The delicate art of cooking rice

Preparation info

  • Difficulty


Appears in

Lands of the Curry Leaf

Lands of the Curry Leaf

By Peter Kuruvita

Published 2018

  • About

The cooking of rice and the ‘best’ method for doing so is something that divides people. I always think it depends on the rice and the dish, but I can understand this source of contention, given the variety of rices available and the many ways of cooking it.

With pasta, you know where you stand. There isn’t much more to it than boiling a potato, but rice can be a temperamental little beast. It is prone to gathering in great claggy clumps, or boiling over in a torrent of unappetising foam. To be able to master rice is a feat and one worthy of your time.


Preparation Washing

Washing the rice in several changes of water is recommended in many Asian countries, but pretty useless with the highly polished rice available on our shelves, which has generally been exhaustively picked over to rid it of any remaining husks and other detritus before packaging. I certainly find very little in the stuff I buy.

Some claim it is still important to wash because it removes excess starch and will result in a fluffier grain of rice, but I think you are hard pressed to tell the difference. I also object to this, given my upbringing. My grandmother would serve me the starchy water from cooking rice whenever I was unwell — everything was looked at as a possible form of nourishment, and nothing was wasted.

You should, however, wash your rice once. Just pour cold water onto it and agitate it with your fingers; it doesn’t matter if the water is still cloudy. Then simply drain the rice and cook in the required amount of fresh water.


The purpose of soaking rice is to help soften the grains, so the water can penetrate them more easily and stop them sticking together during cooking. Again I think this comes down to personal preference. I never do this, and think it unnecessary; most rice takes so little time to cook, except for sushi rice, and I believe this is where the idea of soaking rice came from — it is a different variety of rice, and needs to be soaked, so it is sticky, to enable you to make sushi. The rice I am talking about is always enjoyed fluffy but sticky, the perfect balance of enough starch and water to allow the grains to absorb all those beautiful subcontinental flavours.

Cooking Methods

I often console people who get frustrated about incorrectly cooking rice by pointing out that in rice-eating cultures around the world, and in places such as Iran, a ‘burnt’ rice crust at the bottom of the pan is eagerly fought over as a delicacy.

The key is to try all the different methods and see what works for you. Taste is personal, but for me it’s the absorption method that always delivers the most consistent results. If you follow the instructions and measurements on a rice cooker, your rice will be perfect all the time. It always astounds me when chefs in commercial kitchens deem the measuring cup unnecessary, then wonder why their rice is undercooked or gluggy.

According to the Packet Instructions

Unfortunately, the directions printed on a rice packet are generic and don’t necessarily account for the type of grain or the end use of the rice in your dish. Proceed with caution.

The Absorption Method/Finger Method

This is one of the more common methods for cooking rice across the subcontinent. Rice dishes cooked in this way are meant to retain more flavour and nutrients. The basic rule of thumb for the absorption method is to put rice in a saucepan, and add water to 2.5 cm (1 inch) above the rice (this is the distance between the top of the rice and the first joint of an average adult finger). No matter how much rice you use, or how large your saucepan, the water should always come up to the first finger joint, if your fingertip is just touching the rice. Bring to the boil, cover with a tight-fitting lid, turn the heat to low and cook for 13–15 minutes. Stand covered for 5 minutes, fluff up with a fork and serve. The rice should be swollen, but still chalky to the bite.

Rice Cooker

This is another use of the absorption method, retaining similar quantities of nutrients. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions. The machine switches off when the rice is cooked, but sends more heat through at intervals to keep the rice hot, dry and fluffy.


This approach requires steaming of parboiled rice (which has already been simmered for 8–10 minutes). The partially softened rice is transferred to a strainer and steamed over a saucepan of boiling water until cooked through. The result is good, but results in a lot of washing up compared to other methods.

The Oven

Once the rice has been cooked, using any of the methods outlined above, it can also be finished off in a buttered baking dish in the oven — 15 minutes at 180ºC (350ºF), swaddled in buttered baking paper and foil. This method gives a slightly drier result.

Boiling Rice

Boiling results in greater nutrient losses and produces a less fluffy result than the absorption method. It may be useful if cooking on an open fire where the heat cannot be turned down. For every 1 cup of raw rice, bring 4 cups water to the boil; add the rice and cook, uncovered, for 12–14 minutes, before draining the rice in a colander.


This is a variation of the absorption method. Use a microwave-safe container large enough to hold twice as much rice and water as you start with (or it will boil over). Cover with plastic wrap and use 1 cup rice with 1½ cups water and cook in the microwave for 12 minutes on HIGH; for 2 cups rice use 3 cups water and cook for 14 minutes on HIGH.

While convenient, microwaved rice is often not as fluffy as the steamed or simmered versions.