Updated date:

What Is Minnesota Wild Rice? (Hint: It's Not Rice)

Christy learned the art and science of cooking from her Southern kin. Her cooking secrets aren't secrets because she shares them freely.

Cooked Minnesota wild rice

Cooked Minnesota wild rice

Wild Rice and the Ojibwe Nation

More than a thousand years ago, when the Ojibwe (Chippewa) Nation was crowded out of the east, their prophet told them to go west “until you find food that grows on water.”

So they packed up their things and migrated along the Great Lakes until they discovered a strange new plant growing in lakes and streams. The dark brown grains were nearly an inch long, packed with nutrients, and had a delicious, nutty, earthy flavor. This wild rice could be stored and feed them all winter—or longer, if the next year’s harvest was poor.

This grain, which they called manoomin or “good berry,” and which we call wild rice, became a life-sustaining crop of the Ojibwe, just as it was for the Dakota, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, and other local nations. Wild rice also became a leading staple product to trade with the French Voyageurs and later with the British merchants.

Wild rice is the state grain of Minnesota, but its exposure to the rest of America was limited because it was expensive to harvest by hand from the lakes where it grows wild. Most of us grew up with bland and barely nutritious white rice or slightly better brown rice.

That all changed in recent years. My day job moved me, a born-and-bred Southerner, to the frozen tundra of Minneapolis, where I discovered Minnesota’s most famous dish, Minnesota wild rice soup (see below).

And that’s how I fell in love with the food that grows on water.

If It Isn't Rice, What Is It?

Manoomin is the seed of an aquatic grass. It’s related to but not the same as rice. Sort of like distant cousins. When cooked, the bran pops open, revealing the lighter-colored insides.

It grows wild in shallow lakes. (Minnesota has ten thousand, right?) Wild rice grows best in the upper Midwest, although it can be found in many parts of the country. The stalks grow out of the mud at the bottom of the lake and the stalks reach as much as twelve feet above the water surface.

Traditional harvesting requires two people in a canoe. One steers the canoe. The other using two sticks (knockers) to gently bend the stalks over the canoe and knock the grains off. Many of the grains miss the canoe and fall into the water, which is good. That’s how the harvesters reseed the bed for the next year.

(There is a variety that can be cultivated, but don’t buy it. Only buy wild, hand-harvested rice, ideally from one of the Ojibwe bands or Native Americans. I’ll say more about this below.)

How to Cook Wild Rice

Cooking wild rice is super easy.

For naturally grown, hand-harvested wild rice (more information about the difference below):

  1. Rinse 1 cup of wild rice in cold water.
  2. Pour rice in a saucepan. Add 3 cups of chicken broth (made from bouillon is okay) or 3 cups of water or a mixture or the two.
  3. Add 1 teaspoon salt, more or less, according to your taste.
  4. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to a simmer.
  5. Cook for 15-20 minutes, or until most of the rice has popped and it has a chewy texture (but not mushy).
  6. Remove from heat and leave covered for another 5 minutes.
  7. Drain the remaining liquid and serve.

Read the package for cook times. Most naturally grown, hand-harvested wild rice needs only 15-20 minutes to cook. Cultivated rice and some brands of naturally grown rice need to simmer for 45-50 minutes.

You can use an InstantPot, but if you’re using naturally grown rice, I’m not sure it saves any time.

Some people add maple syrup to cold wild rice and eat it for breakfast. I've tried it, and I'm not a fan.

If you do, use pure maple syrup, not the maple-flavored corn syrup the major brands sell in grocery stores. Once you try pure maple syrup, you'll never go back.

Minnesota's Most Famous Dish: Chicken and Wild Rice Soup

My favorite wild rice soup includes chicken and mushrooms in a creamy base. Best of all, it’s super easy. Sure, there's some waiting time while it cooks, but it makes your house smell soooo good!

Cook Time

Prep timeCook timeReady inYields

30 min

2 hours

2 hours 30 min

6 to 8 servings (with leftovers if you're lucky)

Ingredients

For the rice:

  • 1 cup wild rice, uncooked
  • 3 cups water or chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon salt

For the soup:

  • 1 onion, yellow, chopped
  • 1 cup mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups chicken, bonless, diced
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teasponn rosemary
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon sage
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon celery seed
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons white wine or white wine vinegar

For the roux:

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup half and half or milk

Instructions

  1. Rinse the wild rice in cold water. Add it to broth or water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. As soon as it begins to boil, reduce heat to low, cover, and let simmer for 15-20 minutes.
  2. While the rice cooks, sauté the mushrooms and onion in butter in a dutch oven or stock pot over medium-high heat. Sauté until caramelized, about 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside.
  3. Sauté the chicken in the dutch oven or stock pot until lightly browned.
  4. Add the chicken stock. Bring to a slight boil, then immediately reduce heat to a simmer.
  5. Return the mushrooms and onions to the pot. Add salt and bay leaf.
  6. Drain the remaining liquid from the cooked rice and add it to the soup.
  7. Cover the dutch oven or stock pot and let simmer for at least half an hour, preferably an hour or longer. A longer cook time allows the flavors to blend.
  8. Add the seasonings (pepper, rosemary, thyme, sage, garlic powder, celery seed), Worcestershire sauce, and white wine or vinegar. Cover and cook for another half hour.
  9. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed.
  10. In a small saucepan, melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat.
  11. Remove from heat and whisk in the flour, one tablespoon at a time.
  12. Return to medium-high heat and stir constantly for two minutes. Do not let the roux boil.
  13. Add milk or half-and-half slowly, whisking to ensure the roux is entirely incorporated into the liquid.
  14. Add roux to soup and simmer, stirring constantly, for another five minutes. Do not boil.
  15. Remove bay leaf and serve.

Can I make it in a Crock-Pot?

Yah, sure, you betcha! (That's Minnesotan for "Yes.")

Reduce butter to 3 tbsp. Dump all ingredients except butter, flour, and half-and-half or milk in the crock pot. Cook for 8 hours. A few minutes before you're ready to serve, make roux, mix in half-and-half or milk, and mix into soup.

Can I make it in an InstantPot?

For sure! Follow the crock pot instructions and cook on manual, high pressure, for 45 minutes. A few minutes before you're ready to eat, make the roux, mix in half-and-half or milk, and mix into soup.

Naturally grown, hand-harvested Minnesota wild rice. Note the long grains, medium-brown color, and irregular lengths.

Naturally grown, hand-harvested Minnesota wild rice. Note the long grains, medium-brown color, and irregular lengths.

What's the Difference Between Naturally Grown and Cultivated Wild Rice?

Read the package carefully. The best is still the original: naturally grown (often labeled “lake or stream grown”), hand-harvested wild rice.

Avoid cultivated “wild” rice (“paddy” wild rice), which most grocery stores carry. Never mind the contradiction embedded in its name. Cultivated rice tastes bland and takes nearly an hour to cook.

Hand-harvesting wild rice grown in lakes or streams requires many hours of manual labor. It can’t be grown on a large-scale commercial farm because the mechanical harvesters would damage the rice beds and shatter the seed heads.

So where does cultivated “wild” rice come from? In the sixties, ag scientists (aka, magicians) at the University of Minnesota developed a strain with shatter-resistant kernels. Unfortunately, it also takes longer for the water to soften up that tough outer layer, which is why the cook time is so long, and the thicker, tougher bran makes the rice less tasty. (There’s a reason why “bran” sounds like “bland.”)

Also, the traditional Native American process scarifies the rice—scratches the outer layer of the bran, which lets the kernel absorb water more quickly while cooking. That’s why it cooks in only 15-20 minutes.

Cultivated rice is processed by rubber rollers, which don't scarify the grains, so they take longer to cook. Some Native American brands also don't scarify it. That's why you should read the label for cook times.

Where Can I Buy Naturally Grown, Hand-Harvested Wild Rice?

I buy directly from the Ojibwe or Dakota bands, not because it tastes different from non-Native-American brands, but because it’s a chance to give the profits back to their community. (I’m not Native American myself, but I respect them.)

If you’re in the upper Midwest, the good stuff easy to find at farmers’ markets or at grocery stores on the reservations. A few grocery chains carry it, too.

Avoid anything labeled "cultivated." I also avoid Red Lake Nation's "Quick Cook" version. It's parboiled. In other words, they cook their cultivated wild rice halfway, then dehydrate it and package it, so it cooks in only twenty minutes. So what they're selling isn't quick-cook. It's half-cooked.

Where Can I Learn More?

  • The Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post. The Minnesota Historical Society runs this museum on the Mille Lacs Ojibwe reservation. Excellent exhibitions show how the Ojibwe people traditionally lived and harvested wild rice. Plus, you can buy traditional goods and books from the Ojibwe and other Native American nations.
  • Grand Portage National Monument. The National Park Service runs this museum on the Grand Portage Ojibwe reservation. It's way up the north shore of Lake Superior, only a few miles from Canada. Grand Portage was historically where fur traders portaged their goods between the Pigeon River and Lake Superior. The reservation is also the home of the Spirit Little Cedar Tree.
  • The Wild Rice Festival in Roseville, in the Twin Cities area. Watch Ojibwe demonstrate the finishing process: drying, parching, hulling, and winnowing. They also have a full schedule of other Ojibwe performances and demonstrations. Don't forget to buy some wild rice!