Rice, or don’t sweat the details

Until I  started working in a professional kitchen, I had no idea that cooking rice was a challenge. Growing up, we ate rice of all kinds at least a few times a week steamed with a little butter and salt. We mounded fluffy  basmati on our plates next to grilled London broil, drizzled with steak sauce. We scooped red beans on top of nubby brown rice and served chewy wild grains next to pork roasts for special occasions. Leftovers were often fried with eggs, frozen peas, and bits of carrots in my parents’ well-seasoned wok that they lugged back from Singapore in the ’80’s.

My mother taught me to cook rice by first letting the grains gently toast until they turn opaque and only then adding double its volume in water. As the water hissed and slowly returned to a boil, I was to dutifully draw the sign of the cross in the starchy liquid, as my Tia Connie taught my mother and my mother was teaching me. Now blessed, the rice was ready to steam gently over the lowest of low heat for 15 minutes if it was white, 45 if it was brown. Butter and salt were added at the end, transforming the pale, bland grains into glistening, sweet morsels.

I rarely cook rice this way anymore. My time spent surrounded by culinary perfectionists forced me to reconsider proportions, rinsing, salt levels, and fat. Religious symbols were thrown out the window. I found myself building precarious flame tamers on my finicky rental stoves in pursuit of the ideal temperature and re-measuring 1 3/4 cups of water again and again, hoping this time for a precise alignment between the liquid’s meniscus and the cup’s horizontal markers. Once the fiddling began, my rice was never the same. Sometimes my rice was great, sometimes it was mushy, and sometimes it was scorched. It had become the great culinary enigma.

Many proclaim the saving grace of the rice cooker, saying it yields perfect rice every time. But for those of us with 1 square foot of counter space and nonexistent cabinets, a bulky appliance is a tough sell—even if it plays cute songs.

No, I will likely never buy a rice cooker. Instead I have learned to let go of the details. Rice, as well as any other grain, can be cooked just like pasta. Through an unmeasured handful into an unmeasured amount of boiling salted water and let it be. Since there’s no steaming involved, there’s no risk in reaching into the pot with a spoon, pulling out a grain or two, and tasting for doneness. The rice can be drained in a colander, returned to the pot, tossed with butter or olive oil or anything, really. A lid will keep it warm until dinnertime arrives.

Easy, anytime rice (and grains)

Bring a medium-sized pot of water to a roiling boil over high heat. Add a big handful of salt (enough that you’d be able to taste it).

While the water is coming to a boil, pick out your rice. I keep a few varieties in jars in my pantry. White rice will cook quickly, in 10 to 15 minutes. Other small grains like quinoa, hulled barley, and hulled farro will cook at around the rate. Brown and wild rice will take longer, likely 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the particular size and shape of the grains. Wheat berries and whole farro (unhulled), will also take this long to cook. So choose your rice or grain based on your hunger level, desire for fiber, or the flavors of your accompanying dishes. If you’ve already made a pot of beans, they’ll taste good scooped on top of anything.

Once the water is at a full, rolling boil, add the chosen rice and let the water return to a boil. If the rice is particularly starchy, you’ll notice a bit of brown sludge rolling around in the top of the pot. There’s nothing wrong with this stuff, except for the fact that it might boil over and make a mess of the stove. Pay attention to the pot, and if looks like the water is about to overflow, turn down the heat a bit and let the water simmer more gently.

After the rice has  been cooking for around its expected cook time (see above), start scooping out a few grains and tasting them for doneness. If the center of the grain is a bit crunchy and chalking, keep cooking. If the grains are tender throughout, you’re ready to drain.

Pour the cooked rice into a fine-mesh colander or strainer. Shake the colander around until the water stops dripping from the bottom. You may need to stir the rice around a bit in the colander to dislodge any watery pockets. Return the rice to the pot, add butter or oil or nothing to taste, and cover with a lid until you’re ready to serve.

Tell me, how much of this can I mess up and still have something for dinner? There’s very little you can do to totally screw up rice cooked in this way. If the water drops below a boil, the rice will still continue to cook, albeit more slowly. Just turn the heat back up. If the water boils over, stay calm and remove the pot from the burner. Wipe off any starchy water from the outside of the pot and around the burner. Return the pot to the heat and keep on cooking. Trust your judgement when it comes to the doneness of the rice. There is a larger window of doneness for brown and wild rice than there is for white, so if you’re cooking white rice, start tasting it before you think it will be done. If you accidentally overcook the rice, you can still eat it—call it porridge! Mushy rice also fries into nice little fritters after it has been chilled (a recipe for another day).

Note: This method will never yield the gentle stickiness of properly steamed sushi rice, and the fluffy, individual grains that pour out of the boiling water are challenging for chopsticks. But for a reliable pot of rice, boiling can’t be beat.

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