A little insight can produce perfect rice every time

Arthi Subramaniam
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There’s a double dose of coconut in this rice dish.

Cooking rice is not rocket science and requires little effort. But cooking it perfectly requires some basic knowledge.

There are more than 40,000 varieties of rice today, and the white, brown, red and black (which actually is deep purple) kernels can be classified into three categories — long-grain, short-grain and medium-grain.

It is not the actual length of the rice that determines its category, explains Christopher Kimball, founder and president of Milk Street. It is the ratio between its length and width.

The length of long-grain rice is about five times the width; when cooked the grains are distinctly loose, fluffy and don’t stick together. The basmati, Texmati and jasmine grains remain firm and dry even after they are cooked, making them perfect for preparing biryani, pilaf, mujadarrah, tahdig, jambalaya and rice salads.

Medium-grain rice is three times as long as it is wide. The grains are noticeably less fluffy than the long-grain ones and less sticky than short-grain. This category includes Valencia and bomba, which are typically used to make paella; ponni, a full-boiled Indian rice; and carnaroli, which is favored for any type of risotto.

The short-grain rice is twice as long as it is wide and gets sticky and clumpy when cooked. Short grains also are commonly used for sushi, which holds up because of the stickiness.

Various cooking methods: Being a rice aficionado, I have several varieties in my pantry and four tried-and-true devices that I use interchangeably depending on the quantity needed, time restrictions and how lazy I feel.

I pull out my sturdy, everyday steel pot when I want to make just a small amount of basic plain rice. I turn to my faithful 30-year-old Hitachi automatic cooker, which announces the rice is done with a delightful chime, when I am multitasking in the kitchen or don’t have the time to babysit it. I lean on my Instant Pot when I cook rice with meats or dried beans and want it to be done, well, instantly.

I treasure my fourth device, an old-fashioned Indian pressure cooker that is a gift from my parents. It whistles loudly whenever it needs to let off steam and the weighted pressure regulator on the vent pipe would pop up and then sit back down. The cooking time is calculated by the number of whistles, and it works like a charm. It takes three whistles to cook chicken, four for rice and five for lentils.

Although I never consider it a project, rice can be a tricky thing to cook, and I have had some disasters — undercooked, overcooked, gummy and burned.

“Honestly, I think rice is one of the most difficult things to cook even thought it has just two ingredients and one of them is water,” says Julia Collin Davison, executive editorial director and host of the TV shows, “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country.” “The difference gets dramatic if you add extra water or don’t rinse the rice or it is bubbling too hard.”

The proportion of water to rice has a big impact on whether the dish is a hit or miss. Typically the ratio is one cup of rice to two cups of water, but that changes according to the type of rice, the device it is cooked in and how much other liquid is in the recipe.

How to do it: For those who cook rice once in a while, a good sturdy pot or saucepan will suffice. Start off by bringing the water to a boil, add the rice and return to a boil. Then turn the heat down to a simmer and cover the pot, letting the rice cook for 15 to 18 minutes. Keep in mind that if it boils too hard, the rice will break up.

“When using a saucepan, you need to know when to turn the heat off,” Kimball says.

If you are using an automatic rice cooker, follow the device’s directions using cup measurements and the lines along the side of the bowl. There is less involvement with the cooking process and no guesswork whatsoever, but the rice comes out perfectly time and time again.

The Instant Pot also is a foolproof and a hands-off way of making rice. Blogger-author Ashley Singh Thomas of Shadyside, who has more than 230,000 followers on her Facebook page, “Instant Pot for Indian Food,” swears by it. Especially when it comes to time-consuming dishes like the biryani, usually made with basmati rice and cooked with meats, shrimp, eggs or vegetables.

She has watched family members spending half the day, pulling out several pots and pans to make the rice dish. But with an IP she makes it in a fraction of the time using just one pot.

“I know it sounds too good to be true, but it’s true,” she says. “You can make biryani, a dish typically reserved for special occasions, on a busy weeknight. It’s incredible.”

She always soaks the rice for about 15 minutes prior to placing in the IP as she finds that the grains don’t break and are less mushy and sticky when cooked.

Whatever the device might be, Davison advocates some basic tips when cooking rice, starting at the very beginning:

When shopping for rice, don’t go by just the price and quantity. Understand the varieties have different flavors and textures.

It is important to rinse rice well before it is cooked. Always. Rice is sometimes dried outdoors and rinsing gets rid of the dirt. Also, the grains tend to rub against one another in the sack during transport. This creates a powdery surface starch that will cause rice to stick when cooked if the grains are not rinsed in the beginning.

“It is all right for risotto or rice pudding,” she says, but not for a biryani or a rice dish whose grains should be loose and fluffy.

Choose a good-sized pot, especially when other things are being tossed in such as meats and vegetables. You always need extra head room that is more than you think when the rice boils, she says.

Most importantly, Davison says, “don’t get intimidated by rice.”

Paneer Biryani

Paneer is a firm Indian cheese and a team player that fits in with anything from a wrap to a vegetable side to a main course. The cheese can be found in the refrigerated section at Indian stores. I cooked this biryani in a Dutch oven for better control over the texture of the rice, paneer and caramelized onions.

For paneer

2 cups yogurt

3 cloves garlic, minced finely

1 tablespoon grated ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon chili powder

2 tablespoons store-bought biryani masala or garam masala

1½ teaspoons salt

1 (12-ounce) package of paneer, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 green pepper, diced in cubes

1 teaspoon canola oil

For rice

3 cups basmati rice

1 teaspoon canola oil

1 tablespoon fennel seeds

3 cardamom pods

1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick

2 serrano green chilies, halved

1½ teaspoons salt

5¼ cups water

For onion topping

2 tablespoons oil

1 large white onion, thinly sliced

½ teaspoon sugar

¼ cup mint, chopped

⅓ cup cilantro, chopped

To marinate paneer: In a large bowl, combine yogurt, garlic, ginger, turmeric, chili powder, biryani or garam masala and salt. Stir well.

Add paneer cubes, green pepper and oil and combine gently. Taste and add more salt if needed.

Cover bowl and let it marinate for at least 20 minutes at room temperature.

Rinse basmati rice and set aside.

To cook onions: In a Dutch oven over medium heat, add oil. After oil is heated, add onion and reduce heat to medium-low. Don’t stir the onions for the first 7 to 8 minutes. Then stir and add sugar. Stir occasionally, until the onions turn medium brown. Take them out of the pot and set aside on a plate.

To make rice: Add 1 teaspoon oil to the same pot on medium-low heat. Add fennel seeds, cardamom pods and cinnamon stick and stir for 1 or 2 minutes. Add green chilies and stir again for 1 minute. Add salt, water and rice. Cover and cook for 15 minutes.

Add the marinated paneer to the rice and stir gently. Cover and cook for another 10 to 12 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed.

Remove from heat and uncover the pot. Sprinkle the onion, mint and cilantro on top and let the biryani rest for 10 minutes.

Transfer to a wide-rimmed bowl and fluff rice with a fork. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if needed.

Serve hot with raita (yogurt sauce) or potato chips.

Makes 6 servings.

– Arthi Subramaniam

Chicken And Sausage Paella

Unless you are a purist, don’t fret if you don’t have a paella pan; an Instant Pot comes in handy to make a delicious paella. Bomba is a go-to rice for paella, but since I could not find it I used the plump arborio rice instead.

11/2 cups chicken broth

1 cup frozen peas

Big pinch of saffron threads (roughly equal to 1/4 teaspoon)

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional

1 teaspoon salt

1 pound (3 or 4) boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1 inch pieces

12 ounces chorizo or other spicy sausage, sliced

11/2 cups arborio rice

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons parsley

In a small saucepan, heat the broth to a simmer.

Add the peas and saffron. Reduce the heat to low to keep the broth warm and give the saffron a chance to infuse the broth while you get everything else ready.

Select the “Saute” setting on your electric pressure cooker and add the oil and garlic. Saute until little bubbles of oil form around the garlic and it becomes aromatic, 1 to 2 minutes.

Stir in the onion and bell pepper. Saute until they have softened a little bit, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the paprika, cayenne (if using) and salt, and saute for 1 more minute.

Add the chicken and sausage and stir to combine. Saute for 5 to 6 minutes, until the chicken has turned opaque. It’s OK if the chicken is still a little pink in the middle.

Scrape the bottom of the pan. Add a splash of the hot broth to the pan and use it to scrape up any browned bits. These bits add a lot of flavor to the dish, so don’t skip this step. (This also helps prevent the dish from burning on the bottom during cooking.)

Stir in the rice, then pour in the rest of the hot broth with the peas and saffron. Push down any grains of rice from the sides of the pot, making sure that everything is submerged in the liquid.

Pressure cook the paella. Secure the lid on the pressure cooker and make sure the pressure regulator is in its “Sealing” position. Cancel the “Saute” cooking program, select the “Manual” or “Pressure Cook” program and set the cooking time to 5 minutes at high pressure.

The pot will take 5 to 10 minutes to come up to pressure, and then the cooking program will begin counting down.

Release the pressure. When the cooking program ends, let the pressure release naturally for 10 minutes, then release the remaining pressure by moving the pressure regulator to its “Venting” position.

When the pressure is fully released, open the pot. Add lemon juice and gently mix together with the rice. Scoop onto plates, garnish with chopped parsley and serve piping hot.

You may get a crust of dark caramelization and crunchy rice at the bottom of the pan. This is called socarrat and is traditional for paella. Just mix it in and enjoy.

Yields 4 to 6 servings.

— Adapted from simplyrecipes.com

Coconut Rice With Coconut Milk

This rice has a pronounced coconut flavor as it has both coconut milk and freshly grated coconut. I opted for the floral jasmine rice, and cooked it in my automatic rice cooker using its directions. But here are the directions to cook in a heavy pot on the stovetop.

2 cups jasmine rice, rinsed and drained

1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk

11/4 cups water

11/2 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon canola oil

1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds, optional

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

3 dried red chilies

1 tablespoon freshly grated coconut

1/2 cup green peas

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup fried onions

2 tablespoons fresh cilantro

In a large heavy pot over medium heat, combine rice, coconut milk, water and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover the pot. Cook rice 18 to 20 minutes or until rice is tender.

Remove from heat and let the rice sit for 10 minutes, then fluff with a fork.

In a skillet, add oil over medium heat. Add mustard seeds, if using, and as soon as they begin to pop, add fennel seeds. A minute later add the red chilies and stir for a few seconds. Make sure the chilies don’t burn.

Add grated coconut and saute for about 3 minutes. Add green peas and salt and saute for 2 minutes.

Transfer rice to a medium bowl and add the seasoned coconut. Combine gently. Garnish with fried onions and cilantro leaves.

Makes 4 servings.

– Arthi Subramaniam