Creamy, vanilla-scented, soothing, and satisfying, rice pudding is one of my all-time-favorite comfort foods. And I know I'm not alone. Just the mention of rice pudding elicits more "oohs," "mmms," and "aaahs" than other desserts seem to. (When I was testing recipes for this story, quite a few more neighbors than usual offered to come take the leftovers off my hands.)
Yet rice pudding can be downright awful when not made the right way. I have a few tricks for getting the creamiest results, including using medium-grain rice, milk (not cream), and a two-step stovetop cooking method where you cook the rice in milk and then stir in eggs to make a custard. After you've tried my Classic Rice Pudding, use it as the springboard for delicious variations (see below). Try the Ginger Crème Caramel Rice Pudding and Baked Brown Rice Pudding, too. While keeping silky consistency and creamy flavor as their trademarks, they each offer a tasty departure from the traditional.
Eggs add rich flavor and custardy texture
The ingredients in rice pudding are simple ones, but a few important choices ensure the best outcome. Medium-grain rice throws off the right amount of starch to thicken the pudding and make it creamy. At the same time, it stays tender through the cooking without breaking apart, which keeps the pudding from turning mushy. I've tried long-grain rice, but it doesn't stay intact and is less starchy, so the finished pudding is less creamy. Arborio and other short-grain rices, which are even starchier than medium grain, make a thick, sticky pudding and maintain too firm a bite for a smooth, tender result.
Creamy pudding needs slow, gentle cooking so the rice is tender and the milk is reduced.
For a luscious pudding, I prefer milk rather than cream, oddly enough. The combination of the rice starch and gently simmered milk produces a thick, rich rice pudding that belies its not-so-rich milk base. I avoid cream because it reduces and thickens before the rice cooks through—a dense, chewy pudding with a fatty mouth-feel being the result. The only exception is the Baked Brown Rice Pudding, where a combination of heavy cream and evaporated milk gives the smoothest texture (brown rice needs longer baking, which would cause the milk to break, with a curdled, watery result).
Not all rice puddings are custard based, of course, but I like the added richness of stirring in beaten egg yolks after the rice is tender. The pudding color changes from bright white to mellow yellow, while the eggs add luxurious texture and deeper flavor.