Mistakes Everyone Makes When Cooking Rice
Rice is, without a doubt, the most delicious type of grass to grow in a swamp. That’s not praise to be given lightly. As long as humans have lived in houses, we’ve eaten rice. There are as many types of rice as there are places to grow it, from the familiar, highly processed white rice to whole-grain brown, all the way through red to black wild rices grown in Asia. However, the rise of convenience culture in response to rapidly diminishing supplies of free time mean more and more people reach adulthood without internalizing recipes and cooking techniques. Does that describe you? Welcome, you’re among friends. Allow me to share some mistakes I’ve learned to avoid.
Choosing the wrong tools
Ultimately, much of this advice will boil down to “your technique and tools should depend on what you’re cooking,” but there are a few grains of wisdom to glean when it comes to equipment, most importantly, your choice of pot. A pot with a thick bottom will better retain and distribute heat. Thick bottoms are crucial for boiling rice in the absorption method, where the formation of steam pockets play a key role in cooking.
Not washing your rice
Many advocates of rice-washing claim that industrial byproducts of the milling process (like talc) remain on the finished product. The claim is that pre-washing helps remove excess starch and any undesirable leftovers. Most domestically processed rice is free from talc, but imported strains like basmati may be processed with it. While flavored and enriched rice blends popular with Western grocers certainly don’t need pre-washing (you’re paying for convenience and flavor, after all!) a rinse or two of cold water will yield fluffier, more distinct grains. If you feel so moved, grab a fine mesh strainer and pop 1 cup of rice under the faucet. When the water draining from the grains is clear, you’re good to go. The only exception would be those cooking risotto or sushi rice, who crave that starchy goodness.
Bad burner planning
Here’s a tip to remember the next time you deal with any quick-cooking starch: The surface of electric burners holds a great amount of heat, increasing the length of time a pot remains boiling after the burner temperature is reduced. To avoid this, heat a second burner to a low simmer as the pot begins to boil on the first. Those lucky souls blessed with propane burners don’t need to worry, being well familiar with the gas’s whip-fast response time.
Not pre-soaking aromatic rices
Aromatic rices, like basmati and almond rice, should be pre-soaked in order to preserve the oils responsible for their signature aromas. Cooking destroys these oils, so in order to minimize cooking time, pre-soak the grains in more water than you’ll cook them in. This expedites cooking time by an average of 20 percent, resulting in restaurant-grade bouquets.
Cooking too hot
Cooking too fast causes the grains to burst open like a butterflied steak, which not only releases starch, but also ruins the texture of your meal. Even if you’re aiming for porridge or pudding, ruptured grains are to be avoided. Automatic rice boilers are designed to only just reach boiling temperature, so anything past that is too much.
Lifting the lid while it cooks
If you’re boiling rice, don’t even think of lifting the lid as it cooks. Not only will lifting the lid lengthen the cooking time as it releases pressure and steam, but it can also seriously mess up the finished product. When you lift the lid, the carefully calculated rice-water ratio is thrown of which will result in dry and under-cooked rice. Unless you’re adding seasoning or checking how much water remains, leave it alone. Let the rice cook; it knows what it’s doing.
Stirring the rice
Another huge mistake many people make is stirring the rice as it boils. Unless you’re making risotto, don’t touch the rice while it’s cooking. Stirring rice while it’s in the pot causes starch to activate and prevents the formation of steam pockets; in layman’s terms, it’s going to make your rice mushy. While that smooth creamy texture is coveted in risotto, you want to avoid it when making regular rice.
Not adding enough water
Many people don’t use enough water which can leave the rice dry and undercooked. The amount of water needed to perfectly cook different types of rice varies slightly, so you should do some research about how much water to add before cooking. If you’re still unsure whether you’ve added enough water, you can always try using the knuckle method. Put your rice in the pot and fill it with water. When you rest your finger on top of the rice, the water should come up to the top of your first knuckle.
Cooking with unsalted water
Popular opinion holds that salt makes water boil faster, but the difference isn’t really noticeable. But one important thing the salt does is interfere with the process by which starches link and connect, becoming gelatin. Many professional chefs prefer to salt their water to near-oceanic levels of salinity. It’s your kitchen, so go hog wild. In addition to preventing gelatinization, salt also has the interesting byproduct of being delicious. Adding salt to your rice water is important for getting your rice right.
Cooking unseasoned food
Melting butter in the water also helps with flavor. A bay leaf, dried peppers, citrus zest, dried mushroom slices, nuts, even a cinnamon stick will add depth and color to the rice. The boiling water will help both rehydrate and unlock essential oils in rugged spices like cinnamon and bay, and the flavorful pepper innards will easily separate from the thick outer skin without a lot of chopping or dicing. And, hey, why not cook with stock instead of water? Splash a little bit of wine in there every now and then? That’ll help with the existential horror and boredom of watching rice cook. Yay, wine!
Substituting different types of rice
You wouldn’t swap apples for potatoes and still call it apple pie. So why would you use short grains in place of long wild rice? Different rices have different attributes, and they behave differently when cooked. It’s not that it’ll negatively affect the taste so much as it’ll affect the texture and consistency.
Not letting it sit after cooking
When done correctly, fresh cooked rice will be drier on the top than on the bottom. It’s crucial that the rice be allowed to sit off the heat for at least 5-30 minutes, in order for moisture to evenly distribute itself through the dish. Cooking is hard work! Fluffing the rice before that time will result in a sticky fork and clumps of inconsistently moist rice.
Treating all rice the same
Not all rice is created equal. There are thousands of varieties of rice grown throughout the world, and you can’t cook each one the same way. Do some research before you fire up your stove. Brown rice, for example, requires slightly more water than white rice. Whether your brown rice is short-grain or long-grain will also affect the amount of water needed; a cup of short-grain rice needs a quarter of a cup more water than long-grain rice