Cooking rice is not rocket science and requires little effort. But cooking it perfectly requires some basic rules and common sense.
Rice is deeply ingrained in my psyche, and I cannot imagine a life without it. Maybe it is because I consider rice, especially with yogurt, the ultimate comfort food, and shamelessly have it any time of day every day. Or maybe it’s because making rice was one of my first kitchen chores.
My mom would give me a steel bowl with grains that I had to rinse repeatedly until the water finally changed from cloudy white to clear. Next I would stick the four fingers (not the thumb) of my right hand into the rice and fill the bowl with water until it reached the joint closest to the palm on my index finger. The bowl then was ready to be placed in the pressure cooker. It was always the same bowl with the same amount of rice.
So when the low-carb cops and Ketonians begin their sanctimonious talk about rice’s empty calories, I subconsciously give an eye roll, thinking how it is a staple in many parts of the world. There are more than 40,000 varieties of rice today and the white, brown, red and black (which actually is deep purple) kernels can be classified into three categories—long-grain, short-grain and medium-grain.
It is not the actual length of the rice that determines its category, explains Christopher Kimball, founder and president of Milk Street. It is the ratio between its length and width.
The length of long-grain rice is about five times the width; when cooked the grains are distinctly loose, fluffy and don’t stick together. The basmati, Texmati and jasmine grains remain firm and dry even after they are cooked, making them perfect for preparing biryani, pilaf, mujadarrah, tahdig, jambalaya and rice salads.
Medium-grain rice is three times as long as it is wide. The grains are noticeably less fluffy than the long-grain ones and less sticky than short-grain. This category includes Valencia and bomba, which are typically used to make paella; ponni, a full-boiled Indian rice; and carnaroli, which is favored for any type of risotto.
The short-grain rice is twice as long as it is wide and gets sticky and clumpy when cooked. The aromatic seeraga samba and ambemohar, which cook quickly, belong in this category. Short grains also are commonly used for sushi, which holds up because of the stickiness.
Being a rice aficionado, I have several varieties in my pantry and four tried-and-true devices that I use interchangeably depending on the quantity needed, time restrictions and how lazy I feel.
I pull out my sturdy, everyday steel pot when I want to make just a small amount of basic plain rice. I turn to my faithful 30-year-old Hitachi automatic cooker, which announces the rice is done with a delightful chime, when I am multitasking in the kitchen or don’t have the time to babysit it. I lean on my Instant Pot when I cook rice with meats or dried beans and want it to be done, well, instantly.
I treasure my fourth device, an old-fashioned Indian pressure cooker that is a gift from my parents. It whistles loudly whenever it needs to let off steam and the weighted pressure regulator on the vent pipe would pop up and then sit back down. The cooking time is calculated by the number of whistles, and it works like a charm. It takes three whistles to cook chicken, four for rice and five for lentils.
Although I never consider it a project, rice can be a tricky thing to cook and I have had some disasters—undercooked, overcooked, gummy and burned.
“Honestly, I think rice is one of the most difficult things to cook even though it has just two ingredients and one of them is water,” says Julia Collin Davison, executive editorial director and host of the TV shows, “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country.” “The difference gets dramatic if you add extra water or don’t rinse the rice or it is bubbling too hard.”
The proportion of water to rice has a big impact on whether the dish is a hit or miss. Typically the ratio is one cup of rice to two cups of water but that changes according to the type of rice, the device it is cooked in and how much other liquid is required in the recipe.
For those who cook rice once in a while, a good sturdy pot or saucepan will suffice. Start off by bringing the water to a boil, add the rice and return to a boil. Then turn the heat down to a simmer and cover the pot, letting the rice cook for 15 to 18 minutes. Keep in mind that if it boils too hard, the rice will break up.
“When using a saucepan, you need to know when to turn the heat off,” Kimball says.
If you are using an automatic rice cooker, follow the device’s directions using cup measurements and the lines along the side of the bowl. There is less involvement with the cooking process and no guesswork whatsoever, but the rice comes out perfectly time and time again.
The Instant Pot also is a foolproof and a hands-off way of making rice. Blogger-author Ashley Singh Thomas of Shadyside, who has more than 230,000 followers on her Facebook page, “Instant Pot for Indian Food,” swears by it. Especially when it comes to time-consuming dishes like the biryani, usually made with basmati rice and cooked with meats, shrimp, eggs or vegetables.
She has watched family members spending half the day, pulling out several pots and pans to make the rice dish. But with an IP she makes it in a fraction of the time using just one pot.
“I know it sounds too good to be true, but it’s true,” she says. “You can make biryani, a dish typically reserved for special occasions, on a busy weeknight. It’s incredible.”
She always soaks the rice for about 15 minutes prior to placing in the IP as she finds that the grains don’t break and are less mushy and sticky when cooked.
Whatever the device might be, Davison advocates some basic tips when cooking rice, starting at the very beginning:
- When shopping for rice, don’t go by just the price and quantity. Understand the varieties have different flavors and textures.
- It is important to rinse rice well before it is cooked. Always. Rice is sometimes dried outdoors and rinsing gets rid of the dirt. Also, the grains tend to rub against one another in the sack during transport. This creates a powdery surface starch that will cause rice to stick when cooked if the grains are not rinsed in the beginning.
“It is all right for risotto or rice pudding,” she says, but not for a biryani or a rice dish whose grains should be loose and fluffy.
- Choose a good-sized pot, especially when other things are being tossed in such as meats and vegetables. You always need extra head room that is more than you think when the rice boils, she says.
Most importantly, Davison says, “don’t get intimidated by rice.”