Why It Works
- A 1:1 ratio of water to rice by volume ensures consistency, no matter how much rice you want to cook.
- Wrapping the pot limits evaporation almost completely, so you can focus on the cook time.
- The heavy weight of a cast iron pan further limits evaporation by pressing on the seams of the wrap.
- Cooking the rice gently over low heat ensures evenly cooked grains, and prevents excessive water evaporation.
- Fluffing the rice as soon as it's done cooking keeps the grains separate and fluffy.
One of my most spectacular failures as a cook involved making rice for a staff meal at a restaurant. As it turned out, cooking rice for 20 people wasn’t as simple as scaling up the tried-and-true ratio seared into my brain since childhood. I threw together six cups of jasmine rice and 12 cups of water and let it rip in a pot. Thirty minutes later, the contents of that pot resembled congee more than rice. Out of pity, my sous chef slid me a box of Uncle Ben’s (now Ben’s Original) parboiled rice. “No shame in Uncle Ben’s,” he said.
Cooking stovetop rice is hard. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve had my fair share of starchy disasters, despite growing up in a Chinese-American household, where rice was a daily staple. There are many strategies for cooking it—soaking or not soaking; rinsing or not rinsing; steaming; boiling—not to mention the many, many rice-to-water ratios that cooks live and die by. Whether you’re in the one-knuckle or the one-hand camp, all of these strategies aren’t just to produce good cooked rice, but to produce it consistently. So how do you produce the same result, every time? While there are several important variables, it all comes down to one key factor: evaporation. But first and foremost, it’s important to know the basics of rice.
What is Rice?
Rice is the seed of a grass plant native to Asia, and represents the staple food for over half of the world’s population. Though many species exist, and there are other plants entirely that we call “rice,” the most common example known to the world is Oryza sativa.
The rice grain that we eat consists of multiple layers. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- Chaff: This is the scaly outermost layer of the grain. It's fibrous, tough, and inedible, and protects the seed from extreme elements and degradation. In virtually all cases, the chaff is removed as an initial step in processing.
- Bran: This is a fibrous layer directly beneath the chaff. It's less fibrous than the chaff, and contains healthy nutrients and fats. Bran is high in dietary fiber, but requires some processing to make it wholly digestible.
- Germ: Beneath the bran, the germ is the reproductive part, or the embryo, of the seed, containing all the genetic information required to proliferate. Like the bran, it's relatively high in dietary fiber, nutrients, and fats.
- Endosperm: The endosperm makes up the bulk of the rice grain. It surrounds part of the germ, and provides most of the starch as energy for reproduction
To an extent, the type of rice depends on the degree of processing. Brown rice, for example, includes the bran, germ, and endosperm. The bran and germ are nutrient dense, but the resulting rice has a tougher texture when cooked, and pigments from the bran give brown rice its earthy color. The bran and germ also contain unsaturated fats that oxidize quickly, which reduces the shelf life of brown rice. White rice is generally just the endosperm with the chaff, bran, and germ removed; it is entirely made of starch. Rice can also come in long, short, or medium grain forms. But for the sake of brevity—and my own sanity—let’s just focus on stovetop cooking strategies for long-grain white rice (though we’ll touch on other types later).
How Does Rice Cook?
How does rice transform from hard and crunchy to the soft, pillowy, slightly sticky grains that we know and love? Let’s break the process down into two parts: gelatinization and pasting.
Rice is mostly starch, which exists as semi crystalline granules. If exposed to enough heat and moisture, these starch granules swell and soften, losing that hard, crystalline structure, a process known as gelatinization. When rice is fully gelatinized, it is soft and palatable; if it's not fully gelatinized, it is undercooked and slightly crunchy.*
*From a technical standpoint, rice nerds refer to the gelatinization temperature as a benchmark for gelatinization. It is the temperature at which 90 percent of the starch granules have swollen.
After gelatinization, continued heating begins to break down those swollen starch granules. Pasting refers to the increased viscosity of the surrounding liquid through agitation; in other words, stirring up rice after it has gelled makes it sticky, and, in extreme cases, mushy. Stirring breaks apart some of those swollen starch granules and causes starch molecules to leach out into the surrounding liquid, making everything stickier and more viscous. Excessive pasting results in overcooked rice—soft and broken down.
A Tale of Two Starches
Rice includes two main types of starch: amylose and amylopectin. Both are large carbohydrate units consisting of glucose molecules. Amylose is a straight chain, while amylopectin is highly branched. That structural difference leads to differences in the texture of cooked rice. Amylose is less soluble in water, and doesn't readily form a gel or produce a thickening effect in hot water; in contrast, amylopectin is more water soluble, and raises the viscosity of the surrounding water. Rice grain varieties that are relatively high in amylose tend to be more separate when cooked, with less sticking between grains, while rice with a higher relative amylopectin content tends to produce stickier rice with less separation between grains.
What is Long-Grain Rice?
White rice is typically designated by type, with reference to the width of the grain. Browse the rice aisle at your local grocer and you’ll typically find several types of rice. The categories are most commonly short-, medium-, and long-grain.** Let’s take a closer look:
|Type||Amylose Content||Amylopectin Content||Characteristics||Examples|
|Short-Grain||Low (less than 15%)||High (85% or more)||Usually less than twice its width in length; sticky grains||Japonica short-grain; glutinous (sweet or sticky) rice|
|Medium-Grain||Typically 15-17%||85% or less||2-3 times its width in length; less sticky||Bomba (Paella); Valencia; Arborio|
|Long-Grain||Roughly 22%||78% or less||3-4 times its width in length; most separation between grains||Jasmine; Basmati; Carolina|
**Short- and medium- grain rice are often lumped into the same category, since they possess roughly similar eating qualities and pasting properties. But for the sake of clarity, it’s helpful to distinguish between the two.
So what’s the big takeaway? From a cooking perspective, we can group rice grains roughly by their length and corresponding amylose-amylopectin content, and make reasonable predictions about cooked rice texture. Long-grain rice tends to have the most separation between grains, and minimal sticking. But in the end, it’s important to remember that every variety of rice—down to the specific cultivar and even how it is grown—has its own amylose-amylopectin content, dimensions, and flavor, so blanket statements are only so useful. (If you’re looking for a more comprehensive guide to several rice varieties in the world, this article has you covered.)
A Note on Converted and Enriched Rice
To complicate things even further, you might find products like converted or enriched white rice at your local grocer. Converted, or parboiled, rice has been pre-cooked in its husk. The rice undergoes full gelatinization, is cooled, then dried and milled to remove the husk, bran, and germ. Often, minerals are added to the rice to increase nutritional value, and because the cooking process includes the outer layers of the grain, parboiling drives nutrients from the bran and germ to the endosperm. The cooling process, known as retrogradation, causes starch molecules to form tightly packed structures. Converted rice takes less time to cook, and the resulting grains are very separate, with little to no stickiness at all; it also takes on a yellow-to-brown hue from the pigments in the husk and bran. Ben’s Original Rice is a popular example.
Then there’s enriched rice, which is simply rice that has vitamins and minerals added in processing to increase its nutritional value. In developing areas of the world, enrichment has proven to be a valuable tool to curb the effects of malnutrition, including diseases like pellagra stemming from niacin deficiency.
Stovetop Cooking Methods for Basic Long-Grain Rice
Ok, we’ve got a good handle on all the types of white rice at our disposal, and we’ve established the basic concepts behind cooking them. But what are the actual, real-deal methods for cooking rice, and what’s the best strategy? Sure, you could use a rice cooker, the oven, the microwave, or even a pressure cooker. But not everyone has those tools at their disposal. So how do you do the best with the bare minimum: a pot, a burner, and maybe a lid?
The two broad concepts informing any strategy involve boiling and/or steaming. Both processes introduce water and supply heat—both of which are essential for starch gelatinization.
Before I go any further, I want to establish my goal: What characteristics am I going for? I’m in the Goldilocks camp: I want a good balance between separate grains and some residual stickiness between them. The grains themselves shouldn’t be mushy, but they shouldn’t be hard or overly chewy.
Simply boiling rice in a large amount of water can work. This technique, also known as the pasta method, guarantees an ample supply of water for gelatinization. After cooking, the rice is drained and left to rest until ready. This method tends to produce very separate grains, since the amylopectin leached into the surrounding liquid is drained off. It’s best suited for rice like basmati, which is valued for its long, distinct grains.
At the other extreme we have pure steaming. For low-amylose grains such as Thai sticky rice, steaming is ideal because it is a relatively more gentle cooking method that doesn't break apart the grains as much as vigorous boiling. But it’s a method that’s not commonly used for long-grain rice.
Far and away the most popular method for cooking rice, the boil-steam involves cooking the grains in a measured amount of water in a saucepan on the stovetop. The rice absorbs water, and the residual steam completes gelatinization. A good example of this method is Pailin Chongchitnant’s recipe for jasmine rice.
While boiling or steaming might play to the extremes of textural effects, the boil-steam method seemed like the best method to explore for my goals.
Important Variables and Findings
It’s the age old question: How much water should you use? Two parts water to one part rice by volume? One and a half to one? One and a quarter to one? Cooks all over the world swear by their ratios. But the truth is rice tends to absorb only so much water before it reaches optimal gelatinization. That ratio sits at around one part of water to one part of rice by volume. I reached out to my old boss and Cook’s Illustrated’s Editor in Chief Dan Souza, who has worked on this rice-cooking question before, for some clarity. “I found that ratio to be the same no matter what, no matter the grain type,” he explained. “It’s way less water than most people think.”
He even back-tested this ratio by cooking rice sous-vide in one part of water exactly—eliminating any effect of evaporation. “The samples were by no means perfect, but they were all cooked through and clearly edible.” Just to confirm, I ran this sous vide test myself. I cooked varying volumes of rinsed rice in proportionately equal parts of water, and circulated the samples in bags and in mason jars at 200°F. While the resulting rice was sometimes blown out or mushy, all of the samples were clearly cooked through.
Souza’s recipe for white rice—as well as Chongchitnant’s—suggests one and a quarter cups of water to one cup of rice. Why? The key is evaporation. Pot lids rarely create a perfect seal: some might have inlets, some might have loose seams. Souza found that, on average, a quarter cup of water always evaporated in the process of cooking. Furthermore, this quarter cup of water evaporating held true no matter the volume of rice being cooked. In other words, Souza’s golden ratio is 1 part water to 1 part rice, plus a quarter cup of water to account for natural evaporation. For example, if you’re cooking 4 cups of rice, use 4 cups of water, plus a quarter cup.
I had good success with Souza’s method. It was reliable and the results were acceptable, producing tender, separate grains with some stickiness. But I felt there was still room for improvement. Plus, I couldn’t live with just blatantly copying my old boss’s recipe.
Souza’s work suggests that the water-to-rice ratio is not the only factor involved in cooking rice. In fact, studies suggest that the degree of gelatinization depends on both time and temperature. The gelatinization temperature of rice is relatively low, sitting between 154°F and 174°F (68-79°C) depending on the grain variety, according to this study. In practice, we can assume that the temperature inside a pot of rice cooking on the stove top sits around boiling point (212°F/100°C at sea level). So after the water-to-rice ratio, the most important variable here is timing. The longer the rice cooks—assuming the rice has absorbed most or all of the water—the more gelatinization occurs, resulting in softer grains. We can reasonably assume, then, that under constant high temperature, there is a window of time from the moment the rice absorbs water to the point it is soft and blown out.
Rinsing or Soaking
Should you rinse or soak your rice, or neither? Rinsing removes free surface starches from rice, which in turn produces cooked rice with more distinct grains. It also removes any unwanted debris and any off flavors the debris might introduce. While some people prefer creamy and sticky rice (and therefore advocate not rinsing), that’s not what I was going for here.
What about soaking? Soaking rice is supposed to be a useful method to reduce cooking time by facilitating water absorption and starch swelling up front. To test this concept, I cooked soaked (2 hours), rinsed, and unrinsed samples of rice using Souza’s method. In comparison to the rinsed rice control sample, the unrinsed rice was stickier and more dusty tasting. The soaked rice was softer and showed less distinct grains than the control. I attribute the texture of the soaked rice to an increased water-to-rice ratio: After weighing the drained soaked rice prior to cooking, I found that the rice absorbed up to 15 percent of water by weight. Was soaking worth it here? Not in this case. I don’t think it delivered a significantly superior result for the amount of time invested.
Salt is great for seasoning. Some traditional preparations, such as those in India, involve heavily seasoning rice with salt and spices during cooking (biryani is a good example). But does adding salt affect the texture of rice? Salt, as well as other solutes, is believed to reduce gelatinization of rice starch when cooked. Studies like this one suggest that this effect is dependent on the concentration of salt: As more salt is added, more molecules compete with starch for free water, reducing the amount of water available to gelatinize starch. The same concept applies for other nonvolatile solutes like sugar. In practice, I found negligible differences between samples of rice cooked in salted and unsalted water. Part of that is likely because you’d need a lot of salt to see a significant effect—up to 10% by weight of water— which is quite frankly an obscene amount of salt.
So, add salt if you want to. But in the spirit of keeping it simple, I decided to omit salt.
Some cooks add oil or butter to their rice, either by adding fat directly to the cooking liquid, or by toasting the grains in fat. Fats delay the swelling of starch granules as they interfere with water infiltrating the grains. The idea here is to produce more separate grains. Does it work? Sometimes. Rice with fat added directly to the liquid was slightly less sticky; but if the goal was neutral, basic white rice, I found the addition of fat to distract from the overall flavor of the rice grains. For rice toasted in fat, the resulting grains were even more distinct—reminiscent of rice pilaf or parboiled rice. This is one reason we toast grains in fat for risotto, since heat destroys the starch on the exterior of the rice. Neither of these textures captured my goal; so no fat in my recipe.
The pH is often an overlooked variable when cooking rice—or anything, for that matter. City tap water varies in pH and trace mineral content. To test this effect, I cooked rice in water adjusted to varying pH levels using vinegar or baking soda, and compared those samples to rice cooked in neutral, filtered water. The rice cooked in acidic solution was soft and mushy, and, as expected, had a slightly sour taste. On the other hand, the rice cooked in a basic solution was overly firm and almost too chewy, with a soapy aftertaste; the grains also turned a bright yellow color. The verdict? Neither direction outside of a neutral pH produced a significantly better result. So don’t bother with adjusting the pH of your water, unless it is drastically acidic or basic to begin with.
Putting a Lid on It: Minimizing Variables for More Control
After all that testing, what’s the best way forward? How could I improve on an already solid method? Were there any places where I could provide even more control over the cooking process? So far, the biggest variable seemed to be evaporation. “Depending on the lid, you might lose more than a quarter cup of water through evaporation,” explained Souza. “At home, I actually use a third of a cup of extra water to account for my particular pot.”
Given such variability in evaporation, what if you could limit evaporation almost entirely? What if you could create a better seal on your pot? It’s an idea straight out of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. In one scene, Jiro explains how his kitchen cooks rice using a heavy-bottomed lid with multiple weights on top; he claims that the increased pressure is key to cooking the rice. While the science may not be perfectly sound, that scene did get me thinking: Surely his method limits evaporation as much as possible. And if you could limit evaporation, you wouldn’t have to account for it much at all. In fact, you would only have to focus on timing and heat.
After some tinkering, I devised a setup of my own. Wrapping the top of a pot with plastic wrap creates a tighter seal around the pot; as the pot heats, the plastic shrinks and tightens, making the seal relatively airtight. To insulate the plastic layer against direct flame or heat, I covered it with aluminum foil. Finally, I placed a heavy cast-iron pan over the pot, simulating that “pressure” effect. After gentle cooking and resting, the resulting rice is ideal—separate, distinct grains with a pleasant chew.
Does this technique have limitations? Of course it does! Most of all, it’s hard to tell when the water has reached a boil. You don’t have any obvious indicators beyond some crinkling of the foil or faint whistling of the pot; it’s a bit of a ‘black box’ situation. Second, this isn’t the most environmentally friendly method out there. If you’re not willing to use foil or plastic wrap, then maybe this isn’t the recipe for you. Third, this recipe requires a little trial and error. I’m not going to sugar coat it: Despite controlling variables more than most rice recipes out there, it may still take a few tries to nail the timing for the specific variety and brand of rice you’re using.
Still, the beauty of this method—however unorthodox it may seem—is that there’s less guessing involved compared to other methods; it is scalable to any rice amount, accommodating virtually any pot size (I tested up to five cups of rice in a Dutch oven); and while I may resort to more “quick and dirty,” less involved methods in the future (I’m still in the one-knuckle-in-the-water gang), when I want absolute consistency—when I really don’t want to mess rice up—this is one great solution.
- 1 cup (200g) long-grain rice, such as jasmine or Carolina rice (see note)
- 1 cup (240ml) water, plus more for rinsing rice
Place rice in a large bowl and cover by 2 inches with cool water. Using your hands, vigorously swish rice until water turns cloudy, about 30 seconds. Using a fine-mesh strainer, drain the rice, discarding the cloudy soaking water. Refill the bowl with cool water, and repeat rinsing and draining process until rinsing water runs clear.
Transfer drained rice to a 2-quart saucepan. Add 1 cup (240ml) fresh water, very gently swirling pan to evenly distribute rice. Carefully cover pot with layer of plastic wrap and stretch to tighten edges, being sure to crimp plastic so that it doesn't drape too far down the sides of the pot. Cover plastic with a layer of aluminum foil, crimping edges to form a tight seal.
Place an 8- to 12-inch cast iron skillet on top of pot and weigh it down with additional heatproof skillets, canned tomatoes, or other weights, if possible. Bring rice to rapid boil over high heat (the pot should emit a quiet, high-pitched whistle if your seal is tight enough, or you might see a small amount of steam escape; otherwise you should be able to hear the rumbling of the boiling water in the sealed pot, assuming your kitchen is quiet enough), 2 to 4 minutes. Immediately lower heat to lowest setting and simmer until water is absorbed and rice is cooked through. The time this takes will depend on the rice you're using and your personal doneness preference, and can range from about 15 to 25 minutes; we recommend starting with the suggested time on the package instructions and then decreasing the time in future batches if you want more resilient grains, or increasing the time if you want softer grains.
Remove skillet and weights, then carefully peel off foil and plastic wrap. Fluff gently with a rubber spatula or fork to separate grains, re-cover with the foil, and let rest for at least 5 minutes before serving.
2-quart saucepan, 8- to 12-inch cast iron pan, plus more "weights" if possible (additional skillets, unopened canned tomatoes, etc.)
Depending on the variety of long-grain rice, cook time may vary according to amylose-amylopectin content. For consistent results, it’s best to cook any particular brand of rice more than once to gauge how long you might need to cook your rice to your desired texture.
Make-ahead and Storage
Leftover rice can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.