Rice is one of the handful of staple crops that feed most of the world's population, and it's an exceedingly versatile ingredient. Americans mostly eat long-grain white rice, steamed in a tightly covered pot until it's tender and fluffy, but rice-eating cultures have devised many other ways to prepare the delicate grain. If you struggle to make steamed rice properly, one of the alternative open-pot methods might be a better choice for you.
Rice, Pasta Style
The simplest and most reliable way of cooking rice is simply to boil it in lots of water, as you cook pasta. Start checking it for doneness after 15 minutes, for white long-grain rice, or 30 minutes for brown rice. Once the rice is tender but still slightly firm when you bite it -- again, just like "al dente" pasta -- drain it well in a fine-mash strainer, then pour it back into the pot and rest the grain for a few minutes as the steam escapes. The drawback of this method is that it washes away some of the rice's nutrients, but you can make the rest of your meal compensate for that.
Shallow-Pan Rice Dishes
Some of the world's most-celebrated rice dishes are made in an open pan. Spanish paella and Italian risotto are the two best-known examples. Each is made in a wide, shallow pan, risotto in any wide saucepan or deep skillet, and paella in a special wok-like pan. Both require a special type of rice, with shorter, football-shaped grains that are heavy with soluble starch. In each case, onions and other aromatic ingredients are first sauteed gently in a small amount of oil, then the rice and other ingredients are added, and the entire dish is simmered in broth. Paella finishes as a dry dish, while the starch in risotto turns the cooking liquid into a smooth, creamy sauce.
You can use a similar technique to prepare flavorful pilafs with your favorite long-grain rice, jasmine rice or basmati rice. In a deep skillet or wide pot, saute onions, garlic, celery, mushrooms, carrots or other aromatic vegetables. Add the rice and fry it gently for a few minutes, so it's covered uniformly with the flavorful oil, then add enough hot broth or water to cover the rice. Stir the rice frequently as it cooks, adding liquid in small amounts as needed, until it's al dente. Let the rice rest for 10 to 15 minutes until any excess moisture has evaporated or been absorbed; then serve it hot.
Back to Steaming
Using these techniques, you can make excellent rice dishes without investing in a rice cooker or using the sometimes-difficult tight-lid steaming method. However, there are times when plain, steamed long-grain rice is the best choice for the meal. If you're experienced with the pasta-style rice method, you can adapt that to produce good steamed rice. Cook the rice to just less then al dente, then drain it quickly and pour it back into your pot. Cover the pot and put it over low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, then uncover it and let the steam escape. There's enough moisture left on the rice to steam it beautifully, making light and fluffy rice every time.
- The Seductions of Rice: A Cookbook; Jeffrey Alford, Naomi Duguid
- On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals; Sarah Labensky, et al.
- Photo Credit John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images