WARNING – in the blogpost below, I’m going to talk about the reasons I think people might not be great at making rice, then carefully explain how to do it properly. If this is likely to make you huff, puff and complain, it may be best to give this one a miss and join me on the next. I know I made you raise an eyebrow when I suggested heating up some honey and pouring it over a fig was a ‘recipe’, so this may be the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.
When I was a teenager, studying music, I took some classes with the great bass guitarist, Michael Mondesir, and he articulated an idea that has since gone on to prove vital in my musical life, and beyond: “Even if everyone else seems to know something” he said, “that doesn’t mean you know it too. Unless you’ve learned something, there’s no reason you should know it.”
Of course, this sounds fantastically obvious, laid out here, but to a room full of teenage jazz students (almost exclusively male) champing at the bit, in a lively and competitive environment, the phrase ‘I don’t know’ passing their lips with startling rarity, it was a revelation; permission to Not Know. Speak to anyone further on in their career, and they’ll nearly all have stories of spending painstaking hours way down the track of their careers, going back and refining things they either thought they knew, or wouldn’t admit to themselves and others that they didn’t. It’s a silly, silly thing, but it’s incredibly common.
Now you don’t have to be a competitive teenage boy for the thought ‘I should know this’ to be the last thing that passes through your mind before you brush something you never really got your head around under the rug, maybe not for the first time. It could be how to wire a plug, how to join the electoral register, whether the punctuation goes inside or outside the brackets, or how to do up a tie (usually there’s a dividing line between those whose school had a uniform and those whose didn’t, I find) but I think a great deal of these I-should-know-this-so-I-won’t-ask moments happen in the kitchen.
In 1998, people scoffed openly at Delia Smith explaining carefully how best to boil an egg in her series ‘How to Cook’, yet the episode led to a reported 10% rise in the sale of eggs in the UK and, I would guess, many more enjoyable, well cooked breakfasts, across the country, expressly because of the I-should-know-this effect. Of course, the internet has done much to nip this phenomenon in the bud, providing as it does a relatively shame-free way of consulting the oracle on anything and everything, but I do think the tendency is still with us to think ‘no, surely I know this!’
Few areas of home cooking are quite so awash with speculation and mumbo jumbo as the preparation and shelf-life of boiled rice which, like going for a swim after eating lunch being a sure-fire way to bring a premature end to your life, seems to be something where people have registered that some care must be taken, and run with the idea (the journalist Bim Adewunmi coined the term ‘Whiter than freaking out over re-heated rice’ in a tweet, something I have since chuckled to myself about many times since.) I shall leave the latter of these issues to the fates, being as it is a hot topic upon which I’m not really qualified to comment (beyond saying that at least once a week, I boil a pot of rice, pop it in the fridge when it’s cooled, and reheat it by either frying or microwaving and have never once felt in the least bit ill as a result) but as for the former, I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of people are trying to kind of guess how to cook rice, or at least using a kind of mixture of methods, and that is not a Good Thing.
The cooking of rice needn’t be an art form, simply a mechanical, mathematical process that is always the same, and always produces the same, good result. It’s not for nothing that, as is frequently observed in Asian cookery books, most southeast Asian families own a rice cooker. If it’s mystique you’re looking for, look elsewhere.
Take 100ml of white basmati rice per person and put in an appropriately sized pot with a pinch of salt. Add to this pot exactly twice that volume of water (so 200ml to every 100ml of rice) then bring to a brisk boil. Clap on a tight-fitting lid, turn down the heat to low (on a gas hob, I’d turn it all the way down, but on our glass ceramic hob, I’ve found through experimentation that ‘number 2’ is perfect) and start a timer for precisely 12 minutes, so more, no less. When this time has passed, lift the lid. The water should be all gone, and little steam holes may have appeared in your rice. Take the pot off the heat, fluff the rice a bit with a fork, stick the lid back on, and leave it for a minimum of two minutes, or a little longer if you need more time to get the rest of your meal together.
Do everything suggested above, and you’ll have perfect rice forever more. No sticking, no undercooking, no wateriness, nothing, just lovely, fluffy rice to go with whatever other magnificent thing you’ve made for your dinner.
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EDIT – Bim has been very honest and ‘fessed up that ‘whiter than freaking out over re-heated rice’ came in fact from the brilliant mind of Bolu Babalola, so kindly redirect your admiration her way.