When I make rice pilaf, I expect two things: light, fluffy texture—the individual grains of rice should be firm and separate, not mushy and stuck together—and bold, full flavors. Fortunately, it’s easy to achieve both. The unique cooking process that gives pilaf its distinctive texture also provides several opportunities to incorporate flavor into the dish.
The pilaf method: toast, simmer, rest
The basic technique for making pilaf is pretty straightforward: The rice first toasts in fat, then simmers in liquid, and finally rests off the heat. I’ve found that at each step, there’s a trick or two that will help deliver the fluffy texture I want. And there’s also a chance to layer on flavor (see “Building layers of flavor” below).
Toasting the rice briefly over medium-low heat in oil, butter, or another fat is key to getting dry, separate grains of rice. And the toasting process itself also gives the rice a subtle nutty flavor. During toasting, the grains shouldn’t actually turn golden or brown. They will, however, lose their translucency, and the starches on the outside of each grain will firm up. As a result, the grains will absorb liquid slowly and thus maintain their shape as they cook. Toasting rice over medium-low heat also helps keep the starches from escaping from the grains, which could result in sticky rice.
Use a little less liquid than usual and simmer gently. Instead of using the standard 2:1 liquid to rice ratio, I use 1-3/4 cups liquid for every 1 cup of rice. This helps ensure a dry, separate texture. Once you add the liquid, stir the pot once and no more. Then let the rice simmer undisturbed for 18 minutes (rather than the typical 20 minutes). Again, the less the rice is agitated, the less chance there will be for starches to gum things up.
Finally, let the rice sit undisturbed off the heat with the cover on for 5 minutes. This allows the starch to firm up, which means the grains will be more likely to separate rather than stick when you fluff the rice and fold in your finishing touches.
Building layers of flavor in 3 steps
Water is A-OK
As much as I love broth for pilafs, there’s nothing wrong with cooking your rice in water. As long as you’ve added interesting ingredients during the sauté stage and a few flavorful finishing touches, a pilaf made with water will still be very tasty. In fact, water is my liquid of choice when I want the rice to retain its white color, as in the Rice Pilaf with Spiced Caramelized Onions, Orange & Cherry.
Use the right rice
The pilaf technique will take you far toward getting good results, but to guarantee perfect texture, it’s also important to use the right kind of rice. The best choice is long-grain white rice. The individual grains are long and slender, and they contain a type of starch that is more apt to let the grains stay separate and fluffy as they cook.
I usually use Carolina brand long-grain white rice; its mild flavor makes it perfect for all sorts of seasonings. But other longgrain varieties work, too. Basmati rice, for example, is an aromatic variety that’s popular in India and Pakistan. It cooks up very dry, so it’s wonderful for pilaf. Another long-grain variety is Thai jasmine rice, which is aromatic and a tad stickier than basmati. I recommend using the Carolina rice for the southwestern pilaf and the pilaf with sage, Parmigiano, and prosciutto. Basmati rice would work deliciously in the pilaf with onions, orange & cherry. And you could try jasmine rice in the saffron pilaf recipe.
Food Science: Why long grain?
There are many kinds of rice, but only long-grain white rice is perfect for pilaf. Why? Because of its starch content. Different rice varieties contain different kinds and amounts of starch, and starch content is what ultimately determines whether rice grains become fluffy or sticky as they cook. Long-grain rice is rich in a type of starch (called amylose) that is quite stable and doesn’t get sticky during cooking, so the rice cooks up with firm, separate grains. Mediumand short-grain rice varieties, on the other hand, contain high amounts of a different type of starch (called amylopectin), which makes the rice grains become soft and sticky as they cook.
How to fluff pilaf
Without a doubt, a fork is the best tool for fluffing rice pilaf. A spoon encourages clumping, but a fork’s narrow tines gently separate the grains without breaking them, which helps preserve the perfect texture you’ve taken pains to achieve. Use a light hand, because vigorous stirring could break up the grains and encourage them to cling together.
Here’s my fork-fluffing technique: Slip the tines down into the rice alongside the edge of the pan. Gently lift and toss the rice toward the center of the pan. Continue this process as you work your way around the perimeter. Then add your finishing-touch ingredients and gently fold them in with the fork, using a similar gentle fluffing motion.