How to cook rice perfectly: all you need to know, from the right amount of water to use to the best pan for the job
If you haven’t cooked rice before, the prospect can be daunting. Susan Jung weighs the pros and cons of the electrice rice cooker, stainless steel or cast iron saucepan, and special pots used in China, Japan, and Korea
Cooking rice should be easy. Humans have been eating it for millennia; our ancestors first started cultivating the seeds of wild grass an estimated 12,000 years ago, and today, it’s a staple for billions of people around the world.
But unless you were raised watching someone prepare it for dinner every night, and who taught you their way of measuring the right amount of water (with Chinese households, this usually involves using the first joint of your forefinger as a guide), the thought of cooking your first pot of rice can be intimidating.
A one-size-fits-all recipe is impossible because there are too many factors to take into consideration. Not all rice is the same; even within the long-grain rice category there are many types that might need different amounts of water and longer or shorter cooking times.
Rice that’s been harvested, milled, packaged and cooked within a year is going to need less water than rice that’s been in a container in your pantry for goodness knows how long. Brown rice, with its husk, bran and germ intact, takes longer to cook than white rice.
First things first, you do not need an electric rice cooker. Yes, this is the easiest way: use the scoop that comes with the cooker to measure the rice into the insert, rinse it to get off excess starch, then add water to come up to the indicator line in the insert. Put the insert into the cooker, close the lid and press the button. The result? A consistent product – as long as you’re using the right type of rice.
Basic rice cookers – the type with just one switch – made for the Hong Kong market are different from those for the Japanese market, because we tend to eat long-grain rice which cooks into distinct grains, while in Japan the preferred rice is short-grain, which is stickier.
Many of the more expensive rice cookers can cook different types of rice, as well as congee; some can also bake cakes. But humans were cooking rice in various vessels long before the electric rice cooker was put on the market in the 1950s.
The basics of cooking rice on the stove top are as follows: measure the rice into the pot, then rinse it several times. Add the appropriate amount of water and let it soak. Put the lid on the pot, then place the pot on the stove over a high flame and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and cook “until done”. Turn off the flame and let the rice rest before stirring it with the rice paddle and serving.
This basic method is vague, though. What are you looking for when rinsing rice? What is the “appropriate amount” of water? What kind of pot should you use? How long do you let it soak, cook, and rest?
To figure out the best way to cook rice on the stove top, I used three different types of rice (Thai jasmine long-grain, Japanese short-grain and Chinese glutinous rice), using 200 grams for each test. I soaked the grains for 30 minutes, cooked them all for 15 minutes and let the cooked rice rest for 10 minutes.
Each type of rice was cooked in the electric rice cooker and a minimum of three different pans. I used heavyweight stainless steel and enamelled cast iron saucepans, plus at least one specialised pan.
Those specialised pans were a Chinese clay pot, Japanese double-lidded rice donabe, or a Korean dolsot (stone pot). I also tested the various rice types using different amounts of water.
I soon abandoned the electric rice cooker. It’s essential that the pot is the right size for the amount of rice. If you cook 200 grams of rice in a three-litre pot, the grains – spread out over a wider surface area – will be dry. This is why cooking that amount in a four-person ERC did not work – the cooker was too large. For 200 grams – plenty of rice for two to three – use a pot that holds one to 1.5 litres.
Stainless steel vs enamelled cast iron
With all types of rice, the stainless steel pot made rice that was drier than when cooked in the enamelled cast iron pot. The stainless steel one is the lighter of the two and the lid isn’t as heavy, so more steam escaped. If you use a stainless steel saucepan, choose the heaviest one you can afford (if it’s flimsy, the rice might burn), and you’ll probably need to add a little more water.
All types of rice cooked in the cast iron pot were very nice; the long-grain was light, with separate grains, the short-grain was moist, and the glutinous rice was not too sticky. If I had to choose only one stove top pot, this is what I would pick.
Enamelled cast iron vs Chinese clay pot, Japanese donabe, Korean dolsot
It may be no surprise that the specialised pots worked best for the rice used in its respective cuisine’s cooking. I ranked the long-grain in the clay pot higher than when it was cooked in the stone pot, double-lid donabe and enamelled cast iron pan; the rice seemed more fragrant, and there was a hint of the crust that is so appealing in bo jai fan (although with that Chinese clay pot rice dish, the crust is much darker and thicker).
When I tested Japanese short-grain rice in all three specialised pots, I liked it best in the dolsot (short grain rice is also used in Korean cooking) because it seemed lighter. But the donabe rice was also very good, although drier, and as with the clay pot, there was a bit of crust at the bottom.
How much water?
I’ve seen recipes that call for the rice-to-water ratio to be as high as 1:2 – twice as much water, by weight. That makes for very soggy rice. In general, I use a ratio of 1:1.2 or 1:1.3, depending on the age of the rice and the type. For my tastes, long-grain needs a 1:1.25 rice-to-water ratio; short grain needs a 1:1.2 ratio, while glutinous rice needs a 1:1.3 ratio. If you're cooking large amounts of rice, you'll need to use a lower ratio of water.
You can start with these ratios, but tweak them and the cooking times if you’re not getting the results you want. If you cook rice every day, changing one factor at a time, you’ll soon get rice that you like.
How to cook rice
Here’s my basic technique. Using weight measurements makes it easier to scale up or down, according to how many people you’re feeding.
Put a bowl on an electric scale and turn it on. Pour 200 grams of rice into the bowl. Leave the scale on and do not press the tare button. Add water to cover the grains by about 2cm. Stir the rice with your hand, then pour off most of the cloudy water.
Repeat the washing two or three more times, or until the water is still slightly cloudy – it should not be clear. After the final rinse, pour off most of the water. Place the bowl back on the scale and check the weight – it will be heavier because of the water.
Calculate the amount of water you need: if the desired rice-to-water ratio is 1.1.3, multiply 1.3 by 200 and you get 260 grams. Then add 200 grams for your rice. The bowl, now containing your rice and water, should weigh 460 grams. Let the rice soak for 30 minutes.
Put the rice and water into the pan of your choice. Place the lid on the pan, then put it over a high flame and bring to the boil. Turn the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes, then turn off the flame. Remove the lid and quickly fluff up the rice grains with the rice paddle (this step is optional, but I like to do it). Immediately put the lid back on the pot and leave to rest for 10 minutes before serving.
If you’re using a dolsot (Korean stone pot) or double-lidded donabe, the technique changes slightly. After washing the rice and adding the correct amount of water, put the rice in the pot and put the lid(s) in place. If you’re using a Japanese double-lidded donabe, make sure the two holes in the inner lid are not aligned with the single hole in the top lid.
Heat until the water boils. Lower the heat and simmer for five minutes, then turn off the flame and leave for 10 minutes. The rice will continue to cook in the residual heat of the pot.
The best way to store cooked rice
Take care when storing cooked rice. There’s a very slim chance of raw rice grains containing Bacillus cereus spores. This bacteria is dormant until the rice is cooked; but once it is activated, it multiplies when it’s in the “danger zone” (four degrees to 60 degrees Celsius).
If you’re using the “warm” function on an electric rice cooker, it’s hot enough that the bacteria won’t multiply, but once you take the rice out of the cooker (or when you turn off the flame on stove top cooked rice) there’s a chance that the bacteria – if it is present – will multiply. Whatever rice you do not eat immediately should be refrigerated quickly.