How to cook the perfect rice
Cooking rice, apparently, does not seem much: you just need to add rice to water and you are all set. But it does not take ½ a cup of water more or less to turn it into an act of blasphemy. Ask anybody for whom a meal is not a meal without rice, and you will know fluffy, mushy or scorched rice has their place and each of them requires technique and experience that goes beyond structured culinary learning, for cooking and consuming rice is all about evoking a long-lost self that desiderates a short siesta in the tropical noon as much as a hard day’s labour in the scorching field.
The whole process starts by washing the grains. You need to wash the rice in a few changes of water. Take your amount of rice grains in a bowl and fill it up with plain water. Scrub the grains together under water and strain. You need to repeat this process until the water taken in the bowl runs clear. Once clean, prepare for the next crucial, and, probably, a tad bit controversial step.
Note that you need not go hard on rice varieties that have their brans intact, like shatia or black rice, while washing. You just want to wash away the lose stray debris, husks, and extra starch on the outside and not strip off the bran.
After cleaning, soaking is sometimes preferred, according to most traditional ways of cooking rice. However, and controversially enough, science says that soaking does nothing to improve the texture or flavour of rice, apart from wasting time, even for those varieties that seemingly might require soaking, namely, red, brown or black rice. The bran that is red, brown or black does not allow much water to enter the grains to alter its texture. You might find it working out for you, though, and if you like it, you can do a soak, but do not go overboard with the soaking time as that might lead to a mushy rice texture.
Soaked or not, we move onto the actual process of “cooking” rice. The key to cooking rice depends on the desired texture, which again rests on two important terms: amylopectin and amylose. Amylopectin and amylose, both are polysaccharides found in varying amounts in all rice varieties. Their relative proportion determines the end texture of rice, and hence, of your cooking method. For example, a higher proportion of amylopectin will give you a glutinous rice: kala bhaat, fine black rice, barma black, all of which are best suited for steaming. The lower the amylopectin content, higher will be the amylose content: dudhersar, karpurkanti, gobindobhog among others; in rice varieties which are suited to absorption method. Now that we got a somewhat technical understanding of rice, time for business.
There are only TWO ways of cooking rice as rice: absorption and steaming. The often mentioned pilaf method is a variation of absorption, wherein you toss up the washed and dried rice grains in hot oil or fat before adding hot water: the result is a fluffier rice, but greasier rice, suited for something more carnivalesque.
In most rice eating communities daily table rice is cooked in the absorption method. You measure out water and rice; boiling them together for a specified duration of time. Cooking fluffy table rice by absorption method, however, involves being observant of a few variables: amount of water, thickness of the pot and time.
- Amount of water: Rice does not take more than its proportion by volume of water to get cooked. That means no matter what variety of rice, you need 1:1 rice to water to cook it.
- Thickness of the pot and its surface area: Even though rice cannot absorb more than its volume, the thickness and surface area of the cooking pot determine how much water will evaporate in the specific cooking time. Understandably, the more the surface area of the pot more will be the amount and rate of evaporation, hence, requiring more water and time to cook the rice.
- Time: Certainly, different varieties require different periods of time to get cooked. You will find siddha rice varieties taking more time than atap varieties (see Note). Also, the ones with their brans intact will require more time to get cooked. Now, the more the time required, more will be the amount of evaporation and hence, more water.
As understood, even though rice does not take more water than its volume, the other two variables make it important to have more water than the rice volume for the latter to get properly cooked. Depending on your pot size, depth and surface area, you will need 1/4th to 3/4th parts more than the amount of rice to get properly cooked rice, but never less. That means, for white siddha rice varieties you need 1/4th to ½ parts water and for brown/black/red rice varieties you need ½ to 3/4th parts water more than the amount of rice. Certainly, you need to try out your pot and rice to know what suits you. Your best bet for perfect rice every time is a rice cooker.
Generally used for the high amylopectin, i.e. glutinous rice varieties, steaming yields fluffy, sticky and textured rice. By having a large pot of boiling water underneath the steamer you take out the guess work of rate of evaporation and mistake of mushing out the rice. Place a banana/turmeric/avocado/lotus leaf or cotton cloth-lined steamer over a pot or wok of gently boiling water. Put your washed rice grains on the leaf or cloth and steam for about 25-30 minutes, checking every 10 minutes. Add some more water in the pot or wok if it evaporates out.
Clearly, cooking rice takes some amount of patience and experience. Play around with water ratios and pots to know what works for you.
Siddha rice is par-boiled rice, processed involving an old technique to increase the shelf-life of rice grains. The harvested grains are boiled in their husks, dried and de-husked. The par-boiling technique hardens up the starch in the grain, locking in nutrients. The process results in translucent, glassy and hardy grains that require more cooking time because of the hardened starch. Thesiddha varieties are hence, more nutrient-dense.
Atap is simply rice that has not been par-boiled and the white varieties of which, require less time to cook and retain more natural aroma than the siddha varieties.