Get your rice on!

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Rice is one of life’s great foods. But there are almost as many ways to cook it as there are types of rice. It can be eaten as a snack, starter, soup, main course or dessert!

I have spent the last 20 years trying to find my own rice nirvana and I figure I am still looking, but in the meantime, I believe I now have the best basic rice recipe. Here, we are talking about a staple rice – long grain rice. I use white basmati rice as this is the easiest and best quality available in the supermarkets in the UK.

The technical stuff

The good people at America’s Test Kitchen have done a science lesson for us (you can find it on YouTube). In summary, an amount of basmati rice will absorb its own volume of water when cooked, so a ratio of 1:1. This means that if you want to cook a portion of rice (about 65g) you will need 65g (or ml) of water to cook it. This works for brown rice as well as white rice. However, this ratio is only correct if we cook rice in a sealed environment – think sous vide and a water bath. The idea is that the grains of rice will only absorb the water required and the result is fluffy, perfectly cooked rice – this is known as the absorption method.

In reality, most of us are not going to cook rice in a sealed container or bag, we are going to cook it in a pot. This is why most recipes tell you to cook using a ratio of rice:water of 1:1.5 as we are going to lose a lot of our water out of our pot in the form of steam. Now, the amount of loss is determined by your pot and lid, a good tight fit will lose less so you will need less water.

With me so far? The next factor to consider is the cook time. A rice grain that will take longer to cook will ultimately lose more water as steam during the cooking process. This is why we see recipes for brown rice use a rice:water ratio of 1:2, as generally brown rice takes at least 20 minutes to cook so we lose more water during the process. The cooking time also depends on the cooking method. I generally use an oven set to 150C which cooks white basmati rice in 18 minutes and brown basmati rice in 27 minutes. On the hob, you can reduce the time to 12to 15 for white, 20 to 25 minutes for brown but you will need to experiment to get the best for your pot, lid and hob/oven combinations.

OK, so we now know that rice absorbs its weight in water during the cooking process and what we cook it in determines how much more water we need. Now to really confuse the issue. If we cook 65g of rice or 650g of rice (enough for 12 portions*) the rice is still going to cook in the same amount of time. So it would, therefore, be incorrect to increase the volume of water we need to cook the rice in the same ratio as we would end up with too much water and potentially then wet rice or worse porridge! So, assuming you are using the same pot and the same lid, the amount of water we need to cook 1 portion of rice will not be in the same ratio as for 10 times as much rice!

So what you need to work out is how much water you lose with your pot and lid combo and then stick with it. For example, I know that I need 110g of water to cook 70g of white basmati rice in the oven; so my pot and lid combo lose 40g of water over the cooking period. Therefore, if I cook 140g of rice I will need 140g of water + 40g to cook the rice perfectly. If I use a different pot I’m on a different calculation.

You’ll also need a different calculation if you are not using water. What else can you cook rice in? Anything liquid is the answer. Tomato passata is great as it gives flavour, colour and texture but it will generally take longer to cook the rice in tomatoes than water (I haven’t done the science on this!).

*Yes, 650g is 10 times 65 so why 12 portions not 10? You may find 650g will actually feed a lot more people than 12 people. This is one of the quirks of cooking for larger numbers – the food goes a lot further.

Get the flavour in

So we can make rice with water or tomatoes. Perhaps these are at opposite ends of the rice cooking spectrum. We also use stock to cook rice – this gives it great flavour and colour as the rice grain is great at absorbing flavours of what it is cooked in. Unsalted water can be used but only if the rice is to accompany a very salty dish – quite often seen in Japanese and SE Asian cooking. Normally I would always recommend seasoning the cooking water. Bay leaf, chilli, cardamom, turmeric, star anise, fenugreek seed, onions, garlic, saffron – the list of flavours is as endless as the combinations you can think of.

Ready to cook some rice?

Not quite yet. Before you cook rice, normally a recipe will ask you to wash it first. Why? Starch. Rice grains contain starch, some more than others; risotto rice varieties contain much more starch than long-grain varieties like basmati. So to get perfectly fluffy rice using the absorption method, we need to wash the grains and soak them before cooking. Washing the starch out stops the rice sticking together and forming a porridge; soaking the rice allows the grains to soak up some water and therefore less water need be added to cook. For some dishes, we want the starch; a risotto is creamy and thick because of the starch from the rice; sushi rice sticks together because of the starch.

Bath time for the raw rice. Note the water is clear so starch has been washed off successfully.

To prepare your rice for cooking:

  1. Measure your rice (70g).
  2. Pour it into a sieve.
  3. Wash well under a cold, running tap.
  4. Once the water runs clear, pour rice into a bowl and fill with fresh, cold water and leave to soak for 20 minutes.
  5. Heat oven to 150C.
  6. Get your foil lid ready.
  7. Drain water using a sieve.

Rice pot with its tinfoil hat.

Now we get to cook rice!

  1. Put the drained rice into your pan, don’t use a huge pan for a small amount of rice or vice versa.
  2. Add a pinch of salt.
  3. Measure your water (for 70g rice try 110g water).
  4. Quickly bring the water to the boil.
  5. Place foil over pan and seal as tightly as possible with your fingers.
  6. Into the oven for 18 minutes (this is variable depending on your oven).
  7. Remove pan from the oven, remove the foil (be careful as steam will escape!) and fluff the rice up with a fork (this also releases trapped steam so stops the cooking process).
  8. Serve!

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