The simple "steamed" rice served at restaurants and cafeteria counters is usually boiled in a sealed pot or electric rice cooker. Novices tend to favor a rice cooker, which doesn't require as much supervision as a pot on the stovetop. If you don't have a rice cooker but do have an electric vegetable steamer, you can use that instead to prepare a pot of fluffy, perfectly cooked rice. Some appliance models even include a rice-cooking bowl, though that isn't necessary.
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The Mesh and the Bowl
The compartments in your vegetable steamer are designed with a mesh or grid-style bottom, which holds vegetables in place but lets hot steam pass freely. The openings in the mesh are usually large enough that rice would simply fall through and land in your steamer's reservoir, so pouring rice directly into the steamer's compartments isn't an option. Many steamers include a rice-cooking bowl, for just that reason. The bowl is solid, to contain the rice, but open at the top so hot steam can help cook the rice as it would in a sealed saucepan.
Measure rice and water into the steamer's rice bowl, along with a pinch of salt.
Fill the steamer's reservoir to its maximum level, and assemble the steamer compartments and drip tray as usual. Position the rice bowl inside the steamer compartment, and cover it with the lid or another steamer compartment containing other foods.
Set the timer to 45 or 50 minutes for brown or red rice, or 25 to 30 minutes for white rice. If your steamer has a specific push-button setting for cooking rice, use that instead.
Open the steamer when the timer chimes, carefully avoiding the gust of hot steam that escapes, and test the rice. If it's not evenly cooked, replace the lid and leave it for another 5 to 10 minutes. Unlike the sealed-pot method, you can do this in a vegetable steamer without spoiling the rice.
Remove the rice from the steamer once it's fully cooked, and let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes before fluffing it with a fork and serving.
Two parts water to one part rice is the usual rule of thumb for measurement, but some kinds of rice require more or less. For best results, always go by the instructions that came with your rice rather than those from your steamer's manual.
Direct Steaming Method
The bowl method cooks rice in much the same way as a sealed pot, but you can also steam your rice directly in one of the steamer's compartments. As a bonus, this method eliminates the question of how much liquid to use. The rice will simply absorb as much moisture as it needs from the steam, while it cooks.
Unroll a length of cheesecloth and fold it, so it lines the entire compartment with 3 or 4 layers of gauzy fabric. Lift out and dampen the cloth, and then press it gently back into the steamer.
Measure the rice and pour it into the steamer compartment. Spread it around with a fork or spatula, so it makes an even layer.
Fill the steamer's reservoir to the maximum level, then set the timer and turn it on. Steam plain white rice for roughly 25 minutes, and brown or black rice for 45 minutes to an hour, or until it's tender when you taste it.
Lift out the cooked rice, using the corners of the cheesecloth as a handle, and tip it into a serving bowl. Cover it loosely and let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
If you don't have an electric steamer but do own a metal or Chinese bamboo steamer, you can use the same technique with those. Just make sure the water level remains below the steamer and that you have a tight-fitting lid for the pot or the steamer basket itself.
Finessing the Rice
You can improve your direct-steamed rice by following a few expert tips.
- For extra-fluffy rice, rinse the grain before you cook it. Friction naturally abrades the rice in its bag, generating a thin layer of rice flour that coats the grains and becomes sticky as they cook. Skip this step for sweet or "sticky" rice, which is supposed to cling.
- Asian sticky rice and black "forbidden" rice steam more quickly if they're soaked ahead of time, for at least a few hours and ideally 8 or more. Basmati doesn't need soaking to speed its cooking, but it will be longer, lighter and fluffier if it's soaked for at least an hour ahead of time.
- Don't fluff the rice until it's had time to rest. When freshly cooked the starches in the rice are still soft and slightly gelatinous, like those in fresh-baked bread. If you try to fluff it at this point, you'll make a sticky mess. After a few minutes of cooling those starches will "regrograde" or re-crystallize, and the rice will be firm enough to retain its shape.