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Zatarains Brand Story

The Dirt on Dirty Rice

What is dirty rice?

It may not have the most appealing name, but dirty rice more than makes up for the moniker with flavor. A staple dish in homes across South Louisiana, dirty rice is essentially rice blended with browned and finely chopped or ground meat, seasoned vegetables and spices.

It’s simple food, but like so many of our beloved Creole and Cajun dishes, it’s not that simple. There are roughly as many variations of dirty rice as there are people who make dirty rice. It might seem confusing at first, but this is actually one of the great things about it. You can stick to a recipe you and your family love, or you can improvise, using ingredients you have on hand, and turn out something new every time you make it.

Table of Contents

  1. Why is it called “dirty rice”?
  2. How do I make dirty rice?
  3. Where did dirty rice come from?
  4. Other questions
    1. What kind of rice should I use?
    2. What goes with dirty rice?
    3. I heard dirty rice is made with liver. I don’t like liver. Is there another way to make it?
    4. Is dirty rice the same thing as Cajun rice?
    5. What is the difference between New Orleans dirty rice and other kinds (like Mexican, Cuban, Jamaican or Spanish)?
    6. Is there a vegetarian dirty rice?
    7. Can you make dirty rice without the rice?
    8. Are you supposed to make dirty rice for a specific time of year or holiday?


Why is it called "dirty rice"?

The name comes from the appearance of the dish. The inclusion of all those tiny bits of browned meat, spices and vegetables makes the rice look dirty. Look at a bowl of rice next to a bowl of dirty rice, and you’ll quickly understand. Take a bite of each, and you’ll see that “dirty” isn’t always a bad thing.


How do I make dirty rice?

Historically, dirty rice was made with leftover meats. The giblets from a chicken is a good example. The chicken would be fried or roasted for a meal, and then the family would get a second meal out of the liver and gizzards by making dirty rice. The giblets are browned in a pan and then chopped or ground and set aside. In the same pan, diced onion is sautéed (or the holy trinity of onion, celery and bell pepper), and then rice is added to the pan along with the reserved meat and water or stock, as well as salt and black pepper, and perhaps a pinch of thyme and cayenne pepper. The rice is simmered until done and, voila! You have dirty rice.

Today, it’s just as common to find dirty rice made with ground beef or pork instead of offal meats like liver and gizzards, but the preparation and the flavor are much the same. Of course, picking up a box of Zatarain’s Dirty Rice Mix and a pound of ground meat is the easiest way to experience the dish.

Where did dirty rice come from?

Dirty rice was a byproduct of South Louisiana’s abundant rice crop, Cajun cooking techniques and home cooks with a lot of mouths to feed and not a lot of money. Rice is plentiful in South Louisiana and inexpensive. It’s also hearty and can serve as the foundation of a satisfying meal at a low cost. So the short answer is that dirty rice, like so many great dishes from around the world, was the product of necessity, of making the best out of the ingredients and cooking techniques you have.


Other questions

What kind of rice should I use?

A standard long- or medium-grain white rice is the most common type used for dirty rice, but feel free to make dirty rice with any kind of rice you have. A lot of people love brown rice best. Different rices will of course yield different final results. For example, jasmine rice will yield a more light and fluffy rice, whereas arborio will give you a heartier texture.

What goes with dirty rice?

A lot of people like to have dirty rice as a side with fried chicken or fried pork chops. That’s a great way to have it, but it’s a good side to serve with virtually anything. And it’s also perfect on its own as an entree dish, along with a side salad.

I heard dirty rice is made with liver. I don’t like liver. Is there another way to make it?

Absolutely. You can make a great dirty rice with ground beef or pork, too. Or most any other kind of meat. Experiment and see how you like it best.

Is dirty rice the same thing as Cajun rice?

In Louisiana, whether it’s called dirty rice, Cajun rice or rice dressing, it’s all the same basic dish, with the small variations you tend to find with any dish depending on who’s cooking it. Our guess is that "Cajun rice" is the result of restaurant owners fearing customers might find the name "dirty rice" off-putting. We respectfully disagree!

What is the difference between New Orleans dirty rice and dishes with the same name in other parts of the world?

In many rice-dependent cultures, you’ll find dishes that are comparable to Louisiana’s dirty rice. The differences are just what you’d expect – in the other things that go into the dish, besides the rice. In Jamaica, you may find a dirty rice that incorporates coconut milk and jerk-style spices. Dirty rice in Mexico includes corn and tomato. In Cuba, arroz congri incorporates black beans, and in Spain, there’s chorizo.

Is there a vegetarian dirty rice?

Yes! Using mushrooms – browned, then chopped fine – in place of meat is a popular way to make dirty rice. Zatarain’s Dirty Rice Mix contains no animal products, so it’s a good way to experiment with your favorite meat substitute (and it’s also very good if you make it with only water and a touch of olive oil).

Can you make dirty rice without the rice?

We’ve heard of people making a faux dirty rice using cauliflower rice. Quite possibly, it’s very good, but we can’t say for sure.

Are you supposed to make dirty rice for a specific time of year or holiday?

While there’s a good chance you’ll find a casserole of dirty rice on the table during virtually any holiday meal, the dish isn’t associated with any particular holiday or season. One variation, dulac dirty rice, features sweet raisins, savory bacon and pecans and is a holiday favorite on many tables in South Louisiana.

That said, dirty rice is a year-round favorite.