I know they both mean rice but is there a difference between the two? Perhaps one is more specific or am I typing them wrong? Also, can ごはん be used to write rice or is one of the other versions more common? I am a beginner in learning Japanese and just unsure of the proper ways to write the words.
I will break down your question:
- What is the difference between ご飯 and 御飯 ?
The difference is purely orthographic. You will see this
御 (pronounced お or ご) used to make a word more "polite". The actual reason is more complex, but suffice to say it does not carry a proper meaning. Examples include 御茶｛おちゃ｝, 御利用｛ごりよう｝. In the case of ご飯, this alternative spelling is less frequent.
- What does ご飯 mean ?
You are right in the sense that ご飯 refers to white rice, but its meaning is at the same time broader and narrower. It can only refer to white, cooked rice. If you want to talk about the plant/grain, you will need to use 米｛こめ｝. Examples include 玄米｛げんまい｝, the brown rice and 米粉｛こめこ｝, rice flour. On the other hand, ご飯 has become a word that encompasses the meaning of meal, such as 朝｛あさ｝ご飯, breakfast.
As a remark, you will encounter the same kanji in other dish names and cooking utensils, notably 炒飯｛チャーハン｝, fried rice of Chinese origin.
御飯、ご飯、ごはん、ゴハン mean "rice" and "meal", and are read "gohan". The only difference between 御飯 and ご飯 is whether ご is written in kanji or not.
And 御飯 is not common.
ご飯 and ごはん are common.
ゴハン is rarely used.
In addition, kanji which are difficult to remember and easy to misread are commonly written in hiragana.