A t 6:30 on any given weeknight, I still don’t know what to make for dinner, but chances are good that a rice pilaf will be on the menu. It’s one of my favorites for dinner because most of the work gets done up front, freeing me to make the other dishes while it cooks. And if my timing on the other dishes is a bit off, the pilaf doesn’t mind waiting for me to catch up.
A pilaf is more than just cooked rice.
What makes a pilaf different is that the rice is first toasted in fat and then cooked in a measured amount of liquid (usually broth) that’s completely absorbed by the rice. Toasting the rice in the fat first gives it a slightly nutty flavor and causes the starch on the outside of each grain to gelatinize right away, so rice pilaf tends to have a firmer texture than boiled rice, and the individual grains stay separate.
Once the liquid is added, I use a three-stage cooking method to get the best texture. In the first stage, which I call the “boil-down” stage, the liquid boils rapidly, uncovered, until it comes down to a level just above the rice. This stage continues to quickly cook the outer starch in the rice and concentrates the cooking liquid, so the pilaf is more intensely flavored. But watch carefully: if too much liquid boils off, there won’t be enough to finish cooking the pilaf. As soon as the liquid is just above the rice and you see air holes forming in the rice, cover the pot and reduce the heat.
The second stage is a timed, covered, gentle simmer, during which the rice absorbs the remaining liquid and finishes cooking—and you’re free to do other things. This stage can happen either on the stove or in the oven, which is convenient if your other dishes are hogging one or the other. The third stage, a five-minute covered rest off the heat, lets the rice’s starch firm a bit so the grains separate easily when you fluff the pilaf. Once the five minutes are up, the rice is ready to go, but if you’re not ready for it, the pilaf will hold well for about another 15 minutes as long as you don’t take the lid off for very long.
To create an infinite variety of rice pilafs, just follow these steps and get inventive with the ingredients. This method makes four servings of pilaf.