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Rice Pilaf

THE ABSOLUTE BEST (AND EASIEST) WAY TO COOK RICE

Cooking rice is easy, but cooking rice well isn’t. Many cooks who can turn out a decent pie or stew claim they can’t cook rice at all. It scorches. It’s mushy. The rice is sticky when they want it fluffy. Convenience products, like converted or instant rice, are supposed to take some of the guesswork out of the process, but their texture and flavor makes them poor options.

If you struggle to make good rice, it’s probably not you but the recipe. The standard formula on many rice packages is wrong (too much water) and doesn’t take advantage of a simple trick—used around the world—to tame the starchiness in rice. Sautéing the rice in a little fat gelatinizes the starches so the rice cooks up firmer and less sticky. Sounds complicated? It’s not. It’s how you make rice pilaf.

Pilaf should be light and fluffy so you want to use long-grain rice. Long-grain white rice is neutral in flavor, providing a backdrop for other foods. Basmati, with its buttery flavor and sweet aroma, can be an even better choice. A naturally occurring flavor compound gives basmati rice a popcorn-like taste. Sautéing regular long-grain rice in butter creates a similar effect.

Some pilaf recipes call for soaking the rice overnight. But that just complicates what should be a simple preparation. The key thing is to wash away the starch on the exterior of the rice. If you place the rice in a bowl and cover it with water, you can see this starch—it turns the water cloudy. If left in place, this starchy residue will make rice heavy and gummy. Swishing the grains (and changing the water four or five times, or until the water remains clear) is an almost effortless step that ensures a perfect pilaf with light, separate grains.

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS

Use Less Water

The conventional ratio of 2 parts water to 1 part rice makes rice sticky and soft. The right ratio is 3 parts water to 2 parts rice, which also takes into account the effects of rinsing the rice before cooking.

Sauté the Rice First

Sautéing the rice in a little butter develops the nutty notes in the rice and helps the individual grains to maintain their integrity. This step also gives you the chance to sauté an onion (or another aromatic ingredient to flavor the rice) first.

Use the Lowest Possible Heat

Once the rice looks translucent around the edges, add the water and salt. Bringing the water to a boil before it goes into the pot with the rice speeds the cooking process and gives you a chance to dissolve the salt. Once the water is back to a boil (which will happen very quickly), turn the heat to the lowest setting and cover the pot. If the lowest setting on your stove isn’t very low, consider investing in a flame tamer—an inexpensive metal disk that sits on top of the burner (gas or electric) and delivers more even (and more gentle) heat to the pan.

Keep the Lid On

The steam in the pot is cooking the rice and if you keep opening the pot it won’t cook properly. At the 16-minute mark, check the rice. In the unlikely event that it’s not ready, quickly put the lid back in place and cook the rice for another few minutes.

Steam Off the Heat

After simmering in all that water, the rice will be a bit heavy. To lighten it up, slide a folded dish towel under the lid and let the pot sit off the heat for 10 to 15 minutes. The towel absorbs some of the moisture/steam in the pot and helps produce rice that is tender and fluffy. Just fluff with a fork (to separate the grains) and serve.

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A quick sauté and last-minute steam produce fluffy rice with separate grains.

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Rice Pilaf

SERVES 4

RECIPE DETAILS

Timeline

  • 10 minutes to prep ingredients and rinse rice (bring water to boil at same time)
  • 8 minutes to sauté onion and toast rice
  • 16 minutes to cook rice (hands-off)
  • 10 minutes to let rice steam off heat (hands-off)

Essential Tools

  • Fine-mesh strainer for draining rinsed rice
  • Large saucepan with lid
  • Clean dish towel for absorbing moisture as rice stands off heat

Substitutions & Variations

  • Although regular long-grain rice is fine in this recipe, it’s even better with basmati rice.
  • Olive oil can be substituted for the butter.
  • If using a nonstick pan, feel free to use less butter—a tablespoon or two will be plenty.
  • If you prefer, the onion can be omitted. Or use a minced shallot or two instead.
  • If you want to add spices and other aromatics (garlic, ginger, or fresh chiles), cook them before the rice goes into the pot.
  • Add dried fruits, toasted nuts, minced fresh herbs, or grated citrus zest when fluffing rice. One exception: If you want to soften really tough dried fruits (like currants or dried cranberries), add them to the pot when moving it off heat and placing the towel under the lid.

You will need a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid for this recipe.

  • 1½ cups basmati or long-grain white rice
  • 1½ teaspoons salt
  • Pinch pepper
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 small onion, chopped fine
  1. Place rice in bowl and add enough water to cover by 2 inches; using your hands, gently swish grains to release excess starch. Carefully pour off water, leaving rice in bowl. Repeat 4 to 5 times, until water runs almost clear. Drain rice in fine-mesh strainer, place over bowl, and set aside.
  2. Bring 2¼ cups water to boil, covered, in small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add salt and pepper and cover to keep hot. Meanwhile, melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until softened but not browned, about 4 minutes. Add rice and stir to coat grains with butter; cook until edges of grains begin to turn translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir hot seasoned water into rice. Return to boil, then reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until all liquid has been absorbed, 16 to 18 minutes. Off heat, remove lid and place dish towel folded in half over saucepan; replace lid. Let stand for 10 minutes. Fluff rice with fork and serve.

RICE PILAF WITH CURRANTS AND PINE NUTS

Add 2 minced garlic cloves, ½ teaspoon ground turmeric, and ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon to softened onion and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. When rice is off heat, before covering saucepan with towel, sprinkle ¼ cup currants over top of rice (do not mix in). When fluffing rice with fork, toss in ¼ cup toasted pine nuts.

INDIAN-SPICED RICE PILAF WITH DATES AND PARSLEY

Add 2 minced garlic cloves, 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger, ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon, and ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom to softened onion and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. When fluffing rice with fork, toss in ½ cup chopped dates and 3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley.

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