You might be used to keeping a loaf of bread around for easy, impromptu dinners. Or maybe a pack of tortillas. But how about rice paper and 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. The most common size is an 8-inch round.
Wonton wrappers are also thin, but the primary ingredient in the dough is wheat. What you’re most likely to find in your grocery store’s produce section are packages of 31/2-inch squares.
They’re two versatile items that can be used in unexpected ways. Here are some ideas and tips for working with them:
They have a long shelf life. “Rice paper lasts indefinitely,” says cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, who 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 wrappers, 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 opened ones within about a week. You can freeze wonton wrappers, wrapped well in plastic and popped in a zip-top bag, for up to several months. Nguyen suggests freezing them in short stacks so you can pull out just what you need.
Keep them damp but not too wet. Rice paper wrappers should be softened briefly, 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, then leave them there. They will get flimsy and over-saturated, and they will lose the tacky properties that help your finished spring rolls stay together. Seriously, just a few seconds. Soak and then roll one round of rice paper at a time.
Be even more judicious with wonton wrappers. Wet your fingertip or a pastry brush with water and use it to moisten the edges of the wrapper before sealing. Don’t go overboard with this moistening 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 so? Then you can use rice paper. Nguyen recommends placing a line of filling off-center and then bringing the side close to the filling up and over it. Roll it once, fold in the sides and then roll until all the rice paper has been tucked in to form a cylinder. (Check out her full tutorial here.) 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 says it’s easier to pinch and seal that way, but people can be timid about over-handling. “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 to fill them. 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 (see the Jacques Pepin recipe, below). Wonton wrappers are great stand-ins for Italian pasta in small lasagnas or as ravioli. You can press them into muffin tins and bake them into crisp little cups for holding a variety of fillings, and they can be baked with fillings for almost mini-tarts. Use a cookie cutter to stamp out rounds to make potstickers. 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 for a few 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. For long-term storage, freeze them first (individiually) on a baking sheet before placing them in a hard-sided container, because their 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 produce the most beautiful roll. 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.
Ready to get started? Here are recipe suggestions from our archives.
Vegetarian Summer Rolls. A perfect light meal for a warm day.
Haddock in Rice Paper With Shallot and Soy Sauce. Leave it to Jacques Pepin to come up with a beautiful, simple dish that you’ve probably never stumbled upon before.
Tofu Spring Rolls. The open ends of these rolls show off the filling well.
Mini Lasagna Cups. You won’t be able to resist saucy, baby lasagnas with wonderfully crispy edges, thanks to a muffin tin.
Pork and Ginger Wonton Stir-Fry. This takes the contents of a typical dumpling — pork, ginger and scallions — and turns it inside out by using the wontons as noodles.
More tips from Voraciously