Saturday, February 22, 2014

How to Make Fluffy, Flavorful Rice (Like an Arab)

Sticky rice, fluffy rice, gummy, gluey rice, bland, wet or crunchy rice.  I have made all of these things.

I remember rice as my first culinary challenge out of college.  If I can just cook rice, I thought, I can feed myself.  And while the instructions on the sack always seemed so simple, so straight forward, the results were rarely good.  My Chinese roommate had a little electric rice cooker that she swore by, and I loved the beautifully steamed rice that she produced, but even that little gadget alluded my attempts.  For a while, I gave up and accepted half-soggy, half-crunchy bland rice.

It was very sad.

Because we Arabs love our rice!  Like our friends farther east, from India all the way to Japan, we love our rice.  Our rice style is more similar to Indian rice, and every time I dig into a vibrant dish of biryani, it reminds me of home.  Arabs pride themselves in producing light, fluffy rice, with a nutty and rich flavor, well seasoned enough to stand on its own.  We love to serve mounds of fluffy white rice, warmly spiced with the flavors of allspice, turmeric, cinnamon or nutmeg, topped with buttery pine nuts or almonds fried in ghee.  For a simple childish favorite, we serve this with just a scoop of fresh plain yogurt, and we call it rooz ma' laban.  Please, mama, we would beg my mother, can we skip the sauce and just have rooz ma' laban?

Can you blame me?

After watching my mother, badgering her with questions, and then (this was the hard part), actually doing what she told me to do, I learned how to make a decent pot of rice.  If you want to make delicious rice that will wake up any basic fish, chicken or steak meal, look no further.

1.  Choose a long grain rice, like basmati.

For a long time, I tried using jasmine rice, because I loved the slightly sweeter flavor.  But after pot after pot of sticky rice, I learned my lesson and reserved jasmine for meals where I want a sticky rice.  Now I choose a long grain basmati for my Middle Eastern meals, or for any time I want a fluffy, dry texture with a nutty flavor. 

2.  Soak your rice.

If you have never soaked your grains before, this might seem like an odd step.  Why should you soak your rice?

Well, because it will improve the end result. How many times have you cooked rice only to find it both strangely overdone (sticky, falling apart) AND underdone (crunchy at the core)?  Soaking your grains will prevent this.  My Palestinian mother taught me to always soak my rice before cooking it, because it allows the grains to swell gently and the rice cooks evenly. She usually soaked her rice for a few hours, but if pressed for time, she would just  let her rice soak for half an hour.  It turns out that many traditional cultures do soak and rinse their rice before cooking.  

Nourishing Bonus:  I discovered, much to my delight, that soaking rice actually improves its health benefits.  To read about this, check out my post on why I soak my grains.

3.  Rinse, rinse, repeat.

Drain your rice into a sieve.  Did you notice that the soaking water is white and starchy?  Rinse away all of the starch by rinsing the rice under a running tap until the water runs clear.  This will make your rice nice and fluffy.

Nourishing Bonus:  By the way, have you read all of the reports that rice has higher levels of arsenic?   Guess how you can reduce levels of arsenic in your rice?  You guessed it:  rinse it!  Just one more reason to rinse your rice.

4.  Toast the rice.

Okay, so how to achieve fluffy rice?  Heat up a generous amount of fat --we use butter, ghee or olive oil --in the bottom of a heavy-bottomed sauce pan.  Then pour your drained rice on top.  Stir and cook your rice until the rice grains turn opaque and have a pearly look to them, and they begin to smell nutty.  This only takes 2-3 minutes.  Stir vigorously, or the rice will stick to the bottom of the pan.    

Nourishing Bonus:  Fats are an essential health-building food, so I am never afraid to be generous with my grass-fed butter, ghee, or my virgin organic olive oil. 

5.  Cook rice in stock.

Of course, you can always cook rice in plain water, but if you want to increase the flavor, always cook your rice in a savory broth, homemade if you have it. This will give your rice a richer, umami flavor, that savory taste that will keep you coming back for more.  I keep a handy freezer stash of homemade stock at all times, which I reduce down to a rich stock and then I freeze in ice cube trays.  Anytime I make rice, I just throw a couple of frozen cubes into my pot and reduce the amount of water a little.  

The amount of liquid will vary depending on the variety of rice, the age of the rice, how tightly your lid fits onto your pot, and how long you soaked your rice.  The typical ratio is 2:1 liquid to rice.  I always go shy of this and then add more if needed. For example, for two cups of rice, I use three and a half cups of liquid.

Nourishing Bonus:  While rice doesn't have a whole lot of nutritional value, the broth that I use does.  Homemade stock made from the bones of organic pastured animals is rich in nutrients.  Read more about the benefits of bone broth and the easiest way to make bone broth with these two posts from the blog, Nourished Kitchen.  

6.  Be fearless with spices.

Americans are afraid of spices, my mother said to me once, while she was seasoning a pot of rice.   Let it say something.  Let it be flavorful, savory, let it compliment the flavors of the dish.  Don't be afraid to open up your spice cabinet and experiment.  For Middle Eastern meat dishes, I like rice flavored with allspice and a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg.  For chicken dishes, I like turmeric and curried rice (find my easy-peasy recipe for a curry mix here)  Sometimes I toss in a bay leaf and a cardamom pod to flavor a pot of rice, other times I add cumin and coriander. Season generously with salt and pepper.  The key is to be fearless, to experiment, and to give yourself permission to live a little dangerously.  Use a heavy hand.  And if it doesn't work out, you can always just do what my mother taught me to do:  shrug and say, it was supposed to be that way. 

Nourishing Bonus: Spices have always been prized for both their culinary and medicinal uses. Turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory, for example, and cinnamon has multiple disease-fighting properties, and allspice is helpful for digestion, just to name a few.

7.  Cook to perfection.

Because your rice has been soaked, rinsed and toasted, it will cook up in no time.  Bring the liquid to a boil, then turn down to the lowest heat possible. Cover and don't peek for 10-12 minutes.  Then check it quickly, lifting the pot.  If the water has disappeared and some long holes appear between rice grains, where bubbles have dissipated, then the rice is done.  Rice should be dry on top, but tender.  Taste a couple of grains.  Then cover the pot again and let it sit for a few minutes or up to half an hour, to finish steaming.  

8.  Dress it up with extras.

If you want to add a little flair to your rice, turn it into a pilaf by toasting up some broken vermicelli noodles with your fat before adding the rice to sauté. Or top it will some toasted pine nuts, almonds, or some chopped herbs.

Sahtain!  And may your rice be anything but boring!

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  1. Love this! You'd think it would be simple, but we all know it's not. Do you add spices before or after it cooks? And thanks for pushing us white girls to use more spices. =) Looking forward to better rice!

    1. I'm so glad that you liked this! Your comment made me laugh. I add spices to the liquid as I am bringing it up to a boil. Enjoy!

  2. I'm blown away ! And to think I've always just simmered it until tender. :( Now, I'll try your method!

    1. Thank you! I have certainly made my share of plain rice. Sometimes it is just the thing for a rich saucy dish, but I actually find that I can get away with a plain meal if I dress up the rice a little. Good luck with your rice adventures!

  3. I am definitely "afraid of" spices. Mostly because every time I've experimented, it's been inedible/disgusting. At least if I don't spice it, it's edible, albeit bland. :/ lol I need a better sense of what works together.

    I am wondering about soaking and rinsing the rise. Does that not rinse most of the nutrients out?

    1. No, the nutrients are inside of the grain, not on the outside. It's just like rinsing beans or other other legumes before using them. As for adding flavor, maybe just start with the subtle flavor of stock and build slowly from there. Add just a hint of the same seasoning that you are using in the rest of the dish. I think it's a bit easier for Arabs because we cook with a core of spices, and so we know what goes with what.

  4. Thank you! I will give that a try.

    I know I had a similar experience when I traveled to Mexico. Some of the local ladies cooked for us, and the bean & rice burritos they made were SO amazingly seasoned. Not "spicy" (not hot/picante, I mean), but well-seasoned. I still wish I could recreate them, but I didn't speak enough Spanish to ask what they'd put in them!

    I wonder if we Americans (that don't have a single, obvious ethnic heritage in the kitchen) struggle with seasonings because we DON'T have a single culinary tradition. I think most regions of the world have their own core spices, but if you're kind of from everywhere and nowhere...there's no consistent selection.

    I mean, I have everything in my cupboard from turmeric to ground chipotle chile to rosemary. There's not exactly cohesion there! lol

    1. Rachel, you are so right! It seems like traditional cuisines each have a core of seasonings that they use, enjoy and really understand, and so there is a shared knowledge passed down from generation to generation: This is how we season rice, chicken, etc. But here in America, we have so many options, and we cook so many different kind of cuisines that we have lost that seasoning sense, I suppose.

      The other thing is that I wonder if we are more comfortable with herbs than spices? If I go into most American spice drawers, I find a lot of dried herbs, a lot of powdered onion, garlic, celery, etc, and some pepper mixes, like steak seasoning and lemon pepper. But the only spices I usually see are "pumpkin pie" spices, like cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and those are only relegated to sweet holiday treats.

      Maybe because spices are/were expensive here for a long time? Or it is because the West wasn't exposed to the rich spice trade? I am not sure! But there is certainly a discomfort there.

      I would say, since you don't have that handed-down knowledge and you do want to cook many different cuisines, it might be worth it to look up what basic spices are used in every cuisine. So, for Mexican rice, I would try a little cumin, sautéed onion, chili powder, and a touch of cinnamon, and maybe some tomato in there? For many of my chicken dishes, I either use turmeric, or the Middle Eastern curry powder (see my most recent post), or both. For spicy meat dishes, I use rice with cinnamon and allspice. For fish dishes, I like plain turmeric/curried rice, or a little cumin rice, or just rice with vermicelli and almonds on top. I usually go by how I am seasoning the fish (and just add that to the rice), or the kind of sauce I am using. And if you are out of ideas, I think that a nicely prepared plain rice made with broth and sprinkled with nuts is still always a hit!

      I hope that you enjoy a little experimentation in your kitchen!

  5. Yeah; I guess my grandparents didn't cook, because we HAD ethnic roots (at least on one side of the family) just a few generations back, but I don't have any of that. (I have Lithuanian and Slovene g-g-grandparents, but nary a Lithuanian or Slovene recipe.)

    This was REALLY helpful, though! I'm actually copying and saving the whole comment for reference.

    1. I'm glad you found it helpful! As I was writing that really long comment, I wondered whether I should just write another post on the topic. Maybe I will! :-)

  6. I didn't know rice should be soaked! I love rice and sometimes it turns out good and others it does not. Great info. Thanks for sharing with us at The HomeAcre Hop!

    Please join us again Thursday at:


  7. thinking of Lenten food, and another cold and snowy day in the mid-west, so I'm off to find the bags of spices I bought last week at a middle eastern shop in Fisher's, IN. and the bag of basmati rice I already had...

  8. I love Palestinian food, I have Palestinian friends who make rice like this, but no actual recipe. Would you mind giving me a full recipe for the rice in your pictures, with exact quantities to get me started? Thanks!

  9. Hi! I found your blog by doing a search for 'fluffy rice like Middle East' because I love the pilafs I've tried. What a beautiful blog. I read one entry, after another, after another. Took some ground lamb out of the freezer for your meatball recipe tomorrow. There are so many things I love about your blog. I'm a Christian too. And I love your 'traditional food' focus - hubby and I are mostly Paleo, so any praise for 'good fats' and other traditional food truths is welcome! My husband is from Turkey, and I love to make dishes that remind him of home. I'm excited to try some of yours. Thank you for your work on this blog and your beautiful writing! I've added you to my feed – I hope you write regularly! :)

    1. Welcome, Grace! I enjoy meeting readers and hearing about their connections to food. It sounds like we have a lot in common! I love traditional food culture, and I'm familiar with Paleo, since we have family members who are Paleo. So, ahlan wa sahlan, as we say at home: welcome! I hope you enjoy reading and cooking your way through this blog!

  10. Hmm, now I can't find the lamb meatball recipe. I thought it was on this site! Lamb meatballs in a yogurty sauce? Anyway... I followed your recipe for this flavourful, fluffy rice, and it was delicious. Thumbs up from Toronto! :)

    1. So happy you enjoyed it! The meatball recipe is still up:

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  12. Dear Jessica,
    I have to repost my comment due to too many typographical errors in the first message.
    My husband and I frequently dine at a local restaurant where the chef is Palestinian and he created the most fantastic rice dish which is served as an accompaniment to almost every entree on the menu. I am trying to replicate that rice dish and your recipe for rice cooked with allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg seems to be the closest I can find to his. His rice contains pine nuts, cinnamon (according to our waitress) and petite peas. The pine nuts in it are surely toasted.
    I have no sense of smell at all due to very bad sinus infection 25 plus years ago. This makes for a challenge when I cook in regards to seasoning foods.
    Would you please give me an idea regarding how much of a ratio to use of cinnamon:allspice:nutmeg please using one cup of raw rice?
    Thank you for sharing your family recipes and traditions on your blog ☺️.

  13. ohhh its seems so delicious recipe , I hope my mom will be able to cook and create the exact taste as this recipe have , thanks for sharing

  14. I just made this white long grain white rice. I added tumeric, parsley and garlic powder into the broth before steaming. I'll never make rice the old way again. Perfect!

  15. Your post is awesome. You have shared very valuable information to us. Thank you so much for sharing this.
    value Basmati Rice

  16. I used this recipe for the second time today, and it will be the only way I ever cook rice again. Very flavorful, thank you for sharing this!

  17. What an awesome post, I just read it from start to end. Learned something new after a long time. Its extremely good and very helpful for me.Thanks for sharing this great post.
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  18. A wonderful post! I am making Moroccan lamb meatballs for dinner and wanted an interesting side. Not just plain boiled rice. I've never soaked my rice or toasted it in fat. You've given me some ideas, so thank you!!

  19. Thnks for the help .. I started living alone recently and finally realized that I can't live off fast food for ever XD. Btw I'm also Arab so you'd figure I at least know how to cook rice buuut u are wrong. So this post helped avoid my mom laughing at me when I ask how to cook rice. The rice is cooking while I'm writing this, hope it comes out tasty. Again thank u

  20. This post was exactly what I needed. I am trying to cook more often and I don't currently because the things I cook are so much less flavorful than take-out from a variety of restaurants or they end up being too expensive because of all the ingredients I have to buy just to add some flavor. Some stock and spices will definitely keep the cost of cooking reasonable while I develop a core of recipes to use. Thanks!


Trying this recipe? A question or a comment? I'd love to hear from you!