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
Start with an aromatic base. Creating a deeply flavored pilaf begins before you toast the rice. Choose a flavorful fat (like olive oil, butter, or ghee), and then sauté your aromatic ingredients in it.
Add a flavorful liquid. Try chicken broth instead of water, or use a bit of both with wine or a fruit juice. As the liquid boils down, it concentrates, infusing the pilaf with intense flavor
Stir in the finishing touches. Finally, fold in ingredients that add textural interest as well as flavor. Try uncooked ingredients like fresh herbs, nuts, and cheeses, or precooked items like crispy bacon or caramelized onions.