How to cook rice perfectly

Rookwood, Going Postal
RuocaledLicence CC BY 2.0

I know. I know. After covering a multitude of different exotic meals that one can rustle up in the kitchen, it seems a real anticlimax to compose an article on how to cook pretty much the most popular dish in the whole world. After all, all you need do is chuck the aforementioned grain in some boiling water for 10 minutes or so, drain, then serve. If that were indeed the case, the global divorce rate in the West would fall by a considerable margin, as probably would incidents of spousal abuse. Soggy, glutinous rice has probably caused more marital conflict than badly ironed shirts, poorly seasoned sandwiches or a mysterious, repetitive bout of headaches that excuse carnal relations. Such blatant disrespect for Oryza sativa, in some countries at least, could quite easily lead to rioting or indeed a prison sentence.

I know you can get boil in the bag and microwave rice. If you follow the instructions to the letter, you will end up with an edible dish at an extreme cost to your culinary ability. There is nothing quite as satisfying as perfectly cooking a portion of white rice, and if you don’t believe me, ask someone who can’t. Even the most accomplished chefs struggle with rice, and the shame in admitting such a shortcoming is so overpowering, it is rarely, if ever, admitted. It took me a few years to discover the secrets, and I have often cooked for 20 people or more at a time, so the kitchen holds few terrors for me. If you look online, every chef has their own “Secret” method. I will document two of mine here, the absorption method and the par boil / steaming method. The others I will touch on, and explain why they don’t give the best results. All of these are applicable to Basmati rice. Brown rice, American long grain rice and Japanese (sticky rice) are totally different beasts, so the water quantities and cooking times will be vastly different. Don’t be fooled by such old wives tales about adding oil, lemon or other additives, or needlessly washing and rinsing your rice. While some of these techniques are used in the “Professional” method, they generally just don’t work. I regularly use Aldi basmati rice, and these methods work perfectly. If you really want sumptuous, long, fluffy basmati rice, try the last method with Tilda or a high quality aged basmati.

Standard boiled rice

This is the simplest method. In a very large pan, add your rice, some salt and upwards of 4 times the volume of rice with water, the more the better. When cooking, there must be enough room for the rice to move about freely. Bring to boil, reduce to a simmer and when the rice is cooked, drain and serve. May be performed with or without a lid. Provided you are willing to babysit the rice for the entire cooking time, sampling the grains regularly to ensure they are not overcooked, this will give you a passable 6/10 rice that is slightly sticky. Depending on the quality, brand and variety of rice, this will take between 8-40 minutes. Just because it took 10 minutes on Friday doesn’t mean it will take 10 minutes on Tuesday with a different brand. The only way you can be sure with this method is to test the wretched stuff all the way through the cooking process. As with all rice recipes, you need to take into account ambient temperature, altitude, the condition of the rice (cheap and nasty, average, premium, gourmet), the current moon phase and the mood of your significant other as these will affect the final dish. If you like gambling, decant the rice and water into a sieve and rinse with boiling water. One day the rice will be perfect, fluffy and separate. On another, this action will cause the rice to overcook sufficiently to congeal into a form akin to a dead maggot cemetery. Edible, yes, a culinary masterpiece, no.

The rice steamer method

After many failed attempts at the previous method, many are conned into thinking that technology will be their saviour. You fool. Rice can sense fear, and the minute you purchase a dedicated rice steamer, the grain will reveal such psychopathic tendencies that it will convince you that inanimate objects do indeed have a soul. You have now entered a special circle in Hell, and I can guarantee that no matter what brand of rice you purchase, it will be slandering your character, sexual prowess and personal integrity to all who will listen in the rice and starch community. Even the potatoes will be amused, and an amused potato is a sight to behold, especially when surrounded by an organic carrot or two. Depending on how much dosh you have been conned out of, the mirth will be directly proportional to the amount you have spent. A £25 version from Aldi will probably raise an eyebrow and possibly a slight giggle, a £500 specialist imported Japanese rice cooker will cause the aforementioned vegetables to literally split their sides with mirth. Whether you buy one with a non-stick inner pan or not is irrelevant. Whether you follow the badly translated instructions or not, I can pretty much guarantee you that while the top 80% of the rice will be perfectly cooked, the remaining 20% will be a sticky, congealed mass, stuck to the bottom of the pan or possibly forming a thin, transparent crust across the bottom. The Persians consider this a delicacy, whilst we in the Western world consider this a source of chewy protein akin to that tempting, hanging bit of skin one inevitably finds surrounding the edge of the thumbnail. Sadly, the only cure I have found for this problem is revealed in the last section, and if you have blown your hard earned cash on an imported rice cooker with an integral hinged lid, the joke really is on you, as that method will not work.

The absorption method

For most with a limited budget, this will be the easiest method to get passable rice, but there are a few caveats one must observe. You will require a pan with a tight fitting, glass lid with the smallest possible vent hole. No other pan will do. Forget the expensive French cast iron saucepans with a integral pouring spout. Any opaque lid is also an immediate fail. Really, you want a large, deep saucepan rather than a wider, shallower, skillet, but it should work with that as well. The material is not really that important, stainless steel, non-stick, copper, it doesn’t really matter but I have achieved the best results with a heavy, anodised, non-stick pan. The essential feature is that not only must the steam never be allowed to escape, but you can monitor the progress of the rice without lifting the lid. The other variable is the brand of rice you use, I find this method works extremely well with both the cheap Aldi basmati rice and the more expensive Tilda variety. You may have to try it a couple of times to get the hang of it and the exact timings, but it is pretty much foolproof. While it does not result in as professional results as revealed the final method, it is a great compromise at 8/10 for white rice. The more exotic varieties of rice (Black, brown etc.), require either a proper rice steamer or the boiled method as they are much denser.

For 4 servings, get a standard mug of your choice. I have found my GP mug an ideal capacity for this, although you may use another recepticle of similar dimensions and capacity. Fill to the brim with rice, and tip into the aforementioned pan. Add two recepticles of water, a teaspoon of salt, and bring to a boil over a high heat either covered or uncovered. You are going to teach this rice a lesson it will never forget, so don’t give in to any psychological pressure that tries to manipulate, undermine or bully you. As soon as it comes to the boil, turn the heat off, cover if necessary, and place on the lowest gas ring on the lowest setting you can achieve. Those pretentious individuals with halogen, induction or electric cookers, you are on your own here to work out the relevant settings. If you own an Aga, good luck. Cooking mythology states that Aga’s have two temperatures, hotter than the centre of Hell, and colder than an industrial walk in freezer. Anyway, as everyone knows, proper chefs only use gas hobs and electric ovens. Now keep a close eye on the rice, and after a few minutes (5-10, depending on heat etc.), as the water evaporates, you will see holes beginning appear in the rice. Keep watching and listening, and as soon as there is no water to be seen or heard bubbling in the pan, just steam, turn the heat off and leave covered for a further 10 minutes. Remove lid, fluff with a fork and serve. The rice should be perfect, not sticky, and if the pan is upturned prior to forking, a perfect cylinder of rice should come out in one piece, without any residue left in the bottom of the pan. If so, you have overdone the heating during the initial phase, so try reducing this by a minute or so or switch to a non-stick pan.

The pilaf method

As above, but fry the dry, measured rice in a little butter or olive oil over a medium heat for a few minutes, stirring constantly, before adding the water. By adding a stock cube of your choice, you can colour and flavor the rice to compliment the rest of your meal.

The microwave method

Please, no. Some may manage this technique successfully, there is even passable pre-packaged microwave rice available if you scour the rice aisle carefully. For your common and garden rice though, you are taking your culinary life in your hands. To start with, all microwaves vary considerably, and secondly, as a matter of sheer pedantry, this is a totally different dish from boiled or steamed rice. Nuked rice, maybe? If this method works for you, all I can say is please drop me an email with next week’s lottery numbers. Either you are very lucky, or I have been particularly unfortunate. Certainly the microwave rice I have encountered in “Ready meals” is a vile and gruesome characture of the properly cooked dish.

The professional method

This method will give you perfect, separate elongated grains of non-sticky basmati rice. You may have to adjust the time for long grain rice, and it does require a lot more effort. You will also need that redundant rice steamer with the free upper steamer attachment you thought you would never use, but you can get away with a colander or sieve resting over a very large pan of boiling water, provided you have a lid to cover and seal this with. Once again, the rice needs to be steamed in a sealed environment, the tighter the lid the better.

In a really large bowl, add the amount of rice you require. 1 mug generally serves 4. Fill with cold water, gently agitate with your hands, and pour the opaque, starch water away. Repeat at least 4-5 times, until the water is as clear as you can get it without triggering neurotic levels of obsessive compulsive disorder. You will never get the water perfectly clear, but how often you decide to perform this is entirely a matter for your own conscience. Drain as best you can, and decant into a large cooking pot of any shape or size, with or without a lid. Fill with sufficient water to come most of the way up the pan, (certainly sufficient to allow the rice free movement) and leave to soak for 20 minutes. No more. No less. At 1 second past the soaking time, discard the water, and refill the pot as before. Put on your fast cooking ring to bring to a boil. Meanwhile, boil the kettle, pour this into the base of your steamer, add the upper steaming basket and lid, switch on, and put into steam mode to bring the water to a boil. Once the rice has come to a boil, reduce the heat to a strong simmer, allowing the rice to freely swim and somersault in its starch infested water, and cook for 5 minutes. Once cooked, transfer to a colander, rinse in cold running water until the rice is totally cold and all the starch has been rinsed off. At this stage it will not be fully cooked, but should be totally separate and al dente. If you look closely, the rice will have expanded significantly, but should not have significantly burst its outer membrane. Drain well, add to the steamer, and once the steam starts coming through the rice, steam for 15 minutes, covered.

This method will give you the longest, most tender and separate rice, without any gunge either in your saucepan or the steamer itself. You will have twice the amount of washing up, but you will sleep well that night, knowing that you have truly mastered an esoteric art form. Don’t forget, once cooked, rice must be served piping hot or cooled rapidly and then refrigerated and used within 24 hours, otherwise you risk serious food poisoning.

© Rookwood 2020

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