6 Tips That (Mostly) Cured My Fear of Cooking Rice

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It all started in the hectic moments before a dinner party. I was serving sushi with amazing fresh fish ready to be rolled with rice and doused with soy sauce. I'd painstakingly followed every single cooking instruction on the sushi rice package, including washing the rice no fewer than 10 times and soaking it for 30 minutes. I slowly lifted the lid and tasted a few grains. Crunchy. Not a good sign.

Without fail, every single time I'd cook rice it would either be too dry or too wet, and always I'd find this out moments before it was to be served. It was irritating — how could I manage to always mess up such a simple dish? But I decided, rather than give in and buy a rice cooker (I'd still like one if I could justify the NYC-sized cupboard space), it was time to take control of my rice.

I'm pretty sure that most of what makes me a decent cook comes from my knack for following directions. I studied finance in school and appreciate a certain no-nonsense way of following a recipe. Rice appears to foster this rule-following behavior. Instructions are precise, especially when dealing with specialty varieties like sushi rice or risotto. But with the variations in gas and electric stoves, not to mention pots and pans and even differences in tap water, it's amazing rice purveyors can settle on one set of instructions in the first place. Ultimately, I had to buck all of these instructions to succeed.

This might read a little like instructions on how to boil water for those who are rice aficionados, but for the fellow rice cooking inept, you'll thank me later.

6 Tips for Cooking Rice

1. Rinse within reason. The instructions on many varieties of rice (yes, I always read the instructions so I can verify this is true) call to rinse until the water runs clear. Have you ever tried rinsing sushi rice until the water runs clear? It becomes clearer but never exactly clear. Two or three rinses is enough. Hint — I love using a French press for rinsing small quantities of rice. The plunger helps expel water and ensures nothing slips out.

2. It's OK to pick up the lid. The cardinal rule, or so I thought, when cooking rice was not to pick up the lid and take a look. Doing so will result in ruining the entire dish, exactly like opening a film canister and exposing negatives to light. Right? Wrong. How else will you be able to tell if your flame is too hot and scorching the bottom of the pan or too low and the liquid isn't even simmering? Of course it's best to allow the steam to build up inside, but one or two looks won't harm anything.

3. Check early and often. Now that you've conquered your fear of Picking Up The Lid, don't be afraid to check on the rice way before the instructions tell you it should be done. Maybe the heat needs to be adjusted or it's cooking much faster than you expected. Maybe you used broth instead of water and it's not quite behaving the same way — better to check for these scenarios while they can still be fixed.

4. Let it sit. Once you've tasted the rice and the texture is right, take the lid off and let it sit for a few minutes. Some of the moisture will evaporate and firm up the rice so it doesn't feel too sticky or wet.

5. All is not lost. So you've picked up the lid at the end of the cooking process and the rice didn't quite turn out. Unless the bottom is totally scorched (and even then the rice that didn't get burned may be salvageable), all is not lost. If the rice is not fully cooked but the liquid has been absorbed, add in some more liquid and resume the cooking process. If the rice is fully cooked but still watery, pour as much of the water off as possible and put it back on the stove to allow the moisture to steam off (covered with a lid).

6. Even refrigerated rice can be rescued. Plain rice has a way of hardening and losing moisture once refrigerated. Add the cold rice to a pan with a tablespoon or two of water. Break up the rice with a spoon and cook over low heat, covering with a lid for several minutes. The rice should absorb the moisture and come back to life.

How have you mastered cooking rice?

(Image credits: Emma Christensen)