Here’s a little story about the kind of casual racism sometimes, er, "shared" between friends, or, probably less appropriately, between chefs and the cooks trying to learn from them. “Wait, what do you mean you don’t know how to make noodles?” Chef asked me. “You’re Chinese! Your people invented noodles! My family’s Italian. If I couldn’t make pasta, I’d be ashamed.”
I suddenly became very self conscious of two things: my Asianness, and my inability to cook rice. I mean, he was going to ask me to do it at some point. Would I really have to cop to being a race traitor twice over? I always thought the traditional way to cook rice in Asian families was to plug in a rice cooker. On the rare occasions I’d tried to do it on the stove it would come out…well, the phrase “you have brought shame upon your family” comes to mind. Sometimes it’d be one shiny, congealed mass; other times, wet and mushy at the bottom while undercooked up top. How is that even possible? And how is it that the staple food of like half the world’s population is so hard to cook?
Well, before I would face humiliation and abandonment by the spirits of my ancestors, I had to figure out something quick. And so I did what all morally flexible people do under pressure: I stole. I stole the method for cooking my plain white rice from pilaf, which is brilliant. (The method is brilliant, not my stealing of it.)
When making pilaf, you start by sautéing aromatics and spices in hot oil, then you toast the rice in the infused fat. The heat gels the starch on the outside of the rice grains, which means it helps to prevent it from turning into glue. Then you quickly bring the liquid to a boil and pop the pot into an oven to make sure the heat comes at it gently from all sides. (Having too much heat underneath the pot is how you can have mush on bottom and undercooked rice up top, it turns out.) What comes out is exactly what you want in rice: evenly cooked, a tender but insistent chew, and just enough stickiness to remind you that you’re not eating Uncle Ben’s.
It is, I swear, perfect every time, with an added bonus of a subtle toasty flavor in the rice itself. So what if my grandmother didn’t teach me to do it this way?
This method gives you perfectly cooked rice every time, but there are variables. Some varieties of rice may want more water, or some people like their rice a little softer. The ratio of 1½ parts water to 1 part rice here is, to my mind, perfect for tender-but-chewy long grained rice. If you like your rice softer, add more water. Also, since this method is cribbed from pilaf anyway, feel free to add some aromatics or spices to the hot oil before toasting the rice, or use stock or broth instead of water and some salt to bring out the flavor.
1 tablespoon oil
2 cups jasmine or other long-grain white rice
3 cups water
1. Preheat oven to 350⁰F. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a heavy saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. When it starts to shimmer, add the rice and stir. Cook it, stirring, for a few minutes. Notice when it starts to feel kind of “sandy” in the pot, resisting your spoon a little bit, and hear it squeak. That’s the starch changing in the heat.
2. Keep toasting, stirring, past the point when all the grains have turned translucent. The rice should smell wonderfully like popcorn (especially with jasmine rice). A minute or two later, and some grains should have turned back opaque. When it looks like about ¼ of the grains have turned back to white, carefully add the water. It will probably boil immediately; if not, stir the rice once and let it come to a boil. Shut off the heat, put the lid on, and drop it in the oven. Take it out 13 minutes later.
3. Right away, uncover the pot – be careful, the handle is hot! – and gently dig into it to see all the way to the bottom. On the off chance there’s still sitting water there, cover the rice back up and put it back in the oven for a couple minutes. (This NEVER HAPPENS. But don’t freak if it does.) If it looks good, gently fluff the rice with a fork or serving spoon. Start with the top layers first, and then dig a little deeper until you’re flipping all the rice; the point is to expose the rice so the moisture can steam off. Once all the grains look dry, serve, with great pride.
Make it a meal with: