Why It Works
- Excess surface starch is removed in two stages, once when the dry rice is washed thoroughly and again when it is parboiled, resulting in fluffy, separate grains.
- Steaming the rice eliminates the need to find an exact rice-to-water ratio, ensuring consistently perfectly cooked rice that's neither soggy nor undercooked.
- Seasoning the rice with salt throughout the cooking process ensures the salt penetrates each grain, for more delicious final results.
Over the centuries, the Iranian love of rice has led to extraordinary refinements in rice preparation methods and myriad ingenious rice dishes. Chelow, traditional Persian steamed white rice that's typically served alongside braises, stews, and grilled meats, is the most esteemed among them. It is fragrant, light and fluffy, with each grain of rice separate from the next, and snow-white, save for a bit of saffron often added to enhance it.
Early foreign explorers who traveled in Iran as far back as the 17th century wrote in detail about the exemplary nature of Persian-style rice dishes. Trusted contemporary culinary experts are of the same opinion. For example, Harold McGee, who has written extensively about the chemistry and history of food science and cooking in his seminal book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, wrote that he considers “Iranians, perhaps, the most sophisticated rice cooks.”
The principle techniques behind chelow are:
- thoroughly washing and soaking long-grain white rice to hydrate the grains and remove surface starches that can cause the rice to clump;
- parboiling the rice for just a few minutes until it is partially cooked;
- cooking the rice a second time with gentle steam, which brings it to perfect doneness without any risk of there being too much or too little water in the finished dish.
Some may find this preparation a bit elaborate, but the modest additional effort is well worth it as you will be delighted by the excellence of the results. After making it once or twice, the steps involved become second nature.
Persian Rice Culture
While archaeological evidence suggests rice was first introduced to the Iranian Plateau roughly three thousand years ago, the continuous cultivation of berenj (برنج), the word for rice in Persian, dates to around 500 BCE during the Persian Achaemenid dynasty and continues to the present time. Although documents from the Persian Sassanian Dynasty era (224-652 CE) show rice having become a minor player in culinary habits of royal Persian courts, it wasn’t until the Safavid Dynasty era of the 16th century when rice preparation had become more elaborate, more refined, and with increased variety.
Rice cooking methods in Iran and the larger Persianate communities around the world are uniquely different from rice preparation in other “rice cultures” of the world. Moreover, Iranians’ mindset about rice also differs greatly from other cultures.
Unlike in many parts of Asia, rice is not the most significant staple food for the majority of Iranians—bread is. Persians generally have such a high regard for rice that they're more likely to cook something else than settle for lower-quality varieties. At the same time, however, no guest—stranger or acquaintance, friend or foe—is received for a meal without at least one dish of steaming fluffy rice. In fact, most often guests will find multiple rice dishes on the sofreh, the cloth that is spread on a table, on the floor, or on the ground outside upon which meals are served.
The chelow recipe detailed here is not just an essential rice dish unto itself, but also the base of many other traditional Persian rice delicacies such as tahdig, the delicious, buttery, golden, crunchy, round layer formed at the bottom of the rice pot; polow, a class of fluffy rice dishes flavored with a wide range of cooked meat, vegetables, dried fruits, and nuts; and tahchin, a category of cake-like rice dishes where savory meats are encased in flavored rice with a crunchy outer layer.
Tahdig, it should be mentioned, is not only a desirable byproduct of making chelow, but also a nearly unavoidable one (technically, there are ways to avoid producing tahdig, but I don't know of anyone who would avoid tahdig on purpose). Even though chelow and tahdig in practice go hand-in-hand, this article and recipe will focus on the techniques and finer points of making chelow more generally; I have written a separate article and recipe exclusively focused on the art of tahdig along with a handful of popular tahdig variations; the recipes have much in common, though the two headnotes are entirely different and the tahdig recipe goes into much more detail on how to further perfect that coveted crispy layer of rice.
Choosing the Right Rice
Using a long-grain white rice is essential for making chelow. Long grain rice has the advantage of becoming tender while staying firm and separate when cooked properly. Among long-grain rice varieties, the best types to use for chelow are those grown in Iran or basmati varieties grown in India or Pakistan. Both are typically aged for at least one year before being sent to the market. The aging process helps to dehydrate the rice, which in turn causes it to expand when cooked more than any other type of long-grain rice.
Since the rice grown in Iran is very expensive and extremely hard to find outside of Iran, an equally good alternative is high quality, aged, extra-long-grain basmati rice grown in India and Pakistan. The word basmati is derived from Hindi language meaning fragrant. Good, aged, white basmati rice has a slight pale-yellow color. Although practically all grocery stores in the US carry at least one brand of Indian or Pakistani basmati rice, you will find a much wider variety and often better prices in Indian, Pakistani, Afghani, and Middle Eastern brick-and-mortar and online markets. The rice keeps quite well if stored in cool, dark, and dry conditions.
You will also find basmati rice grown in the US in your local grocery stores. American-grown rice is typically not aged, and therefore does not expand as much as Iranian or basmati varieties from India or Pakistan. Consider US basmati rice a last resort. Also, never use converted rice (rice that is partially cooked before the husks are removed and then dried) to make chelow, as that par-cooking will cause trouble with the two-stage cooking technique required for proper chelow.
When it comes to the type of rice called for in this recipe, unlike many commonly used culinary ingredients (flour, sugar, salt, etc.) that have been somewhat standardized, you may find different cooking behavior from bag to bag even from the same brand. As I was preparing to write this article, I made multiple batches of chelow from several different basmati rice brands while taking detailed notes about each batch. The cooking behavior of the seven rice brands that I had used differed in yield and cooking time by as much as 15%. Therefore, if you are in the habit of purchasing 10- or 20-pounds (5- or 10-kilograms) bags of rice – which is what I do – you should take notes when making chelow or any other rice dish from a new bag of rice.
Key Chelow Techniques: Washing and Soaking the Rice
One of the secrets to making fluffy Persian rice is to thoroughly wash the rice before cooking. Bagged rice, as well as rice scooped out of bulk containers, is typically covered with a fine starchy dust that collects during processing and transportation. Thoroughly washing the rice before cooking removes this surface powder. If you don’t wash the rice, you end up effectively cooking the rice along with that powdery starch, resulting in a texture that is mushy and gooey. Regardless of the type of rice, there are other benefits to washing your rice before cooking. Washing rice helps remove dust, sand, and other unwanted foreign debris, particularly if your rice comes in a traditional burlap bag, that might impact the taste of the cooked rice or may be noticeable when eating it. Washing also kicks off the hydration of the rice grains, which is essentially the first step of cooking.
While washing benefits all long-grain rice varieties, you have to be more selective about which types of rice to soak and for how long. Historical records dating back to the 16th century clearly indicate that Iranian cooks would soak their rice for an extended period of time—often overnight—in well salted water. I myself have vivid childhood memories in Iran of pans of rice soaking in water with a large chunk of rock salt sitting in the kitchen overnight in preparation for next day’s rice cooking. While such long soaking practices are appropriate for certain long-grain rice grown in Iran, Indian and Pakistani basmati rice, whose grains are a bit softer than Iranian rice, needs a much shorter soaking period.
Soaking gives the rice a chance to absorb water, allowing for more even cooking during the parboiling stage, as well as more elongated and fluffier grains during the steaming stage. Salting the soaking water, meanwhile, helps to flavor the rice from within.
Soaking offers an additional benefit, which is that it preserves some of the rice's fragile natural aromatics. Cooked Iranian and basmati rice has a smell similar to that of pandan leaves, in both cases caused by the aroma compound 2-Acetyl-1-pyrroline. Iranian and basmati rice have higher levels of 2-Acetyl-1-pyrroline compared to other rice varieties, but the level of 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline decreases during cooking. The longer the rice cooks, the less of this aroma will remain when it's finished. By soaking the rice, we're able to get a jumpstart on hydrating the grains before heat is ever applied, shortening the overall cooking time and keeping 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline levels higher.
Essential Equipment for Chelow
While chelow doesn't require much in terms of specialized equipment, there are some important details to note about the gear you use:
- The Colander: Most ordinary vegetable colanders are not appropriate for straining rice, as rice grains will slip through the large holes. Handheld fine-mesh strainers are also not appropriate because of their small volume. What is needed is a large, free-standing small-hole colander. If you are going to buy a new one, get the largest one that fits in your sink: The larger the colander, the more the parboiled rice can spread out and the pressure it will put on itself, risking breakage. (Note, though, that you will use a fine-mesh strainer when rinsing the raw rice, as the grains at that point are so thin that they can even get stuck in the holes of a small-hole colander.)
- Pot: Although you can make chelow in practically any type of pot, there are a few things that you may want to keep in mind. For the parboiling stage, the pot size is more important than the type of pot. You want a large enough pot to allow the rice grains to float and move around freely by themselves while the water is boiling vigorously—that's at a minimum a six-quart pot for three cups of rice, or a four-quart pot for two cups of rice—otherwise the rice grains will not swell or elongate properly. Typically, the same pot that had been used for parboiling is used again for the second steaming stage of cooking. During the second cooking stage, regardless of what type of pot is used, a layer of crunchy rice called tahdig, a Persian delicacy, is formed at the bottom of the pot. A well-seasoned cast-iron or glazed Dutch oven will make it easier to scrape out the crunchy layer. A nonstick pot will allow you to get the tahdig out in one piece.
- Towel-Wrapped-Lid: Covering the pot during the steaming stage with a towel-wrapped-lid is an ancient Persian cookery technique. It has been such an important technique that there is a word for the towel-wrapped-lid in Persian language. It is called damkoni (دمکنی). There are damkoni-fitted pot lid covers with elastic that slip over pot lids (a.k.a. Persian rice bonnet) that you can purchase online. They do the job, but they are no better than just using a clean, thick kitchen towel. Just be careful not to let the towel hang down the side or the pot, which would create a fire hazard.
- 2 cups basmati rice (13 3/4 ounces; 390g)
- 6 tablespoons (54g) Diamond Crystal Kosher salt, divided, plus more as needed; for table salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 3 tablespoons (42g) unsalted butter (see notes)
- 2 generous pinches ground saffron (optional)
In a large bowl, cover rice with enough cold water to cover by 1 inch. Using your hand, swirl the rice around until the water turns cloudy. Pour off the cloudy water through a fine-mesh strainer, then return rice to bowl and refill with fresh cold water. Repeat the process until the water runs clear, about 5 or 6 times. Drain the washed rice well in the colander.
Return drained rice to large bowl along with 3 tablespoons (27g) salt. Add enough cold tap water to cover the rice by 1 inch. Gently stir to dissolve the salt. Let stand at room temperature for 2 hours. Drain in the small-hole colander.
In a large pot or Dutch oven, bring 2 quarts (1.9L) water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add 3 tablespoons (27g) salt. Add drained rice, then gently stir to ensure that there is no clumped rice and there is no rice stuck to the bottom of the pot. Return to a vigorous boil, then cook until the the rice has grown 1.5 to 2 times in length and the outside of each grain is cooked but not mushy and the center of the grain shows some resistance, 5 to 8 minutes. Immediately remove from heat and drain through a small-hole colander.
Rinse rice well with cold water for about 30 seconds (you want to stop the cooking and to wash off any excess starch released during boiling). Taste a few grains of rice for saltiness; if more seasoning is desired, sprinkle rice all over with 1 teaspoon salt. In a small pot, combine butter with 1/3 cup (80ml) water and heat just until butter is melted. If using saffron, in a very small bowl, steep ground saffron in two tablespoons of hot water; set aside.
Wash the pot used to parboil the rice. Pour half of the water and butter mixture into the pot. Using a large spoon or a spatula, gently mound the parboiled rice into the center of the bottom of the pot; do not dump the rice from the colander. Instead, carefully build the mound up, making sure the rice forms a mountain shape and does not touch the sides of the pot. Using the handle of a wooden spoon, make 6 to 8 holes deep into the mound including one in the center (this will facilitate the release of steam from the lower parts of the mound).
Wrap the pot’s lid in a clean, thick kitchen towel, then cover the pot tightly (wrapping the lid in a kitchen towel prevents steam from escaping and absorbs any moisture that would have condensed on the inside of the lid and dripped down on the rice). Set over medium-high heat and cook until you can hear sizzling sounds inside the pot and steam begins to fill it (you can carefully lift the lid to peak if unsure), about 5 minutes. Uncover pot, gently pour the remaining water-butter mixture over the rice mound, then re-cover pot with the towel-wrapped lid. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until rice is tender and fluffy, about 45 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon or a spatula, and starting from the top of the mound of rice in the pot, gently spoon the rice onto the center of a serving platter to form a mound. After each spoonful, fluff the rice in the pot before transferring the next spoonful. Continue until you reach the near bottom of the pot where you may find a crunchy layer of rice (the crunchy layer of rice at the bottom of the pot is a Persian delicacy called tahdig; scrape it off—it may or may not come out in one piece—and serve it on a separate small plate to be shared among the diners).
If using saffron, add 2 or 3 heaping tablespoons of cooked rice to the prepared saffron water and stir to evenly coat. Sprinkle the golden yellow grains of saffroned rice garnish on top of the mound of rice in the serving platter. Serve.
Fine-mesh strainer, small-hole colander (so rice doesn't slip through), large pot
The recipe detailed above calls for using Indian or Pakistani basmati rice. If you happen to get your hands on rice grown in Iran, since their grains are harder than Indian and Pakistani basmati rice, increase the soaking time to four hours. If you use American basmati rice, since they are typically not aged, reduce the soaking time to 30 minutes.
You can substitute the butter with ghee or vegetable oil, if desired, though butter will yield the most aromatic and rich-tasting tahdig.
There are a few spots during the parboiling stage and the steaming stage where it is impossible to specify the exact timing due to variability in the type of rice that you might be using, the heat transfer properties of your cooking vessels, the settings of your burners, etc. That is why the recipe provides other means to monitor the cooking process: by tasting, by feeling, by biting, by listening, etc. For more consistent results, the first time you are making this recipe, you should take notes as to what you did, then note needed adjustments that will enhance the results based on what you're using in your kitchen. In addition, to ensure consistency, I always use the same burner on my home kitchen’s stove to make chelow; I have even marked the control knob for that burner with additional indicators for better heat control, and always use the same two pots when making chelow to avoid any unnecessary variables.
Make-Ahead and Storage
If you don’t have time to soak the rice for the recommended 2 hours, you can soak it for 1 hour instead.
When I make chelow at home, I always make much more than I need for the immediate meal because if stored and warmed up properly, the aroma, texture and fluffiness of the leftover rice is nearly as good as freshly cooked chelow. For storing leftover rice, it's best not to put warm cooked rice directly into the refrigerator, as it will turn your leftovers into clumps. Instead, spread your leftover warm rice onto a baking sheet as close to a single layer as possible, let cool at room temperature for 30 minutes, and then scoop into an airtight container. Refrigerate and use within 1 week or freeze for up to 2 months.
Microwaves are ideal for reheating leftover rice. Put your leftover rice in a microwave-safe container, add a few tablespoons of water, cover tightly, and zap for a minute or two. The microwave will turn the added water into steam which in turn will warm and fluff up your leftover rice. You can put some aroma back into the warmed-up rice by pouring a few tablespoons of hot melted butter or ghee on top. You can also garnish it with a bit of saffron liquid for color and aroma. Instead of your microwave, you can also warm up your leftover in your oven in a tightly covered, oven-safe container with several tablespoons of water added; this is particularly efficient if you already have your oven on for other purposes.