Why It Works
- Using pre-cooked or leftover rice ensures full gelatinization of starch and decreases cooking time slightly; it also results in a smoother, creamier texture with a more pronounced rice flavor.
- Whole milk provides the right balance of rich dairy and free water for a smooth and velvety pudding.
Rice pudding sometimes gets a bad rap. Maybe that’s because when it’s bad, it can be truly abhorrent: stodgy, uneven, chalky—anything but creamy and delicious. Plus, rice pudding’s appearance often leaves something to be desired, channeling the khaki-pants energy of cream of wheat, oatmeal, or other monochromatic, mono-textured mushy foods. But if classic dishes like arroz con leche or kheer are any indication, rice pudding done well can be transcendent: a masterclass in balance between rich dairy and aromatic rice.
Making rice pudding is as simple as cooking dairy (usually milk), rice, and sugar in a pot. Over time, with sufficient stirring, the rice hydrates, gelatinizes, and releases starch into the surrounding liquid, thickening the mixture to a pudding-like consistency. The dessert can be enjoyed warm or cold, but in most cases it's left to cool completely before serving. Given the limited variables, I decided to explore several in detail.
Uncooked vs. Leftover Rice (and the Related Ratios)
There are two roads to rice pudding: Start with dry rice and cook it with milk and sugar, or start with leftover cooked rice and do the same. I started my testing with dry rice and found that, on average, the ideal ratio of liquid to uncooked rice is somewhere around 6 parts milk to 1 part dry rice. A lower ratio of milk to rice made a pudding that became too thick and stodgy; above that ratio, the texture became too loose and watery. While the 6:1 ratio yielded an acceptable texture, I wasn’t satisfied with the overall flavor of the pudding. Such a large volume of milk was creating a very dairy-forward flavor, and I noticed that after cooling fully in the fridge, the rice grains tended to retrograde and stale noticeably; they were chewier than I would have liked.
Cooking dry rice in any amount of fat tends to delay the swelling of starch granules, as the fat interferes with water infiltrating the grains. That could be one reason why the rice in my cooked-from-dry pudding tasted stale out of the fridge: The grains weren’t gelatinized to their fullest potential. One way to ensure maximum gelatinization? Use fully cooked rice instead of dry rice. The idea is that rice cooked in water is fully gelatinized, and its starch granules are primed to swell even more and break apart in the milk solution, producing a smoother result while mitigating staling of the grains.
To test this idea, I used a proportionate amount of cooked rice and dialed down the milk amount to account for the added liquid in the cooked rice. For roughly one cup of cooked rice, I only needed 4 cups of milk. The result was far superior to my previous iterations: a smooth, velvety texture, with soft and palatable grains that didn't stale noticeably after cooling. And because I used less milk, the subtle, popcorn-like aromatic flavors were more discernible—which was a win in my book.
Testing Type of Dairy for Rice Pudding
Most recipes for rice pudding recommend whole milk. But what about heavy cream, half and half, or any other variant of dairy? As a test, I cooked rice in equal amounts of whole milk, 2 percent milk, skim milk, half and half, and heavy cream. Here were my results:
- Whole milk: creamy, smooth texture with minimal lingering on the palate; moderate dairy flavor.
- 2 percent milk: smooth texture, less rich, not as much dairy flavor.
- Skim milk: smooth but slightly looser texture, watery flavor, blown-out grains of rice; very little richness.
- Half and half: Creamier and thicker than whole milk; richer dairy flavor; slightly stodgy.
- Heavy cream: Very stodgy and thick, almost chalky; beige-colored pudding; overpowering dairy flavor.
Based on these tests, the best results came from whole milk or 2 percent milk. I was a little surprised that the pudding made with heavy cream was such a bust, but in retrospect I shouldn't have been. No matter the rice or the cooking method, cooking rice pudding takes time—up to an hour or more. In that time, we could reasonably expect some evaporation as the mixture cooks. As heavy cream evaporates and reduces, it caramelizes slightly and thickens substantially. Coupled with the thickening effect of rice starch, the resulting pudding was way too thick, with an overt dairy flavor that drowned out any subtle flavors of rice.
How Rice Varieties Affect Rice Pudding
Different types of rice have varying effects on the finished texture of the rice pudding, since each type of rice has differing proportions of the starch molecules amylose and amylopectin. 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 liquid. For instance, long-grain varieties are higher in amylose, and tend to stay more separate through cooking; their relatively low amylopectin content tends to form a less viscous surrounding fluid. In contrast, medium-grain rice has a higher amylopectin content, so the resulting pudding tends to be a touch thicker, while the grains are softer and less distinct. To see these effects in action, I cooked samples of jasmine rice, Carolina rice, arborio rice, and Calrose rice (medium grain) in the same amount of milk and sugar.
As expected, the jasmine and Carolina rice puddings were moderately thick, with distinct grains in the suspension; the medium-grain arborio and Calrose samples were noticeably thicker, but still creamy, and the difference in texture between the pudding and the rice grains wasn’t as overt. Overall, both long- and medium-grain rice varieties worked well. If you prefer a thicker, more uniform pudding texture, use medium-grain rice. If you prefer a smooth, lighter texture, with slightly more discernible textural contrast, use long-grain rice.
As for flavor, I preferred more fragrant rice varieties, such as jasmine, which are abundant in volatile compounds like 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline (popcorn flavor). That subtle aroma comes through in the finished dessert, and complements the dairy flavor, a combination that's faintly reminiscent of buttered popcorn.
Testing Rice Pudding Cooking Methods
Rice pudding recipes generally fall in two camps: stovetop and oven-baked. But is one method superior? Proponents of the oven method speak to its convenience and gentle heat. On the other end, stovetop slingers appreciate greater visual and physical control over the pudding as it cooks.
Having tested both methods, I think I’m still firmly in the stovetop camp. While the oven method produced a similar result, it took a full 60 minutes longer to reach the desired texture. Plus, I found going in and out of my oven to stir the pudding every so often to be tedious.
Call me old fashioned, but I appreciated the tactile and visual control I had over the stovetop process. To witness the transition from watery and loose to rich and thick, while carefully monitoring the heat level and steadily stirring, requires a kind of mindfulness. And from a science standpoint, the consistent, methodical stirring on the stovetop illustrates the concept of starch pasting—the gradual increase in viscosity of the surrounding liquid as the fully gelatinized starch granules are agitated and broken—beautifully.
Add-Ins and Extra Credit
We’ve got a method. We’ve got a ratio. What else do you put into rice pudding?
In the French tradition, it’s common to add an egg yolk to the mix toward the end of cooking, which serves to boost richness and give a more custardy vibe to the pudding. I found the egg yolk detracted from the subtle rice-dairy interplay. And I don't know about you, but I want my rice pudding to taste like rice.
Coconut Rice Pudding
Coconut and rice pudding are a popular combination, and I found that substituting just 1 cup of coconut milk for 1 cup of milk in the recipe below produced just the right amount of coconut flavor, while the texture remained virtually identical (albeit slightly richer).
Spiced Rice Pudding
Spices are an easy way to boost complexity without altering texture. Cinnamon, cardamom, and vanilla bean are easy choices. Ground spices tend to disperse easily in a pudding—though they are best incorporated toward the beginning or middle of cooking to ensure even dispersion. Giving them enough time to cook also ensures the volatile compounds in the spices are extracted efficiently.
If you’re using whole spices, such as bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, or whole cloves, you can opt to fish them out toward or at the end of cooking, provided they are large enough to do so.
Flavorings like vanilla extract, almond extract, rosewater, orange blossom water, and pandan extract are great ways to add intense aromatic flavor with relatively little change to the texture or the cooking process. Because alcohol-based extracts tend to evaporate quickly, it’s best to add them toward or at the end of cooking to maximize their impact.
Add Dried Fruits
Raisins, chopped dried apricots, and even chopped dried mango are great additions to rice pudding. Because they're dried, these ingredients tend to absorb water and reconstitute over time. If you prefer softer textures, add dried fruits in the last ten to 15 minutes of cooking. If you like your fruit with a bit more texture and chew, add it closer to the end of cooking.
Add Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds add a range of textural contrast to rice pudding. In general, it’s best to toast these ingredients lightly before stirring them in to maximize their flavor. Including nuts at the beginning of cooking softens their texture, which can be desirable, but if you prefer nuts with a little more texture, add them halfway or even toward the end of cooking.
Serving Rice Pudding: Hot or Cold?
How do you serve rice pudding? Served hot, the mixture will be in its loosest state: closer to loose yogurt. But if you let it cool in the fridge, the mixture will firm up and the starches will thicken the texture slightly. To serve rice pudding cold, it’s important to whisk or stir the pudding after refrigeration. If the texture is too thick, I find it easiest to just stir in a little extra milk at the end to adjust the consistency.
- 3 1/2 ounces (1/2 cup; 100g) sugar
- 1/2 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped (see note)
- 4 cups (950ml) whole milk, plus extra to adjust consistency (see note)
- 7 ounces (1 1/3 cups; 200g) cooked long- or medium-grain white rice
- 1/4 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume
- Add-ins and flavorings, as desired (see "Suggested Variations" section above for tips and instructions)
In a small bowl, combine sugar and scraped vanilla seeds (reserve remaining vanilla pods for another use), and rub sugar between fingertips to disperse vanilla seeds. Sift mixture into 3-quart saucepan to remove any fibrous remnants from the scraped vanilla pod. Add milk and whisk until sugar is dissolved. Stir in rice and salt.
Bring mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, then immediately lower heat to simmer. Cook, stirring and scraping bottom and sides of pot every few minutes with a rubber spatula to prevent sticking and scorching, adjusting heat as needed to maintain gentle bubbling, until mixture begins to thicken, about 45 minutes. Continue cooking, stirring every minute, until rice pudding thickens to the consistency of yogurt and coats the back of a wooden spoon, about 10 minutes longer. Remove from heat.
If serving warm: Divide rice pudding between individual serving bowls, and serve.
If serving cold: In a large bowl, set up an ice bath by partially filling it with a combination of cold water and ice. Transfer rice pudding to a medium bowl, and set bowl inside prepared ice bath. Allow to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally with a rubber spatula, about 30 minutes, then refrigerate pudding until completely chilled, about 2 hours (discard ice bath). When ready to serve, whisk or stir pudding until smooth, adjusting consistency as needed with up to 1/4 cup (60ml) extra milk. Serve.
If you don't have whole vanilla beans available, you can add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (or to taste) at the end of cooking. For more on flavorings, see the Add-Ins section above.
You can use long- or medium-grain rice. If using medium-grain rice, the texture will be slightly thicker.
To make coconut rice pudding, substitute 1 cup of coconut milk for 1 cup of milk in recipe.
Make-ahead and Storage
Pudding can be cooked, cooled, and refrigerated for up to one week.