Wild rice, contrary to the name, is not actually a member of the rice family, although it is a grain producing grass. Native to North America, this grain can still be found growing wild in the ponds and lakes of Wisconsin, as well as in neighboring states. Like rice, wild rice grows in water, although it tends to require much deeper water resources. The two grains also have taste similarities, both tasting much more nutty with the outer husk left on. The similarities between the two grains end here, however.
Unlike conventional rice, wild rice is very difficult to grow commercially. In many cases, it is still painstakingly harvested from boats in the open water, using beating sticks to knock the mature grains into holding containers. Like most grains in their natural state, wild rice matures at different times to ensure the widest spread of seeds and the least probability of damage and seed loss. As a result, fully mature grains can shatter and be lost at the bottom of the lake while other seeds are still developing.
This grain is notoriously difficult to harvest because the stalks are so delicate that motorized boats and many types of harvesting equipment cannot be used. The root system of the grass is fragile and easy to dislodge, which causes the stalks to float to the bottom, rendering the seeds inaccessible to harvesters. Harvesting wild rice requires patience and handwork, which do not necessarily lend themselves to large scale commercial production. As a result of the difficult harvest process, this grain is expensive and often difficult to obtain.
An extremely delicate grass, wild rice is quite sensitive to changes in environment. With the widespread use of dams in the United States, many areas where it formerly grew have not been able to sustain their former populations of the tasty and nutritious grain. Not only is this a pity for consumers who enjoy the crop, but many native peoples hold the grain in high esteem.
Like other grains, wild rice must be winnowed to separate the chaff from the grain. It is harvested green, and after being separated, it may be set out to dry on trays that can be frequently tossed to prevent rot and fungus or parched in a cast iron kettle. Finally, it is threshed to remove the inedible outer hull. This food has a long cooking time, requiring up to 50 minutes.
A commercial, hybrid version of wild rice has been created by the University of Minnesota. This version is what is often found in grocery stores, and is also known as "paddy rice" since it is grown in paddies similar to how brown rice is grown. Many people find that hybridized rice has a different taste from that grown in the wild.