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January 10, 2005

How to make perfect steamed rice

Rice... that wonderful grain. The foundation of Asian cuisine. The neutral agent with which all flavours meld. What would we do without it?

Steamed rice is pretty simple to make. But it surprised me when I was teaching a cookery class a couple of months back and some people asked me how to make rice that wasn't sticky or overcooked or undercooked. Then I got a few queries on email about the same thing. And of course I promised in my article on fried rice that I would write a piece on how to steam rice properly. So here it is: the simple oil-free way to get nice, fragrant, separate rice that's perfectly cooked. All you need is rice, water, and a thick heavy-gauge pan with a tight-fitting lid.


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What you need

Long-grain rice - 1 cup

Water - 1.5 cups

How to make it

First, you need to wash off the excess starch from the rice. This will prevent it from making a sticky mess. Put the rice in a deep bowl, and in your sink, run cold tap water over it. Once the bowl is full of water, use your fingers to swish the rice around. The water will start getting murky. Now gently pour this water out. Repeat this process till the water is mostly clear. This will take at least 4-5 washes.

Now fill it up one last time. Don't wash the rice again. Just leave it in there, covered with water, for about 30 minutes or so. Why am I doing this? I freely admit I'm still trying to figure out the science behind it, but it results in a much fuller, softer grain. After the soaking, you will notice that the rice grains have turned a nice milky white.

OK, let's drain the water out carefully again. Try and get as much water out of the bowl as you can without pouring out the rice grains as well. This takes patience.

(All this isn't as complicated as it's beginning to sound. I just like to ensure I've covered everything.)

On to cooking the rice...

Put the rice in a heavy-gauge pan that has a flat bottom. A Dutch Oven, for instance, will do nicely. This bit is important. If your pan is made out of some thin flimsy metal, your rice will get nicely burnt at the bottom while the grains at the top may not cook properly. You also need one with a tight lid, or else the precious steam will leak and your rice won't cook right. Many Indian homes have vessels that have a concave bottom. These will just not work. The flat bottom is required.

Now put in the water. Normally, a long-grain rice recipe calls for twice the amount of water as rice. Why then are we using only 1.5 cups of water? Because our rice has already been sitting in some water for a while, and has absorbed a bit of it. Moreoever, there is still some leftover water after you drained it, because no one can drain it absolutely dry.

I like to add 1/2 teaspoon salt to the rice, but most Asian recipes don't salt the rice. This is your choice.

Put the pan on medium high heat. Wait till the water boils and starts bubbling. Now turn the heat down as low as you can, cover with the tight lid, and let it just sit there for about 15-20 minutes. Resist the urge to lift the lid and peek at the rice. No, I'm sorry, you can't have even one peek! If you do that, I will rap you on the knuckles with a cane, you hear?

After the 15-20 minutes is up, turn off the heat. No, you still can't lift the lid. Now you have to let it "stand" for another 10 minutes or so. This will help the rice to "settle" so you don't have dry grains on top and wet grains at the bottom.

After 10 minutes, lift the lid, admire the rice (yes, it will look that good), take a fork and fluff the rice. You will have nice separate grains without having used any oil, butter, or other fat in the cooking process.

Your rice is ready to serve with whatever you choose. I recommend a nice Thai red curry with chicken and some stir-fried veggies.

This method of cooking rice is known as the "absorption method". 

Chef's notes

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I also like to add a bruised stick of lemon grass to the rice while it's cooking. The subtle fragrance and flavour are amazing. Take the bottom piece (the last 6 inches) of a lemongrass stalk, bruise it with a heavy object (I use my stone pestle) and add it with the water.

Cooked rice will increase in volume by 300% of the original raw rice. So if you're cooking one cup of rice, make sure that your pot can hold at least four cups, preferably five. Otherwise you could end up with a mess as the water spills all over the kitchen top.

Did I mention how important that tight lid is? I did? Well, I'll say it again.

Leftover rice can be put in the fridge, and it will make splendid fried rice the next day.