Seeing the U-Haul logo still makes me twitch sometimes. We grew up moving a lot, and we always rented a U-Haul trailer to pack everything we owned for our schlep across the country. Everything a family of five needed was somehow crammed into a 5’x8’ box trailer and hooked up behind the station wagon. Suffice it to say, we were experts on things you need vs. things you want.
Usually our whole kitchen fit into three cardboard boxes. Maybe four if we were feeling luxurious and rented a 5’x10’ trailer. Dishes, pots, pans, flatware, dry goods, spice collection, towels, etc. Two of the things that absolutely always made it into the trailer were my mom’s cast iron skillet, and the pot my mom made rice in. To this day, I remember these two things with an awed sense of reverence.
By now you’ve picked up that I had a non-standard childhood, so when I say we had rice at almost every dinner until I grew up and moved out, you probably aren’t surprised. I’m not Chinese or India, which is usually the assumption people jump to. The truth is: Hippies. Vegetarian hippies.
Rice is a very popular option around the world because it’s affordable, versatile, and half of a complete protein. Combine rice with almost any kind of legume (beans, peas, etc), and you don’t have to worry about not wanting to eat meat, or not being able to afford it. There is an amazing variety of types of rice grown around the world. You’re more than welcome to read up on rice in general on Wikipedia, which is where I found out too much myself, such as what ratooning is and that there actually is an International Rice Research Institute.
I am only going to talk about my favorite rice right now. Basmati rice. With so many varieties of rice to choose from, why is this my standard go-to rice? It’s a long grained, fragrant rice (basmati often translates to “fragrant one”), and it gets fluffy rather than sticky when cooked properly. It also has a lower glycemic rating, so when you’re diabetic (or just watching your diet), this is one of the “whites” you don’t have to cut out of your meals.
Growing up, I watched my mom make rice a million times. It’s not difficult. I always felt like I had a rice handicap though because whenever I tried to make it, I ended up with a mess in a pot. Now I know. After all of these years of stubbornly trying and trying and trying. So now when people tell me they just can’t make rice, I can do more than shriek “I know! Me either!” back at them.
And now I know the secret of my mom’s rice pot.
Okay, that’s easy. It’s just a pot. But it was the SAME pot for all of those years. You see, the two things you need to know about making good basmati rice are 1) good rice, and 2) temperature.
Good rice is easy. Frankly, you don’t need to find a good Indian grocery store and buy it there, but I would recommend it. Personally I’ve resorted to buying it at Publix with the rest of my groceries, even though it’s pricier and only available in one-pound bags. You’ll be able to find Mahatma or Vigo brand in most grocery stores. The good stuff is imported from India, and I’m not going to get into how some suppliers mix other long grain rice in with Basmati to keep the cost down. You get what you pay for, and you have to be a bit savvy about what you buy. That’s a blanket statement for everything you do.
So the second thing is temperature. You’re not going to get this down perfectly the first time, but I promise that if you try a few times, and pay attention to your pot, your stove, and your rice, you’ll get the Tao of Rice Cooking. When I moved and had to switch from gas to electric stove, I had to seriously adjust my rice rhythm because, I am not kidding, temperature is key.
I have a rice pot now. It’s a one-quart, stainless steel, copper bottom sauce pan. And now that I’ve adjusted for my electric stove, I’m back to being a rice ninja. I never look at the clock for timing this process either. You know everything by looking at the rice, smelling it, and even listening to it.
So this is it. Rice pot on stove. Turn on burner to medium heat. One cup of Basmati rice and 1 and ¾ cup of water into pot. Stir up so it’s all wet. The rice will settle to the bottom. Put lid on pot at a little angle so steam gets out. If not, you’ll boil over and it’s more mess to clean up.
Yes, yes, yes… I know recipes ask you to start with salt, butter, oil, ghee, spices, bouillion, and whatnot here. You can do this. But learn how to cook rice before you try to do fancy stuff to it. Rice and water on the stove. Keep it simple.
After a while the rice pot will begin to steam, and you’ll hear it bubbling once it finally reaches a boil. Don’t be impatient. Don’t harass your rice. Peek into the pot once in a while if you have to. But I cannot say this strongly enough–do NOT stir your rice. You’re not going to actually do anything to your rice until it’s done. Just don’t.
Once your rice water is boiling, take the pot off the burner and turn the heat down as low as it will go. Put the rice back on the burner only when the burner has cooled down to the lowest heat. With a gas stove, I would give it a minute to let the metal grate cool. Electric stoves are more annoying because they cool slower. Please let it cool off though. Really.
When the burner is actually cooled to the very low temperature, put your rice pot back on the burner, lid slightly cocked still, and leave it alone. It’ll need about 15 minutes for the water to cook off completely. If it takes longer than this, consider turning your burner temperature up a hair.
You can tell your rice is done because the top layer of grains actually will curve a little and start standing upright. I kid you not. Or if you want to be sure without disturbing the rice, you can slide a butter knife down the inside of the pot and gently wedge a little gap so you can see down to the bottom. The water should be gone but the rice might still look moist.
Take your pot off the burner. Gently fluff your rice with a fork. And done.
No? What went wrong? Is it kind of crunchy or gritty? You cooked it too fast, so reduce your temperature next time. Is it mushy and sticky? Try using a little less water next time. Too much water and the rice soaks up too much moisture. Did you get a crusty, dry layer of rice at the bottom of the pot but the rest is fine? Check it sooner and take it off the burner as soon as it’s done. The grains all stick together like glue? You’re probably letting it boil too long, or you’ve stirred it when you should just leave it alone. Only give it a minute or less to actually boil, and take it off the burner completely while the burner cools to low. And don’t stir it. Both of these options bring out the starches which is why it gets gluey.
As I said, there’re more types of rice, and more rice recipes, than I could possibly begin to cover in a blog. Basmati is my go-to rice for meals, and we eat it at least once a week. It goes well with a lot of different dishes, and when your meal includes beans or lentils, you’re getting a complete protein and your belly will love you.
Now that I think about it, we lived in the wilds for a few months and my mom cooked on a two-burner propane camp stove, and she still made rice almost every freaking night. Maybe it was a magical rice pot.