Why rice paper and wonton wrappers should be staples in your pantry


You may be used to keeping a loaf of bread around for easy impromptu dinners. Or maybe a pack of tortillas. But how about rice paper? Or wonton wrappers?

Both are staples in Asian cooking. Rice paper is just what it sounds like - thin, stiff sheets made primarily from rice, though tapioca starch can be mixed in, too. The most common size is around an 8-inch circle.

Wonton wrappers are also very thin, but the primary ingredient in the dough is wheat. What you're most likely to find in your grocery store's produce section is 3 1/2-inch squares.

They're two very versatile items and can be used in some unexpected ways, too. Here are some ideas for working with them.

- They have a long shelf life. "Rice paper lasts indefinitely," says cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, whose just won a James Beard Award for "The Pho Cookbook." "When I'm gone, they'll still be here." So, yes, stock up on rice paper, because these rounds, which feel almost like plastic when dry, will survive just fine in your pantry. Unopened packs of wonton wrappers can last in your refrigerator for a while; use open ones within about a week. You can also freeze wonton wrappers, wrapped well in plastic and popped in a zip-top bag, for several months. Nguyen suggests freezing them in shorter stacks so you can pull out just what you need.

- Keep them damp but not too wet. Rice paper should be softened briefly in warm water, by gliding them a few times through warm water - bathtub temperature, Nguyen advises. (A shallow dish such as a pie plate is handy for this.) Don't be like me and drop them in the water and leave them there. They will get flimsy and oversaturated, and they'll lose the tacky properties that will help your finished roll stay together. Seriously, just a few seconds. Work with soaking and then rolling one paper at a time.

- Be even more judicious with wonton wrappers. Just use your finger or a pastry brush to moisten the edges of the wrapper before you seal it by folding or sticking two together. Don't go overboard, because, as Nguyen points out, you can always add more water, but you can't take it away.

- Understand how to do the basics. Have you rolled a burrito? Or watched the staff at Chipotle do it? Then you can use rice paper. Nguyen recommends placing a line of filling off center and then bringing the side closer to the filling up and over it. Do one roll, fold in the sides and then roll until all the rice paper has been tucked into the cylinder. Whether you are folding wonton wrappers into, well, wontons, other dumplings or ravioli, make sure you seal by working from the center to the outside, removing air along the way. And don't be afraid to pick up your creation and work with it in your hands, Nguyen says. She thinks it's easier to pinch and seal that way, but that people are timid about overhandling. "It's just a piece of dough," she says. "It's resilient. It's strong."

- Then get creative. Rice paper rolls - often called "summer rolls," though Nguyen isn't a fan of the moniker that she says has no basis in Vietnamese translation - are "a wonderful one-dish meal." Sure you can go traditional with rice noodles and matchstick vegetables. Or you can put whatever you want inside, especially leftovers. Just make sure the ingredients are thin for easy rolling. You can also wrap the papers around fish to cook a neat little package. Wonton wrappers are great stand-ins for Italian pasta in small lasagnas or ravioli. You can press them into muffin tins and bake them into crisp little cups for holding a variety of fillings, or they can be baked with fillings for almost mini-tarts. Use a cookie cutter to stamp out rounds to make pot stickers. Slice them into short noodles for a stir-fry.

- Look to them for make-ahead potential. Fillings for rice paper rolls can be made several days in advance; ditto for dipping sauces. Finished rolls can survive about 3 to 4 hours at room temperature, Nguyen says, separated so they don't stick together and covered so they don't dry out. Wonton fillings and sauces can also last several days in the refrigerator. Finished wontons can survive on the counter about the same length of time as rice paper rolls, resting on parchment dusted with flour or starch and not touching each other. They can also be held in the refrigerator for a few hours. If you want to freeze them, let them freeze first on a baking sheet before placing them in a hard-sided container, since the edges are delicate and can break in the inevitable rummaging that happens in a freezer.

- Turn them into a fun group activity. Nguyen suggests letting guests make their own rolls. She and her husband even compete for who can roll the most beautiful one. Wonton or dumpling parties are convivial as well. Rice papers and wontons as icebreakers? Who knew. "Anything you do with them, they're great group activities," Nguyen says.


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