By/Updated: April 7, 2022 12:24 pm EDT
Every home cook has been here: Dinner is over, the family has been back for seconds (and thirds), but as you’re cleaning up the kitchen you realize you may have prepared more food than intended. No problem, leftovers are always appreciated. What can be more frustrating than having extra food is trying to figure out what to do with it before it spoils. There are some dishes that don’t leave room for a second act, instead requiring you to reheat and eat them just as they were originally served. That can get boring. Fortunately, in some lucky situations, your leftover food can take on a new life. Neutral ingredients like pasta, potatoes, or leftover rice can often be reimagined as a totally new food.
Grains have a long post-cooking shelf life, but you shouldn’t wait until they become old to get a move on. In the case of rice, there are many ways to turn your leftovers into tomorrow’s side dish or main entree. As arguably the most prominent foodstuff in the world, cuisines across the globe use rice in a multitude of delicious ways. The options are endless, but this list will get you started on where to take that pot of rice sitting in your fridge. Most of these ideas are quick to cook and will have you fed in no time. Several are on the adventurous side of the culinary spectrum, and some even offer a sweet treat. Time to get cooking.
Adding spicy seasonings and sauces to your food can turn a humdrum meal into a flavorful experience, but too much can be overwhelming. Not everyone wants to break into a sweat when they’re eating dinner. If you’re craving something to eat that packs a punch on the Scoville scale while still wanting to keep your tastebuds intact, you should consider pairing your dish with something neutral, such as leftover rice.
Capsaicin is the molecule that creates the tingling aroma and taste of spicy foods. Typically, the best things to consume if you’re trying to cut or compliment that burning sensation are oily and fatty foods that can bond with capsaicin. Another option? Starch, such as rice. Leftover rice will have developed a bit more moisture during its time in the fridge which makes it a perfect combination food. Whether it is served alongside stir fry or curry, the starchiness of rice will add a cooling finish to a hot and spicy meal.
Make fried rice
There are very few dishes that are made especially better by leftover ingredients, but fried rice is one of them. In fact, many fried rice recipes actually call for grains that are leftover rather than freshly cooked. By giving your rice time to rest in the refrigerator, you are doing your future dinner wonders and getting closer to that special, crave-worthy crispy texture.
Whether you use shrimp, chicken, or just plain veggies, leftover rice is the ticket to perfect homemade fried rice. You’ll want to have your rice chilled since warm, just-cooked rice releases moisture when you fry it. If you’re looking for an inexpensive at-home meal that tastes similar to your favorite Chinese takeout, look no further than the leftover rice in your fridge.
Stir the rice into a soup
Whether you’re making it from Granny’s special family recipe or as a way to clean out the produce crisper, soup is never a bad idea. A hot bowlful will always come in handy when you’re hungry, and it is an easy-to-make option for both the new home cook and the seasoned chef. Best of all, soup is incredibly versatile in terms of style and ingredients. There are as many soups as there are people in the world. No matter what type of soup fan you are, there’s one thing that most can agree on: A heartier soup means a better soup.
This is where your leftover rice comes in. Need something to warm your stomach and your soul? Chicken and rice soup will do the trick. Looking for something full of bold flavors? Serve a scoop of those day-old grains rice right into a bowl of steaming chicken and sausage gumbo. In addition to filling out meat-based soups, rice can add protein and substance to your veggie and vegan stylings. Add some rice to almost any soup, your tastebuds will thank you.
Serve the rice as a sweet dessert
If a pot of leftover rice doesn’t immediately scream “dessert potential,” then you may be looking at it wrong. In terms of sweet treats that are easy to make at home, there is one in particular that tops the list and it certainly involves those leftover grains from last night. Rice pudding is a simple snack that makes the most out of your previous cooking efforts without requiring much more.
When it comes to the process of making rice pudding, there are few things that can actually go wrong and most of the ingredients are probably already in your kitchen. A pot of cream, as much (or as little) sugar as you like, a touch of cinnamon, and bon appétit: Your family might think you’re on your way to wearing a chef’s hat. Plus, your homemade rice pudding is certain to be healthier and less wasteful than plastic single-serve cups from the store.
Use leftover rice to make a creamy risotto
In Italy, there is a saying about where you cook your food. It goes like this, “La cucina piccola fa la casa grande” or, “The small kitchen makes the house big.” What it means is that a packed kitchen brings more people together, and more opportunities to cook and spend time with the ones you love. It’s a charming saying, but sometimes what a small kitchen really means is limited space for leftovers, such as a pot of rice. In that case, there is more Italian wisdom for you to consider: cook it into risotto.
Outside of Italy, it’s common to find pre-cooked risotto sold among boxed foods like instant mashed potatoes or mac and cheese. Eating risotto like that in Italy might get you banned from the country. All jokes (warnings?) aside, this creamy dish is the perfect way to reuse old rice. Doing so can be a simple, out-of-the-box solution for a quick dinner. Mix your remaining rice with some herbs, stock, and a touch of butter, then serve your risotto as a main dish or a delectable side. Do the Italians proud.
Fill a burrito
Italian is far from being the only cuisine that has creative uses for leftover rice. Tex-Mex, the Americanized version of Mexican food, offers plenty of suggestions for delicious ways to use up your previously cooked grains. Filling a burrito with rice is perhaps not the mmost authentic move when it comes to recreating cuisines from south of the border, but it is a crafty, tasty solution for your leftovers.
Try reheating rice by steaming it with some chopped-up cilantro prior to filling your burrito. You’ll come out with a burrito base that is similar to what you might order at Chipotle, only without having to pay big bucks for a substantial meal. Using that leftover rice to fill your rolls is what makes a Mission-style burrito, which is the large, hefty kind that will fill you up for a whole day. In vegan burritos, rice will make the perfect complement to beans and veggies. It also can add volume to a scrambled egg and cheese burrito. That’s a fast morning meal that won’t quickly leave you hungry.
Turn leftover rice into an Italian appetizer
In addition to the simple sophistication of risottos, Italians have other excellent uses for pre-prepped rice, and these dishes are cooked in a way most Americans are very familiar with. Deep-fried rice balls are common street foods in Italy. There are several, distinct styles for cooking these crispy foods but no matter which one you try, your leftover rice will have never tasted so good.
Two of the most common fried rice balls are known as suppli and arancini. Suppli is often found in the narrow alleyways of Rome and is a bit simpler than arancini (via Eat and Walk Italy). It is also smaller. In the center of suppli is a lump of mozzarella, which is then tightly wrapped in a ball of rice. Rolled into flour, and then dumped into oil, suppli is like a Meditteranean version of a mozzarella stick.
For making arancini, food company Mama Napoli Foods says the process is similar, but the filling is different. Arancini still has cheese and rice, but it also includes a number of other ingredients, and the components often depend on the cook. From ground meat to prosciutto to vegetables, arancini comes in many styles, and only one flavor: delicious.
Craft some rice cakes
Frying rice is a simple way to reinvent your leftovers, but if you are looking to get a bit more creative, rice cakes are the thing to try. Many cultures utilize the carbohydrate attributes of rice for flour which then becomes bread, crackers, or in some cases, cakes. Rice flour is frequently used in gluten-free baking too. Turning rice into flour is a big process, but there are a few techniques out there that work off of the concept of rice flour without requiring you to have a grain mill at your disposal.
In Indian food, a common use for rice is called idli. This dish is a softly steamed rice cake that typically comes topped with chutney and is served at breakfast time. In-depth, authentic idli recipes call for a bit of experimenting with fermentation, but the results are worthy of the adventure (via World Traveling Chef). There are also quick recipes that call for blending pre-cooked rice into a paste that can then be formed into the traditional shape of idli. Making this soft cake will likely take the most effort of any leftover rice recipe, so come to the kitchen prepared to do some work.
Pan fry crispy rice fritters
from my point of view/Shutterstock
South Asian cuisine has more ways to use leftover rice than just cooking them into soft cakes. In fact, there are some regionally common dishes from the area that offer a textural contrast to idli. They also give the crunchy street foods of Italy a run for their money.
Pakora is one particular dish that’ll change your rice into something you can sink your teeth into. These crispy fritters are an Indian dish that typically calls for a variety of chopped vegetables to be mixed together with flour before being pan-fried in oil (via Encyclopedia Brittanica). By combining recipes for pakora with the techniques used for cooking suppli or arancini, you can leverage your leftover rice as a bonding agent, getting a crusty fritter that’s dippable and delectable. Season it with the rich and complex Garam spices, and you’ll have a new favorite dinner side dish in no time.
Let leftover rice shine with a few additions
When it comes down to it, rice is the type of ingredient that is comfortable to use. It is a known quantity in the kitchen, but this pedestrian quality actually has a big upside. Because rice is so ordinary, it is easily transformed into the star of another dish.
A great place to start is with mujadara. This dish has origins in Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria (via MasterClass). Combined with lentils, it is a protein-packed plate that calls for caramelized onions and a large appetite. It can be served hot or chilled. The seasoning combination of cumin and coriander will warm you up however you choose to prepare it.
In addition to mujadara, another sensational thing to try with leftover rice is biryani. IndiaCurrents writes that biryani is a food that has a diverse history as well as a wide range of ingredients. Featuring everything from potatoes, to soaked nuts, to eggs, biryani is can be served with meat but is most often vegetarian. What truly distinguishes it from other rice-based dishes is the intricate spices. It is common to add cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, and/or star anise to plates of biryani. The tastes of this dish are unlike anything else you’re likely to make with leftover rice.
Enjoy leftover rice as a classic comfort food
Sometimes what you’re really craving is approachable comfort food. In those cases, rice stuffing is a great go-to solution for something homey. Gluten-heavy bread stuffings aren’t the only way to cozy up your dinner plate. Fill your favorite produce with a mixture of leftover rice and aromatics (like garlic, shallot, or green onions) for a simple, hearty dish.
When it comes to making rice stuffing, there are a million and one ways you can cook it. To mimic a holiday favorite, mix your rice with diced-up celery and onions, then reheat it with a bit of chicken stock. As holiday foods go, you can also use leftover rice to fill roasted winter squash or pumpkins. In particular, oven-baked acorn squash is made all the better when it’s filled with a rice dressing and minced mushrooms. Another internet-favorite? Rice-stuffed bell peppers, which often call for a creamy melted cheese. Fill a Cornish hen, fill some cabbage rolls, fill your belly with hearty rice stuffing.
Top (or fill) rice with seafood
Rice is a common subsistence food in many cuisines, but in others, it is often the star of the show. Whether in Spain or Japan, sometimes the perceived quality of seafood depends on the quality of the rice that’s supporting it. You may not be cooking up a Michelin Star meal that requires your leftover rice to shine, but there are plenty of dishes out in the world that can be made better by the combination of day-old grains and fresh seafood.
Start with paella. This Spanish meal needs a touch of saffron to be considered traditional (via Encyclopedia Brittanica). After adding that yellow spice to your leftover rice, you can top it with any seafood you choose and have a fully European meal at a moment’s notice. Close your eyes and imagine you’re in Valencia. A meaty white fish, mussels, and shrimp are prime pairings.
If you’ve made a variety of rice that has some sticky qualities to it, why not give homemade sushi a try? The neutral notes of this grain will lend themselves fully to the right piece of tuna or salmon. Don’t put your old rice out to sea, give it a new flair with a simple pairing from the ocean.
Bake a rice frittata
By this point in your life, you’ve probably been made aware that breakfast is an important meal for your day. If you haven’t, here is your notice. The Cleveland Clinic reports that the benefits of a balanced breakfast are genuine; Heart health, energy levels, daily nutritional intake, and even weight management are all things made better and more sustainable by eating a nutritious breakfast. Yet, polls show that Americans are hardly making time for this impactful meal. That can be solved by preparing a big batch breakfast that can last all week, and the frittata certainty fits the bill.
The Italian baked egg dish tends to include a mix of veggies, herbs, and cheese, but if you have leftover rice hanging out in the fridge, that works too. If you take inspiration from the French town of Provence — which is just north of Italy — you’ll find that it’s pretty common to make a version of the frittata with leftover rice (via The New York Times). Enjoy a slice cold or give it a quick reheat for a filling morning meal on the go.
Prepare an Indian breakfast
Though there are many dishes that call for rice kernels as a substantial filler, this grain is only ever a few steps away from taking on an entirely different form. Whether you’re looking for a unique baking experiment or operating a zero-waste kitchen, the Indian breakfast dish akki roti (or rice roti) is a special way to apply the versatility of your pre-cooked grains. Fine Dining Lovers reports that roti is typically unleavened and made from whole wheat, but this version, which is a staple of Karnataka (via Times of India), can be a good place for you to try substituting some day old rice as a base for the flatbread.
Take this suggestion from Recipe Book as an example. White rice is ground up with aromatics ingredients like garlic, ginger, cumin, and chili, then mixed with rice flour as a binder. While Fine Dining Lovers details that the tandoori oven is the traditional way of baking roti, it’s more likely that you’ll have a tawa or similar non-stick pan handy when it comes time to grill the flatbread. Don’t expect roti to get as bubbly as naan bread during this process. Still, with a homemade recipe crafted from recent leftover ingredients, it’s a delicious way to start your day.
Use rice in a creamy casserole
One of the easiest ways to give renewed life to that bowl of last night’s rice is with a creamy casserole. The options are nearly endless here. Seriously, just Google rice casseroles and you’ll come upon pages and pages of recipes offering a world of different combinations. Rice and broccoli. Artichoke, rice, and chicken. Rice and peas. Carrots, beef, and rice. A rice and tuna casserole, a stout union of protein and filling starch that you can eat by the scoopful. Each of these zany (or ordinary) fusions between grain and pantry staples can be your solution to an easy dinner on a busy night.
Don’t be afraid to get creative either — your family’s next favorite meal is yet to be found within those vegetable cans you’ve got lining your shelves. Regardless of what you’re pairing rice with, it’s a good bet the dish will benefit when combined with a bit of cream, milk (alternatives, too), and cheese. Casseroles are meant to be comfort food, after all.
Go meatless with a vegetarian grain loaf
Global consumption of beef is on a downward trajectory, per The New York Times, and causes for this decade-plus drop are varied. For one, many consumers are beginning to pay close attention to how climate change is affecting the food supply, and specifically, the intensive part that beef production plays in the process. Some hungry eaters have begun to move away from meat as the nutritional benefits of a primarily vegetarian diet become clearer. If you are one of the many individuals opting to go meatless, then the utility of leftover rice as a satisfying substitute is something that will suit your new lifestyle.
Meatloaf has a very specific place in America’s weeknight dinner culture, so it’s no surprise that vegetarians and vegans developed many techniques to replace the standard ground beef in the comfort food classic. The lentil loaf is a common grain-swapped dish. And, best of all it benefits from the support of pre-cooked rice. If you find yourself with extra grains on hand, consider baking them into this hardy form, adding a tangy tomato sauce to keep things moist and flavorful. Serve slices of your grain loaf with piping hot Southern sides, or make a toasted melt sandwich.
Add scoops to lettuce wraps
If you’re looking to cut down on the carbs, consider a crisp lettuce wrap. Options are endless, with fillings covering everything from meats and vegetables to cheesse and nuts. Adding leftover rice to the mix will buff out your wrap even more while helping to cut down food waste, not to mention the cost of your meal. (The kernels would certainly be a fine addition to our ground pork lettuce wraps recipe.)
One of the best thing about lettuce wraps (besides the colorful produce), is the range of sauces that tend to accompany them. The inclusion of rice only adds to the allure of giving your wrap a dunk in a flavor bath. Think of sushi: Pouring salty dressings over clean, cold rice is a distinct pleasure. But whether saline soy or sweet and spicy — rice complements the entire range of tastes, especially when folded between lush leaves of lettuce.
Get rolling with kimbap
The popular Korean rice roll kimbap may look similar in appearance to Japanese sushi, but the similarities end there. According to The Spruce Eats, kimbap rice is dressed with the toasted nuttiness of sesame oil, while sushi rice which gets a clean tang of a vinegar seasoning. The sauces and complementing ingredients are different too — look out for different types of kimchi in place of soy sauce or wasabi.
Another key difference is the fillings. Rather than going raw, cooked ingredients are standard for kimbap, and you can regularly make or discover rolls with additions like ham, cheese, egg, radishes, and even Spam. Korean BBQ favorites like beef bulgogi are also a hot way to turn your leftovers into a succulent new dinner. Don’t forget the nori to wrap everything up. While fresh rice is preferable, your leftovers will work too. To help soften those grains, simply follow the advice of Foodie Baker, and pan fry your kimbap after giving the roll a dip in beaten egg.
Stuff some dolmas
In Azerbaijan, dolma making is considered a beacon of cultural identity (via UNESCO). However, ChefRDN tells the history of a dish that is widely traveled, and often conflicted. When you start using your leftover rice to create this influential food on the regular, it may become part of your kitchen’s identity as well. The reasons are simple: Dolmas are convenient, easy, and delicious. These are all things that you need to make the most of your day-old grains. Hopefully, the only clash is over who gets to eat the last one.
There shouldn’t be any fight, however: Preparation for dolmas couldn’t be more convenient. According to ChefRDN, the majority of the cooking time for the finger food comes down to boiling the rice — but you’ll already have that covered. Then, all you need are pickled vine leaves (grape leaves are the most common wrapper) and various spices, onions, and garlic. With a quick reheating of that cold bowl in the back of the fridge, finished with a squirt of lemon, you can take your taste buds on an exploration of international food politics and history.
Go sweet or savory with curd rice
If you’re not already making it, curd rice should rank near the top in your personal home-cooking category of easiest things to do with leftover rice. Indian publication The Hindu waxes poetic about the importance of the dish to South Indian cuisine, noting that the centuries-old staple goes by several names and forms. Each variation carries with it the potential to morph from a plain base to a seasoned sensation, and The Hindu even notes that thayir saadham (another name for curd rice), takes its highest form when made from leftovers.
So, what is curd rice? According to MasterClass, it’s a simple combination of cooked rice and plain yogurt. While one can find curd rice served with mango pieces or pomegranate seeds, the flavors of curd rice are normally savory. Minced green chilis, carrots, curry powder, cumin seeds, and even ketchup are among the ingredients you can add. If rice, probiotic yogurt, and a dash of Heinz 57 doesn’t work for you, don’t stress. When using your leftover rice for this dish, you get to decide what flavors to pair.
Kick up the heat with nasi ulam
Indian cuisines offer many ways to use up your pre-cooked rice, but India is far from being the only country in the world where day old grains play a crucial ingredient. To find your next inspiring meal made from leftovers, continue following the map eastward until you land in Malaysia. Here, a traditional dish called nasi ulam will provide you will an excellent outlet for using leftover rice. In fact, this dish required cold grains, per Taste Atlas, so there are few plates as perfectly suited to meet your cooking needs.
Infopedia writes that nasi ulam has spread throughout many Southeast Asian cuisines, as delicious food is known to do. Considering there are over 50 different versions of the dish, it has the potential to take on many different flavors or profiles. As mentioned, nasi ulam is commonly served cold, but it is accompanied by diced and minced ingredients, which can be added to the rice cold or hot. Popular accompaniments range from basil, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves, to hearty pieces of flaked fish or chopped shrimp. One thing that can’t be forgotten is the sambal; this spicy chili paste is a must-have dressing for your cold rice salad. If you want to turn repurpose your rice into a dish with multiple layers of flavor, look no further than nasi ulam.