan

Kardea Brown’s Tips for Making Red Rice

Here, Brown shares some of her favorite non-negotiable tips for making perfect Gullah red rice, which is one of the many delicious recipes featured in her debut cookbook, The Way Home

Be sure to use parboiled rice.

Parboiled rice is simply rice that is partially boiled within its husk before being packaged and sold. Parboiled rice tends to have a slightly brown shade to it that’s noticeably darker than white rice, although it’s different from brown rice. 

Brown notes that it’s important to use parboiled rice when making red rice because it helps ensure that the rice will cook evenly in the tomato paste and water mixture. “I find that parboiled rice just comes out perfect every single time,” says Brown. “It’d be really hard to overcook parboiled rice because it remains fluffy, especially when you bake it in the oven.” In other words, using parboiled rice is a good way to make sure the rice isn’t overcooked and mushy but not undercooked and hard. 

Use smoked sausage or other smoked meat.

One of the most noticeable flavors of Gullah red rice, aside from tomato paste, is the smokiness. This quintessential smokiness comes from using a cut of flavorful smoked meat. “For that iconic red rice smoky flavor, you gotta use a smoked sausage,” Brown emphasizes. Brown says that she almost always uses a smoked pork sausage to achieve this traditional taste.

Using smoked pieces of meat, like sausage or ham hocks, is a common way to add not just smokiness, but also a wonderful meaty flavor without meat being the main component of a dish. Brown says that she has made vegetarian versions of the dish, too. While sausage is traditional, you can try and achieve the same effect by using something like liquid smoke or a smoked meat alternative.

Yes, you have to rinse the rice.

Oftentimes, there is a lot of discourse about whether or not rinsing rice is absolutely necessary. It’s safe to say that, on most occasions, it depends on the kind of rice you want in the end. In many cases, rinsing rice is required to avoid super-starchy and sticky rice, but if that’s the desired effect, then rinsing might not always be necessary.

In the case of Gullah red rice, however, rinsing is absolutely needed, notes Brown, even though it’s parboiled. Since red rice is typically meant to be on the drier side rather than wet or sticky, you must rinse the rice. Plus, this will help allow the tomato paste and smoked sausage to imbue more flavor without having to go through the starch.

Use tomato paste, not tomato sauce.

Tomato paste is a very versatile pantry staple, mainly because it provides an incredible amount of concentrated tomato flavor without actually using fresh tomatoes. Tomato paste has a lot less water content than tomato sauce, which is a good thing, as you don’t need a ton of water to cook the rice for red rice.

Kardea explains that using tomato paste in particular is the best way to impart flavor to the rice without the dish losing flavor from being diluted with too much water. Plus, using tomato paste is how the rice gets its iconic, brick-red color once it comes out of the oven. 

Fluffing the rice is crucial.

One of the most well-known rules of cooking just about any kind of rice is to not lift the lid and take a peek while it’s doing its final act! If you let steam escape from the pot, it will affect how the rice cooks and it might end up undercooked. When it does come time to remove the lid, however, it’s super important to fluff the rice with a fork, explains Brown in the video for making her red rice. 

When you lift the lid at first, the rice will appear on the wet side, likely more so than you want. “That’s what fluffing is for,” Brown says in her video. Fluffing the rice when you first remove the lid will allow steam to escape and, as a result, the rice will dry out a bit and not end up mushy. 

You can and should bake the rice in the oven.

Most recipes for making rice at home will instruct you to cook it in either a saucepan on the stove or in a rice cooker. Although these methods are efficient and work well, you can definitely cook red rice well in the oven, notes Brown.

Making red rice in a Dutch oven in the oven, explains Brown, is a good vessel for making evenly cooked rice. “You need an environment that just really promotes steam and you can’t let any of that out,” says Brown. Steam is what cooks the rice, and because the rice is parboiled you don’t need direct heat to get it soft in a short amount of time.

Get the recipe: Red Rice