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Fluffy, tasty, tricky: The secrets to perfect rice

By Kim Severson
New York Times
    Many chefs and cooks have their own way of cooking rice, making it difficult to pin down the perfect method.
    A bowl of cooked rice with red beans. Some chefs use rice cookers, some use a stovetop pan, and others cook rice in the oven.

More Information

  • How To Cook Rice

    Here are some rules for long-grain rice.

    Pick the right rice: Jasmine, a Thai rice, is a little stickier and more fragrant than Basmati, an Indian rice that can be more expensive and cooks up fluffier. Carolina Gold is a nuttier, more flavorful version of American-style long-grain rice.

    Rinse it well: This eliminates surface starch and makes a cleaner-tasting final product. The water won’t be completely clear, but will be less cloudy.

    Measure precisely: Different kinds of rice take different amounts of water. Consult the package or research the rice you are cooking. In a pinch, a 2-to-1 ratio of water to rice is a good guide.

    Salt: Salt matters, especially with blander Carolina rice. But oversalting is trouble, especially if the rice is being incorporated into a larger recipe.

    Timing: After it has been brought to a boil and set over the lowest flame possible, white long-grain rice will generally cook in 15 to 17 minutes.

    Patience: Always, always, always wait at least 10 minutes once the rice is cooked before you lift the lid.

  • Can’t-Miss Oven Rice

    1 cup long-grain white rice

    2 cups water

    1 tablespoon unsalted butter

    1 teaspoon salt

    HEAT oven to 350 degrees. Rinse rice well under cold water.

    PLACE butter in a large ovenproof saucepan over medium heat and heat until foaming. Add rice and stir to combine. Cook until rice is coated with butter and starts to smell nutty. Add 2 cups of water and the salt.

    BRING to a boil, cover with a tight-fitting lid and place in oven. Bake for 17 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand 10 minutes without removing the lid. Remove lid and fluff with a fork.

    Yield: 2 cups

  • Mexican Rice

    Adapted from Keith Severson.

    1 large clove garlic, roughly chopped

    2 cups canned tomatoes (or diced fresh tomatoes)

    1/2 cup green bell pepper, roughly chopped

    1 medium onion, roughly chopped

    1/2 medium jalapeno, seeds and veins removed

    1 teaspoon salt

    1/2 cup chicken stock or water

    2 tablespoons vegetable oil

    1 heaping cup long-grain white rice, rinsed

    BLEND vegetables, salt and stock or water together into a mostly smooth purée (a few small pieces of onion and pepper are fine).

    HEAT oil in a large skillet with a tight-fitting lid. Add rice and toast until it absorbs most of the oil and begins to smell nutty.

    ADD blended ingredients, stir gently with a wooden spoon to prevent breaking up the rice too much and bring to a light boil. Cover, reduce heat to the lowest setting and cook undisturbed for 17 minutes. Let sit for 10 minutes before uncovering.

    Yield: 4 cups

  • Red Beans and Rice

    Adapted from Pableaux Johnson.

    1 1/2 pounds dried red beans (preferably New Orleans Camelia brand)

    1 pound andouille or smoked sausage, sliced 1/2-inch thick and cut into quarters

    4 tablespoons olive oil

    6 garlic cloves, minced

    2 medium onions, finely diced

    1 large stalk celery, finely diced

    1 medium green bell pepper, chopped

    1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper

    1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

    2 teaspoons salt

    3 bay leaves

    2 teaspoons dried basil

    3/4 teaspoon rubbed sage

    1 cup chopped fresh parsley

    1 bunch fresh green onions, chopped

    Cooked long-grain white rice, for serving

    PLACE beans in a large bowl and cover with water by at least an inch. Soak at least 4 hours or overnight.

    BROWN sausage in 1 tablespoon of oil in a large, heavy pot, until slightly crisp. Add remaining oil, then the garlic and onions. Sauté over medium heat until onions become transparent and limp. Add celery and bell pepper and sauté for 5 minutes.

    POUR beans and soaking water into the pot and bring to a simmer. Add black pepper, cayenne, salt and all herbs except parsley.

    COOK until beans are softened, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Taste and adjust seasonings.

    REMOVE 1 cup of beans to a bowl. Using a fork, mash them and stir back into the pot to enhance the creamy texture of the dish. Add parsley and green onions. Simmer about 15 minutes, taste and adjust seasoning, and add up to 1 cup more water if beans seem too thick. Serve over white long-grain rice.

    Yield: About 12 cups

Of the many ways I can be humbled in the kitchen, rice is at the top of the list. I’m not a bad cook but, oh, the pots of rice I have driven to a gummy, scorched grave.

I blame heritage and inattention. An Italian mother raised me largely in the Midwest. Pasta, I can nail in my sleep. But rice? It’s my kryptonite.

This didn’t cause me much concern until I moved to the South, where rice was king before cotton. The culinary canons of South Louisiana, the Lowcountry of the Carolinas and the Georgia coast rest on a bed of tender rice.

My rice failings quickly became apparent, so I embarked on a simple culinary quest: Learn to cook a good pot of long-grain rice.

My first call was to Pableaux Johnson, 48, a food writer who often refers to himself as “your Cajun grandma with a beard.” Show up in New Orleans on any given Monday and he may invite you to sit at the long table in his house, where he puts out red beans and rice, the classic washday dish, for an ever-changing band of writers, musicians and other outcasts.

I came at Johnson from the flank, acting as if I were just calling for a casual rice chat. I even threw in some random facts to cover my ineptitude.

“You know, half the rice in America is grown in Arkansas,” I said.

And, by the way, did he have a good, basic method for cooking it?

“Sweetie, buy a rice cooker,” he said. “That’s how little old Cajun ladies roll and little old Japanese ladies roll.”

Cultures that live and die by rice have embraced the electric rice cooker since it debuted in Japan in the 1950s. There is no shame, Johnson said, in using a machine whose premeasured precision guarantees perfect rice with the push of a button and frees up a burner on the stove.

But for me, that would be to admit defeat. With apologies to all the people who believe they can make an entire Thanksgiving dinner in their rice cookers, I didn’t want another one-function gadget in my kitchen.

I turned my attention to the Middle East and called Samin Nosrat, 34. She’s a cook in the San Franciscoarea who spent part of her adolescence cleaning rice with her grandmother near the shore of the Caspian Sea in northern Iran.

Nosrat, who is working on a cookbook called “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat,” made me feel better but not less confused.

“I don’t think you’re alone,” she said. “I think rice phobia is a thing.”

Then she got off on a tangent about the kind of Persian rice that gets crispy on the bottom of the pot. Almost every culture has a version of this. It’s called tahdig in Farsi. Spanish paella cooks know it as socarrat. Koreans call it nurungji.

“My mom and every Iranian lady has their own style of making Persian rice and their own Teflon pot to make it in,” Nosrat said. “It’s fully this crazy superstitious thing with all these stories attached to it. It’s like the entire point of rice.”

But prompting Iranian ladies to explain how to make rice is impossible, she said:

“All of the instructions are like, ‘You cannot let it boil but it can’t not boil’ and ‘You have to rinse it for many hours, but if you rinse it too long it will get too wet.’ 

So I ventured back South, calling the people who grow an heirloom variety called Carolina Gold. Carolina Gold is a nutty, sweet and slightly persnickety long-grain rice that can cook up either fluffy and independent or sticky enough to hold together in Southern dishes like Hoppin’ John.

The farmers who grow it pay homage to the African slaves who were expert rice growers and developed the Gullah/Geechee Lowcountry cuisine.

Matthew Raiford, a chef, and his sister, Althea, are testing a strain of Carolina Gold on their family’s 25-acre farm in Brunswick, Ga. They are the sixth generation to work the farm, and they grew up eating rice dishes that evolved from slave kitchens.

“Down here, rice has always been one of those things that’s about how do we survive,” he said.

So, I asked, how do I cook it?

“You got to love on it a little bit,” he said.

Could he get more specific?

“I didn’t learn how to cook rice when I went to culinary school,” he said. “I just watched my mom and my aunt make it in the rice pot. We had rice and lima beans. Rice and peas. Rice and everything. I just grew up with that thing around rice.”

At this point, I knew I was going to have just go it alone – with a little help from a sympathetic cook with my same affliction.

Virginia Willis, a Southern chef, couldn’t make decent rice until she went to culinary school. She finally mastered a pilaf with chicken stock that bakes in the oven. In her book “Bon Appétit, Y’all,” she calls it her $20,000 Rice Pilaf because that’s how much a year of culinary education cost her.

I like how Willis cooks, so I decided to try baking my rice the way she did. I stripped down her recipe and tinkered with it, using water instead of chicken stock, and playing with ratios. I also decided I liked a little butter and salt in my rice, despite dire warnings from rice purists.

And then I made rice. Pots of rice. I made it in the morning and at night, when I was tired and when I was hangry (that’s a mix of hungry and angry) and when I was happy and the house was filled with people.

And now, I know rice. At least, a little bit.

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