The life-changing magic of not using the rice cooker.
I didn’t grow up in a rice-focused home. If rice was on the menu, it either came with the Chinese takeout or, rarely, it was boil-in-bag. For whatever reason, we just weren’t rice people. When I got to college, I had a housemate who was half-Chinese, and he introduced me to homemade stir fry, good pot sticker technique, and the rice cooker.
This magical appliance was in pretty constant use at our six-person rental house. Rice is a terrific staple for the budget challenged hungry student, and once I learned how to use the rice cooker I made up for lost time with home-cooked real rice. My pantry got stocked with everything from long grain white to nutty basmati and floral jasmine. Brown rice, sticky rice, even green bamboo rice. It became the base for anything and everything, soupy beans, stir frys, sausages cooked with onions, hearty stews. Leftovers became fried rice or rice salads. One go-to was rice mixed with canned tuna and a little olive oil, which is about the most 20-year-old food choice imaginable.
The rice cooker was the first appliance I bought after college, and it has stayed in regular use ever since, albeit with regular improvements on toppings.
But for all its awesomeness, the rice cooker isn’t perfect. For starters, unless you buy a giant commercial version, it makes amounts that are great for a small family, but not so terrific for a crowd. The rice it makes tends to be a bit on the stickier side and gets a sort of congealed base layer that can never really be fluffed properly. And sometimes you want or need light rice with separate grains. While there are generations of people who have learned at their grandmother’s knees exactly how to do this in a pot on the stove, I am not one of them.
All of my efforts to make rice in the traditional method have failed, sometimes horribly. So I just gave up on trying, knowing that even if I couldn’t get the texture I wanted, at least my rice cooker gave me rice that was properly cooked. Which was totally fine. Until I offered to host a party for 85 people. And decided to serve red beans and rice.
Red beans and rice is a dish that cries out for that loose-grained fluffy rice. Nothing clumpy will do. And besides, trying to make rice for 85 people in my six-cup rice maker would have taken the better part of a week. I needed help. I told a chef pal about my dilemma, and he gave me some advice that changed my rice-loving life.
His advice was simple. Cook the rice like pasta. Use a large pot of salted water and cook it until it’s al dente, then drain well. Add butter or oil if you want to, and you’ll have any volume you like of fluffy rice with separate grains. Even if you want to make it ahead for your crowd, you can reheat it covered in a low oven.
I don’t know why it never occurred to me to cook rice like pasta, except that every recipe I had ever read was about ratios of water, and boiling until the water was fully absorbed, and then some sort of steaming process. And maybe someday I will hunker down and really learn how to do it that way. But to be honest, not worrying about too much water making rice mushy or too little making it crunchy, not to mention only being limited on portions based solely on the size of my available stockpots, is just too easy.
How to Cook Rice Like Pasta
This is not a recipe. It is a technique, and one you are probably already very familiar with for pasta.
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add enough salt to make the water taste salty but not unpleasantly so. You are shooting for about a 2% salt content, so for every quart of water about ½ to 1 tablespoon.
2. When the water is at a rolling boil, stir in your rice in a steady stream while stirring so that it doesn’t clump. Boil uncovered for about 20-25 minutes, until the rice is to your preferred texture. I start tasting at about 18 minutes just in case.
3. Once the rice is cooked to your taste, drain well. If you want to use for rice salad or another cold application, or if you are making ahead, rinse well under cold water to stop the cooking.
4. Let sit uncovered for 15-20 minutes to let the last moisture steam itself off. If you want to serve hot, add butter or oil if you like, and any other seasonings. If you need to keep it warm, you can transfer to a slow cooker on warm or a 200-degree oven. Otherwise, transfer immediately to the refrigerator to chill before using in other applications.