Rice, glorious rice

Demystifying rice 

Rice, broadbeans & parsley(6)
Rice with broad beans and braised tofu

Rice is simple!  In my view Persians cook rice to perfection! The treat it with the utmost respect and some special rice dishes are prepared with great ceremony.  My mother’s side of the family is from Iran and no one cooked rice like my grandmother and her mother before her and so on……

In my experience, for those who don’t do it regularly, cooking rice is a challenge but it needn’t be.   In Pakistan where I come from people don’t cook rice using exact measurements – in fact most people don’t use exact measurements for cooking anything other than dishes prepared in huge quantities for special occasions!  For everyday cooking women mostly rely on judgment, experience and the ‘eye’ to measure ingredients.  I remember when asking my mother for a recipe she would say put in a ‘muthi’ (fistful) of this or a ‘chutki’ (pinch) of that!

I decided to jot down some facts to demystify rice for those who have either never attempted to cook rice or those who have and not got it quite right and never looked back.  If you follow some simple rules and learn to use your ‘eye’, it’s as easy as pie.

There are literally thousands of varieties of rice grown around the world but we are going to talk about white long grain rice generally known as Basmati.

Cooking methods

To confuse the newcomer, there is no one way to cook rice.  Most commonly used are the following basic methods:

  • Boiled rice: boil and strain
  • Steamed rice: boil, strain and steam
  • Biryani: boiled rice layered with vegetables, lentils or beans
  • Pilau rice: cooked in broth and requires no straining

When cooking rice which is to be strained you need to use a lot of water to keep the rice grains separate, just as you would for pasta and this is simple.

Rice cooked in stock or a sauce is slightly trickier.  This method is used when you add vegetables or stock to the rice and wish to retain the flavours of the stock, for example all pilaus are cooked in stock or sauce.

How much water should I use?

Boiled or steamed rice is best cooked in a lot of water in a large pan to give the rice room to expand and fluff out.

Biryani is rice boiled to al dente, strained and then steamed with a layer of vegetable curry, lentils or beans sandwiched in the middle

Pilau rice is not strained but cooked in a stock usually with vegetables or pulses e.g. pilau rice.   As a rule of thumb I use 1½ -2 times of water for one measure of rice which has been soaked for 1 hour.  There is no exact rule; some people use a little more water and you may find that works for you; much depends on the type of rice you are using and the soaking time – read on!

Soaking

All good quality rice should be pre-soaked in cold water for at least 1 hour.  Sometimes I have soaked rice for as much as 2-3 hours and all it does is fatten the grain and reduce the cooking time.  However, this does not mean that you can’t cook rice if you forget to soak it or simply don’t have the time – you need to use more water as it will take longer to cook and the grains won’t be as plump.   I try to buy the best long grain white rice which is generally known as Basmati (but beware, there are many grades of Basmati too)

Cooking time

Whether you are simply boiling rice or cooking in stock as in pilau rice, the cooking time will depend on:

  • quality and type of rice, and
  • soaking time

Generally, pre-soaked good quality Basmati will cook in less than 3 minutes once it has come to the boil. Brown rice takes a lot longer to cook.

Boiled rice

  • Soak the rice for at least 1 hour
  • Rinse rice 4-5 times until the water runs clear to get rid of most of the starch
  • Use a large deep pan
  • Cover the rice in cold water about 3 inches above the level of the rice – always boil rice in lots of water
  • Add a little salt and rapidly bring to the boil, stirring with a flat spatula to keep the grains separate
  • Once it comes to the boil, lower the heat a little to keep it from boiling over.  If it has been soaked and the rice is good quality, it should take about 3-4 minutes to cook
  • Strain in a colander and serve

Steamed rice

  • Soak the rice for at least 1 hour
  • Rinse rice 4-5 times until the water runs clear
  • Use a large deep pan
  • Cover the rice in cold water about 3 inches above the level of the rice – always boil rice in lots of water
  • Add a little salt and rapidly bring to the boil, stirring with a flat spatula to keep the grains separate
  • Once it comes to the boil, lower the heat a little to keep it from boiling over.  If it has been soaked and the rice is good quality, it should take no more than 2-3 minutes to get to the al dente stage with a tiny bit of bite
  • Strain in a colander
  • In the saucepan add a ‘splash’ of water, about 3-4 tablespoons and 1 tablespoon oil
  • Put the rice back in the pan
  • Cover the lid with a teacloth and place firmly on the saucepan
  • Steam for 15 minutes on lowest heat – the rice should be ready if steam pours out when you lift the lid

Biryani

Follow the steps in my Step by step Biryani and see pictures below

Veggie biryani(4)

Vegetables cooked in curry sauce ready for layering with the rice

DSC_0107

One layer of rice in the bottom of the pan topped with the vegetable curry

Veggie biryani(7)

Vegetable curry sandwiched between another layer of rice
Veggie biryani(8)

Lid covered with tea cloth, steaming on the hob

Pilau / rice cooked in broth

In this method, rice is added to vegetables or beans usually in a broth.  The broth will have been prepared and some vegetables or beans added.  In this case you will already have the liquid in the pan, either by way of stock or a sauce.  It is not possible to measure the sauce in the pan with vegetables!  Here is where  ‘eye balling’ is useful means of ensuring you don’t have too much liquid – if you do, dry it off a bit.  We are aiming to get a rough ratio of 1½  times liquid to one portion of rice.

Some points to bear in mind –

  • Soak the rice for at least 1 hour
  • For pilau rice, use a large pan to cook the vegetables/pulses – you will be adding the rice to this mixture
  • Rinse rice 4-5 times until the water runs clear
  • Add the rice to the vegetables/pulses cooked in stock or sauce
  • There should be enough liquid to just cover the rice (see picture below).  If it looks too dry add a little water so the liquid is skimming the surface of the rice and vegetables – eye ball!
  • Bring to the boil on high
  • Lower the heat to lowest.  Cover the lid with a teacloth and place firmly on the saucepan.  Steam for 15-20 minutes
  • Lift the lid carefully as it will be steaming.  There should be no liquid left and the rice should be cooked.  However, if the rice is still al dente, add a little boiling water and put the lid back on and continue to steam for a further 5 minutes

Cooking rice in broth is where people usually come unstuck.  If you follow the rule of the ‘eye’ to judge the level of the water in the saucepan, you will be fine.

Troubleshooting pilau rice

When cooking rice in stock it is all about the ratio of liquid to rice.  However, we need not panic – it is easily remedied.

If there is too much water, all you need to do is boil it rapidly to reduce the liquid before covering it with the lid to steam.  If there isn’t enough liquid, simply add a splash of boiling water – keep the kettle on.  Boiling water can be added at any stage if required.

Generally, if you don’t soak the rice or it isn’t the best quality, you will need to use more water.  Once you’ve done this a few times you will sail through it and wonder what the fuss is about.

Below is a picture of rice with broad beans in tomato sauce.  I usually use this large wide saucepan for rice with vegetables.  As you will see the liquid is skimming the surface – this rice required less water due to the tomato sauce.  Bring rapidly to the boil and then steam on lowest heat for 15-20 minutes – can’t go wrong!

Rice with broad beans Rice with broad beans(2)

Rice is a very versatile grain and a staple diet in many parts of the world. It is gluten free and perfect for those who are sensitive to gluten.   Pilau rice or rice cooked in stock can be slightly tricky but once you’ve tried it, you will get the ‘feel’ for it very quickly.  In any event, what is the worst that could happen? It would go a bit soggy maybe? a tad mushy?  it would still taste beautiful so why not give it a go.

If you get stuck or have any questions I am happy to help.  Let me know how you get on!

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