Ask Peter: Tasty rice
My husband comments that the rice at Indian restaurants is always tasty, whereas mine is bland. I am thinking perhaps they salt it or add something as they are cooking it. Can you cook rice in salted water as you do pasta? Is there a reason we don’t? Peta
Ah — the great rice vs salt debate. For many people — actually most of the rice-eating world — salt is never added to rice when it’s being boiled to be served plain. This is because boiled rice is served as a bland (but delicious: rice has wonderful flavour) accompaniment to other components of a meal — a curry for example.
If you are making a pilaf, where the rice is flavoured with onions and spices, you would add salt. A pilaf, or risotto, can be a meal on its own and should have a punchy flavour.
Some people add a pinch of salt to plain basmati rice, but even on this I have friends who do, or don’t, salt. I’ve heard people say pasta is always cooked in salted water so surely rice is the same, but in fact it’s not. Boiled unsalted pasta just tastes wrong. Chances are the rice you’re eating in Indian restaurants is basmati — one of the great rices of the world, and one that costs more than most others. It’s a fragrant rice (in fact in Hindi it means just that) and it’s long-grained. Risotto rice or pudding rice is short-grained.
To cook simple boiled basmati rice as a side dish, you’ll need 50-60g per person. Place the rice in a bowl and cover with 1cm of water. Rub the rice between the fingers of both hands and drain the water off — tipping it into a fine sieve is the easiest way. This gets rid of the rice “dust”, which would make it stick together when cooked. Tip it back into a bowl and cover with water then leave to soak for 20 minutes. Drain again.
For every cup of rice, use two cups water — or rather use twice the volume of water to rice. Place the water in a saucepan with a pinch or two of salt and bring to the boil. I’ve been told a few drops of white vinegar added at this point keeps the rice glossy, but some Indian friends say this is madness! Add the drained rice to the saucepan and give it a quick stir, so it doesn’t form a lump. Put a lid on, lower the heat to a rapid simmer and cook for 11 minutes — don’t remove the lid while it’s cooking. Take the pan off the heat and leave undisturbed for 5 minutes.
Using a fork, lightly turn the rice as you transfer it into a serving dish — this helps separate the grains a little, which is how basmati should be presented.
I often add saffron when I cook basmati (you could also use ground turmeric) and a bashed cardamom pod or two. If using saffron, soak a few threads in half a cup of warm water while you soak the rice and add this to the boiling water — reducing the water by ½ a cup. If using spices, mix them into the drained uncooked rice before adding to the boiling water.
Interestingly, Thai jasmine rice is cooked slightly differently. Rinse it 3-4 times until the water loses most of the white milkiness — there seems to be more rice dust on jasmine. Don’t leave it to soak, instead place the rice in a saucepan and level it out flat. Using your finger, or a ruler, measure the depth of the rice. If it’s 2cm, you need to add 4cm of cold water in the pan, measuring from the base of the pan, not the top of the rice. Bring to the boil with a lid on, then cook on rapid simmer for 12 minutes. Take off the heat, leave the lid on, and rest for 10 minutes. Leaving the lid on while off the heat allows the rice to gently steam and finish cooking without the starch in the grains being damaged.
If you take the lid off and serve straight away, the rice can be mushy.