It sounds so easy, but sometimes it’s not: A pot of rice.
I admit to struggling with this, often bouncing between batches with grains burned on the bottom (and not in the good way a la bibimbap or crispy Persian rice) and others with a gummy, unappealing texture – more often the latter than the former.
Now, I know some people swear by a rice cooker. And if you do, great! But I don’t make rice often enough to justify owning one, nor do I have room for yet another appliance. So the pot it is.
Of course, your ideal rice may be different from my ideal rice – individual grains, aromatic, not soggy and at home under a variety of meals, especially curries and stir-fries. You may like to use a different type of rice, or use it in a different type of dish. It’s all good. I just won’t be able to get into every single possibility here.
If you’re like me, however, and in search of a better all-purpose pot of rice, here are five tips to consider:
1. Understand what you’re looking at in the grocery store. Rice typically is categorized according to shape and size as long-, medium- or short-grain. The sizes refer to how long the grains are in relation to their width, from long and tender to short and rounded. Examples of long-grain rice are basmati, jasmine and Carolina Gold; they are less starchy and cook up better into individual grains. This is what I turn to most, and basmati is my favorite variety for its aromatic but not overpowering flavor.
Medium- and short-grain, which cook up stickier, tend to run into each other in terms of how they’re categorized, but varieties include arborio (used in risotto), bomba (used in paella) and sushi rice. Brown rice is to white rice what whole-wheat flour is to white flour, in that brown rice has not had the outer (brown) bran and germ removed. Other items you’ll see on the shelf: Trendy black rice (an unprocessed version of Japanese sticky rice) and wild rice (not actually rice, but a grass).
2. Play with the ratios of rice to water. Tradition says 2 cups of water to 1 cup of rice. I almost always find this results in rice that is too wet for my taste. I’m more in the camp of 1 2/3 to 1 3/4 cup of water to 1 cup of rice. Your ideal ratio may also depend on the size of your pot and how much rice you’re cooking, especially when it comes to scaling up. As Cook’s Illustrated explains, rice can only absorb so much water, and only so much water will evaporate in cooking. If you try to proportionally scale up the water your rice cooks in, you will likely end up with some mushy rice. (For example, in doubling their rice pilaf recipe, which calls for 1 1/2 cups rice and 2 1/4 cups of water, they ended up using only 3 3/4 cup water rather than 4 1/2 cups.)
3. Rinse your rice. According to “Seductions of Rice: A Cookbook,” by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Artisan, 1998), rinsing rice “means that there is no more loose starch or other powder or coating left on the rice that might gum it up or change the texture of the cooked rice.” Use cold water to rinse the rice until the water runs clear. I do this by putting the rice in a fine-mesh strainer and holding it under the faucet. As soon as the water filtering through is no longer milky-looking, you’re good to go. Set the strainer over a bowl for a few minutes to let any excess water drain.
Some people make a case against rinsing enriched rices, which have been coated with a powder to provide extra nutrients. Alford and Duguid write that “we feel that since in North America we have access to a wide range of vegetables and other foods, the loss is not critical.”
4. Consider toasting the rice. The benefits are twofold. You’ll get fluffy and light rice, plus the addition of some wonderful nutty flavor. Try it with a little butter or olive oil over medium-low to medium heat in the pot before you add the water. If you want to get fancy, you can add some aromatics (garlic, onion) or spices for additional flavor.
5. Pay attention and be patient. Like pasta, you may want to check the doneness of the rice a few minutes before the end of the cook time recommended on the package. Ideally you’ll see little craters on the surface from where the steam has cooked out. You don’t want to vigorously stir, but push a little rice aside and take a look underneath. Is there wet, mushy rice lower down? Then try a piece. The rice may feel done, or it may need a bit more time. Once you’re satisfied, Alford and Duguid recommend letting the rice rest for a bit after it finishes cooking, about 10 to 15 minutes, after briefly lifting the lid to let steam escape. Last step: Fluff with a fork and enjoy.