An iconic side dish from the Lowcountry of South Carolina, Charleston red rice has a distinct grain and gets its signature flavor and color from bacon and tomato paste. Slightly sweet with a little kick, this side dish goes with nearly any Southern entree!
Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, there are a few foods I’ve known my whole life that are unique to the area. Going to Bessingers BBQ for a Sunday brunch of cornbread, pulled pork and mustard-based BBQ sauce, making a Lowcountry boil with freshly-caught shrimp and crabs, and enjoying the absolute creamiest bowl of shrimp and grits at The Old Post Office restaurant on Edisto Island are all fond (and delicious) memories from my childhood.
But ever-present alongside all those delicious entrees, quietly out of the spotlight, there was always Charleston red rice.
Red rice is one of the most ubiquitous Charleston-specific dishes you’ll find at local restaurants (and, I’d think, hardly anywhere else) apart from shrimp and grits. It’s a staple side dish of rice cooked in bacon grease and tomato paste, which gives it its signature flavor and color. As my mom described it, it’s a little sweet (mostly from the tomato paste) and a little spicy, but not spicy enough to overwhelm the sweet that comes from the tomato paste.I like it best when it has little bits of smoked sausage in it, along with bell peppers and onions.
While you can put more “stuff” in the rice if you’d like, it’s best to think of the sausage, bacon, and veggies as flavoring for the rice rather than the main focus. The rice itself is the heart of the dish.
That’s why it took me so long to perfect this recipe. Rice isn’t hard to make so it tastes good, but if you are trying to go for a specific outcome or texture, it can be the most finicky thing in the world! (See my recipe for Weeknight Skillet Chicken and Chorizo Paella — It’s crazy delicious and easy but I never could get a consistent socarrat — the crusty bits — in a cast iron pan!)
When I think of my ideal Charleston red rice, the grains of rice are all separate, and not at all sticky.
Years ago I made a Charleston red rice-inspired dish that contained basically the same ingredients, but had a texture more like jambalaya. It was so good and I never got tired of the leftovers, but I could never feel confident calling it Charleston red rice because it was more sticky or saucy than the rice I enjoyed at various Charleston restaurants.
I kind of forgot about trying to make it for a while until recently when I wanted to make some rice to accompany blackened salmon on the grill. I’d been making garlic herb rice as my go-to but I felt like red rice would go perfectly with a nice fillet of blackened fish. I scrounged up what I had on hand in the pantry and gave a half-hearted attempt at Charleston red rice in the rice cooker.
It was terrible. It was way too sticky and way too sweet. I couldn’t even eat it all and we ended up throwing out the leftovers.
But it rekindled my desire to make a good, authentic Charleston red rice at home. So I tested relentlessly until I got it right.
First I got the flavor down, and it was divine. My husband and I devoured it.
It was stickier than I wanted, but maybe it could be sticky? Maybe having utterly separate grains of rice was just a personal preference and not requisite for making an authentic Charleston red rice.
I tried to reason myself into calling the recipe good enough. Then I called my mom.
“One more thing,” I said to her before we wrapped up our conversation. “Describe to me your perfect Charleston red rice.”
“DRY,” she said immediately and emphatically. The texture was the main thing she described to me. And at that first reply I knew I had to keep testing.
How to make rice not sticky
Since the texture I, and apparently my mother, associate with red rice is practically like the dry, crumbly grains you get with leftover white rice, I considered using that as a base for the recipe. But I knew it never would have been made that way historically, and I also didn’t want you to have to wait to chill rice before sautéing it in a pan like Asian fried rice. You need that red rice NOW, not tomorrow!
So I looked up everything I could find on how to make dry rice — every way I could make it less sticky and more separate. I tried it all. I pulled out all the stops. And it was perfect.
It came down to seven (yes, seven!) things:
1. Use the right kind of rice.
A long grain rice will be the best for producing rice that’s not sticky, rather than a medium or short grain rice (perfect for making paella) or something like arborio rice, which would be used for risotto, the ultimate creamy rice. An aromatic rice like jasmine or basmati will have more distinct grains too, but would be inaccurate to use for Charleston red rice.
You can use either long grain rice for this recipe or Carolina Gold rice. For me, the long grain rice produced a drier end result but the Carolina Gold would be more authentic, since it’s the heritage grain that would have been grown here in the antebellum period when Charleston red rice was originally made. Carolina Gold is notoriously finicky though, with chameleon-like properties that allow it to be used for separate or sticky purposes.
I can find Carolina Gold rice at my local grocery stores but if you’re out of the region you can either order it on Amazon or from Anson Mills, a company that specializes in growing heritage crops of rice, corn, and other grains.
2. Rinse the uncooked rice. A LOT.
This removes excess loose starch that comes from uncooked grains of rice colliding with each other. Loose starch mixed with water makes a paste. Have you ever made flour paste or used cornstarch as a thickener? Basically the same thing happens with rice. So removing the excess starch removes that source of stickiness.
I rinse it by putting the dry rice in a bowl, covering with about an inch of cool water, and swirling it gently with my hand. Then strain in a fine mesh sieve and return the rice to the bowl. Repeat at least 3 more times until the water is mostly clear when swirling. In my experience, I needed about four rinses for long grain white rice and six for Carolina Gold rice.
The images below are of each rinse of Carolina Gold rice, after swirling with my hand. Notice you only start to be able to see the difference between the water and the rice after the third rinse, and you can only really see the rice after the 6th rinse. It’s like a photograph slowly coming into focus.
3. Sauté the uncooked rice in the bacon grease with the veggies for a couple minutes.
Sautéing the dry rice caramelizes any exterior starch remaining and toasts the grains a little for a more pilaf-style rice, which tends to be more separate. It also infuses the rice with flavor before you even add the liquid. And the fat helps keep the grains separate too, like adding a splash of olive oil to your pasta water.
4. Reduce the amount of added liquid.
If you read the back of the bag, long grain rice calls for a 1:2 ratio of rice to water. Not counting any added moisture from the tomato paste, this recipe ended up with a 2:3 ratio of rice to water. So, for 1 1/2 cups of rice, I’m using 2 1/4 cups of water instead of 3 cups (plus the additional moisture you get from the tomato paste).
You want just enough liquid so that the rice is fully cooked through when it’s all absorbed, and no more.
5. Agitate the rice as minimally as possible.
Okay, so I do agitate the rice when I’m sautéing it, but after adding the water you just want to give it enough of a stir so that it’s not just sitting on top of the rice. Loose exterior starch comes from grains of rice knocking against each other in the bag or pot. And loose exterior starch is what makes a sticky paste gluing your rice together instead of a fluffy rice with individual, distinct grains.
This is also why you shouldn’t stir the rice while it’s cooking, and why you want to fluff your rice with a fork rather than stirring with a spoon at the end.
6. Cook it in the oven rather than on the stovetop or in a rice cooker.
The oven is a very dry environment for cooking that actively vents out steam, versus the moist environment of stovetop cooking.
7. Let the rice rest after cooking before you fluff it.
Much like letting a steak or chicken fillet rest after you cook it, letting rice rest before fluffing it allows the moisture to evenly redistribute throughout the grains of rice. And especially if you’re using a using a reduced amount of liquid, that redistribution period ensures your rice will be evenly cooked rather than having crunchy centers.
If you’re using an oven-safe lid instead of foil to cover your pan, you can briefly remove the lid, lay a clean dish towel over the top, and replace the lid during the rest period. That lets any excess steam get absorbed into the dish towel rather than raining back down into your rice from the condensation that forms.
What to serve with Charleston red rice
Okay, so now you have your perfect red rice. Delicious and bacony, sweet from tomato paste and a touch of sugar, and with a kick from Frank’s red hot sauce, and with distinct grains and a lovely crusty bit from where the rice met the pan. So what do you serve it with?
Pair it with one of my favorite Southern entrees for a perfect Lowcountry dinner!
- Crispy-skinned Blackened Salmon
- Slow-Cooker Root Beer Pulled Pork with Mustard-based South Carolina BBQ Sauce
Try these other Charleston and Southern classics
- Benne wafers: Charleston’s classic crispy sesame cookies
- Southern Pimento Cheese
- Classic Southern Fried Okra with Cornmeal
- Easy Homemade Southern Cornbread Muffins
- 1 1/2 cups long grain rice preferably Carolina Gold rice
- 3 slices thick cut bacon
- 1/2 medium yellow onion diced small, about 1/2 cup
- 1/2 green bell pepper diced small, about 1/2 cup
- 6 oz beef smoked sausage diced small
- 6 tbsp tomato paste half a 6-oz can, or 1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp
- 1 1/2 tsp granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp onion powder
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 2 1/4 cups water
- 1 1/2 tbsp Frank's red hot
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Rinse the rice by putting the rice in a medium bowl and covering with an inch of cool water. Gently swirl the rice in the water with a clean hand. Drain in a fine mesh sieve and return rice to the bowl. Repeat until water is mostly clear, a total of about 4-6 times (In my experience, regular long-grain rice required about 4 rinses while Carolina gold rice required 6). On the final rinse, leave the rice in the fine mesh sieve over the bowl so it can continue draining any excess water while you're cooking the bacon, veggies, and sausage.
- In a large cast iron skillet, cook bacon over medium heat. Remove bacon and drain on paper towel, leaving the bacon grease in the skillet.
- Add finely diced onion, bell pepper, and smoked sausage to the pan with the bacon grease. Sauté about 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
- Add tomato paste, sugar, garlic powder, onion powder, kosher salt, and pepper to the skillet and stir until everything is evenly coated in the tomato paste and spices.
- Add uncooked rice to the mixture and stir until well coated. Continue cooking the dry rice over medium heat for about 3-4 minutes.
- Add the water and Frank's Red Hot to the rice mixture, stir to combine, and bring to a boil. Turn off heat and crumble bacon into the pan.
- Cover skillet with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes before removing the foil.
- Fluff rice with a fork and enjoy as a side dish with your favorite Southern entree!