How to Make Sticky Rice

What makes it sticky and different from other rice? Or, even more basic, how do you make sticky rice? We’ll answer all that and more.

sticky rice in basket

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Sticky rice is naturally sweet in a subtle way and its tacky texture is satisfying to chew. Yet for a long time, it was a rice dish that was below the radar for mainstream American consumers. You had to really seek authentic restaurants to order Thai sticky rice as a side dish or Lo Mai Gai at Cantonese dim sum venues.

When it comes to sticky rice, most people will first ask how to make rice sticky. But that’s actually the wrong question to start with. While you can make rice sticky by overcooking it with too much water, that’s not actually how to make sticky rice. That’s not even how to make sticky rice for sushi, which is an entirely different type of rice

What Is Sticky Rice?

Sticky rice is actually its own variety, just as long-grain or brown rice fall in wholly different rice categories. It’s an ultra-short grain, even shorter than sushi rice, and solidly opaque in raw form, developing a gummy translucence only after cooking. Even the brown and black versions start from this unusual opacity. 

No matter the color, its distinctive texture comes from its naturally occurring high levels of amylopectin starch. To balance that out, it has lower levels of amylose, which is the starch that keeps rice grains separate after cooking. Therefore, what you’re looking for is a rice varietal labeled as sticky rice, sweet rice, Thai sticky rice, or glutinous rice. The latter is what rice flour made from sticky rice will also be labelled, but don’t worry—it doesn’t actually contain gluten. It’s called this for its ability to gel, its defining characteristic. 

No other type of rice will give you this signature stickiness nor sweetness. This is what you’ll need if you’re wondering how to make mango sticky rice, how to make sticky rice dumplings, how to make Chinese fried sticky rice, how to make sweet red beans with sticky rice, or other delightful Asian dishes.

How to Make Sticky Rice

If you have a rice cooker, making sticky rice can be as simple as pushing a button. Many modern and higher-end rice cookers can cook sticky rice with pre-set programs that let you skip labor—and time—intensive steps, such as pre-soaking. That’s why there are a lot of searches for how to make sticky rice in a rice cooker. 

However, because sticky rice requires less water, boiling it immersed in water in a rice cooker as opposed to manually over steam results in inferior results with a diluted sweetness. Using the steamer basket and steam function is a better method than the pre-set function, but the traditional way and the one that yields the best, most authentic results, is to steam-cook it on the stove. 

Step 1: Prepare the Rice

Rinsing and soaking are non-negotiable when preparing sticky rice. If you don’t remove the excess sticky rice powder from the surface, you’ll end up with a block of glued-together rice. Rinse the rice and swirl it with your hands a few times in a large bowl, drain it, and repeat—the water doesn’t have to run clear, just less cloudy. 

Cover the bowl of rice with 2–3 inches of cool water and soak the grain for as few as 40 minutes but no more than 10 hours. Soaking softens the hard outer shell to ensure more even cooking. However, the reason the range is so wide is because the amount of time should be based on your textural preference. The longer you soak it, the softer and stickier it will be after cooking.

Test Kitchen Tip: For whole-grain brown sweet rice, do not soak for longer than 3 hours or it may begin to ferment.

Step 2: Assemble your Steamer

When you’re ready to cook the sticky rice, gather your equipment. An ideal set-up includes two sheets of cheesecloth, a large pot or wok, and a large traditional Chinese bamboo or metal steamer. You may substitute parchment paper, cotton mesh, or fine silicone mesh if you don’t have cheesecloth. If you don’t have a steamer, you can use a veggie steamer basket or a heat-proof dishware elevated on a steaming rack or ring. If you have to go the plate route, we recommend a pasta plate for its higher rims and capacity.

Step 3: Cook the Sticky Rice

Fill the large pot or wok with water and set it to boil at medium-high. How much water you need depends on your steaming setup. You want it to reach just below the lowest tier of the steamer or the steaming rack/ring. You need enough so that the water won’t completely boil off and scald your cookware, but not so much that it’ll touch the rice when it bubbles.

Line your steaming basket or plate with one layer of cheesecloth or its substitute. Drain the rice from its soaking water and spread the grains evenly across the surface. Using your finger, poke a few indentations onto the smooth surface. Cover with a second layer of cheesecloth, then place the steaming vessel in the bubbling water with a lid tightly secured.

How Long to Cook Sticky Rice

For perfect sticky rice, there are two cooking stages. The first cook is complete around 20 minutes, when the rice up top is shiny and tender. If it is, grab hold of the cheesecloth by its edges, gathering the corners, and flip it so that the top layer of rice is now at the bottom, closer to the steam. Add more water to the pot now if your levels look low. 

Allow it to steam for another 15–20 minutes. You’ll know it’s ready when it’s translucent and sparkling. Note that because this is a manual and imprecise method that depends on equipment and escaped steam, total cooking time may range from 35–50 minutes.

Test Kitchen Tip: How long it takes to cook sticky rice depends on how much steam is securely trapped by your lid and your batch size. Larger batches are better prepared divided as overfilling the steamer may result in uneven cooking.

How to Serve Sticky Rice

To prepare sticky rice for serving, once the rice is fully cooked through, invert it all onto a large plate or work surface and fold it gently to separate the grains. Working quickly—as sticky rice dries out and hardens incredibly fast once removed from heat—place it in a warm bowl or return it to your steamer with the heat turned off, and cover it with a warm damp cloth and/or lid. Make sure it stays warm! In addition to losing its tenderness, cold sticky rice can be hard to digest.

Test Kitchen Tip: Wet your rice spatula before and between each scoop to prevent the sweet rice from sticking to it.

How to Store Cooked Sticky Rice

Because sticky rice gets stickier as it sits, sweet rice stores was well as any other type of rice. It’s best to keep extra refrigerated in an airtight container, preferably glass, where it’ll remain safe to reheat and eat for up to 3 days. You can also freeze it for up to 2 months by putting it in an airtight container or freezer bag.

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