I Finally Know Why I Suck at Cooking Rice (AND How to Stop Sucking at It)
I've never made a good pot of rice in my life. Ever. I am absolutely terrible at cooking rice. That's not humility, it's a fact. I read the instructions on the back of the package, and still, I cannot seem to figure out how to cook rice well.
Look, I am comfortable and can generally hold my own in the kitchen. No, I never went to culinary school. But I love cooking/eating/feeding and have sought to build a career based on that love. I've held a food editor title for close to 4 years, I've been writing about food for twice that long, I've been developing recipes along the same timeline, I've worked back-of-house in legitimate restaurants, and I still make extra cash through assisting chefs for oddball catering gigs. Point being, I get paid—in cash money and street cred—because I know things about food and how to cook it pretty well.
But not rice. Never rice.
Rice—cooked correctly—should consist of distinguishably individual grains; there ought to be a fluffiness to it, but you should still be able to detect the tender, subtle toothiness of the single grains in your mouth. My rice is not that. Or anything close to that. My rice is a glob of gummy, sticky, blown-out, clumpy white crud in a pot. Doesn't matter the variety, whatever-length grain, any rice I make turns out like overcooked sushi rice. In short, it sucks.
For the longest time, I said that I didn't like rice. It was a straight up lie, but lying (to the world and to myself) was easier than explaining the fact that I was incapable of producing rice worth eating. Not ideal, but at a point, I just accepted that this was my lot in life, my reality... maybe I had some sort of genetic flaw that kept me from being able to cook rice well. You know, like how cilantro tastes awful and soapy to some people and certain people on this earth don't experience asparagus pee, because genetics? I genuinely believed I would never be anything beyond pathetic when it came to rice cooking. That is, until about 3 days ago...
Oh yes, I'm about to drop a mad plot twist up in here.
See, I'm surrounded by food people day-in and out, and much of my casual conversation revolves around food, so the fact that I struggle with producing an edible rendition of one of the simplest foods found in home kitchens across the world is bound to come up (numerous times). It happened again the other day. And through the exchange that followed, I uncovered the source of my severe rice handicap: I have always followed (i.e. I trusted) the package instructions. Which is, apparently, a very amateur hour move. Why, you ask?
BECAUSE THE RICE PACKAGE IS LYING TO YOU.
I know a lot of package instructions don't reflect the correct way to cook what's inside of them (as in, keep an eye on your oatmeal), but for some reason, I just never thought twice about rice. Couldn't tell you why it never occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I shouldn't just follow the back of the bag blindly. But unfortunately, this is a prime example of how the world can be a very cruel place for naive chumps like myself.
The instructions on the package are geared towards making sure there's no possible way that your rice will be undercooked... producing overcooked, waterlogged rice glue isn't a concern. No, because if you produce undercooked crunchy dried out rice that burns to the bottom of the pan after following the instructions—clearly, there's something wrong with the instructions. But if you produce rice that is fully cooked, but just happens to suck, it feels like there's something wrong with you.
While that very well may hold some degree of truth, I'm pretty sure that whatever is wrong with me isn't something that would impair my ability to cook a batch of basmati.
WATCH: How to Make Easy Oven Rice
Anyway, the problem with my rice is this: I have always put too much water in it. Many packages tell you to follow a 2 to 1 ratio of water to rice... when really, it should be more like 1 1/4 to 1 ratio. Thankfully, the test kitchen chef who pointed out my error also told me his foolproof method for cooking excellent rice (after he was done laughing at my package-trusting self). Let me break it down for you:
- Pour your dry rice into a pot. It doesn't matter how much you're making (I'd suggest dumping 11/2 to 2 cups of rice in), just shake it into an even layer.
- Now, place the tip of your middle finger gently on the surface of the rice, so that your bird-shooting finger is standing vertically like a proud flagpole stretching up over a soon-to-be victorious rice landscape. Now, add enough water to the pot to reach the first knuckle on this finger. Not your main, center-hinge knuckle. The first one. Right above your finger nail.
- Numerous people I respect and trust around the office refer to this move as the "Knuckle Technique." They present it like it's some sort of ancient magic, and if that makes cooking rice feel more fun to you, by all means, Harry Potter the heck out of that starchy side, but I think the important takeaway is that your rice is covered by just about 1/2-inch of water.
- Plop a lid on your pot and bring the water to a boil over high heat. And when I say a boil, I mean a real boil. Not kind of almost a boil—but a rolling boil that makes the lid start rattling.
- When you reach this point, sprinkle in a bit of salt and give the contents of the pot a good stir. Then reduce the heat to low or medium-low, just to maintain a simmer, and return the lid to the pot. Simmer your rice for 12 minutes—set a timer.
- After those 12 minutes are up, remove the pot from the heat and allow it to stand for another 12 minutes. But do not at any point remove the lid. This is important. What you're doing here is steaming the rice to completion—that's the key to perfect rice (as most rice cooker manufacturers will tell you). If you remove the lid for a quick peak, you release steam and essentially shoot yourself in the foot. There's literally no reason you need to lay your eyeballs on that rice after you take it off the heat. I promise, it's still in there, so just place your trust in the magic of your knuckle, keep the faith, and keep the lid shut for another 12 minutes.
- OK, 12 minutes have passed? Cool. You may now remove the lid. And BOOM. You have a most excellent pot 'o rice. (I hope.)
I was able to cook my first pot of rice that I'd actually be willing to feed to another human (who isn't somehow obligated to love me no matter what) the other day using the method as it is described above. I didn't even want rice, but as soon as I was told that not-terrible rice was a real possibility for me, I had to try.
Just last week, I cooked a pot of the same rice gunk I've cooked for years (at least 1/3 of which cakes hopelessly onto the bottom of the pan) to act as a mediocre-at-best bed for my coconut curry chicken. This week... people, this week, I made rice unlike rice I've ever made before. I wasn't ashamed of it. It was a freaking Tempur-Pedic bed for my stir-fried veggies. I feel wiser, I feel empowered, and I feel hope for the future.
And I would like to encourage you now with two principle takeaways:
- You should be intelligently skeptical of all package instructions.
- Happy ever afters are possible. Don't stop believing.
*Note: The method described above applies to white rice, not brown. Because given the choice between brown rice and no rice... personally, I'm not eating rice. That said, if you do want to apply this method to brown rice, you'll simply need to increase the amount of water and the cooking/steaming times a bit.