Frugal Cooking: 5 Simple Tips for Making the Perfect Pot of Rice

Cooking rice in a pot
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Growing up, I had a reputation as the cook in the family.

My busy, self-employed parents often turned to quick-fix meals based on frozen and packaged items. (If you are what you eat, 11-year-old me was a significant percentage Tater Tot.) This left me hungry for real, made-from-scratch cooking, so I took it into my own hands to learn how.

I don’t want to brag, but I have to admit, my skills were soon formidable. I whipped up smooth mashed potatoes, maple-glazed carrots and to-die-for chicken schnitzel. I could also bake a cheesecake even strangers insisted was the best they’d ever had.

But despite my taste for stir-fry, there was one seemingly simple dish I couldn’t quite master.

I’m talking about rice — that ubiquitous, filling, affordable base for a host of delicious dinners.

And when I tried to make my own, I burned it. Every. Single. Time.

Want to Know How to Cook Rice Perfectly?

You already know that rice is a fantastic kitchen staple. It’s crazy affordable, it goes with just about everything, and it’s a fairly nutritious option (especially if it’s brown).

But rice is only dirt cheap if you don’t routinely burn it or turn it to mush. If you only get a few servings out of that 10-pound bag, you’re wasting money, even if it’s only $5 — to say nothing of the cost of time and, of course, your disappointment.

But here’s the good news: Rice is actually really easy to cook properly!

At its heart, it really is as simple as bringing a pot of water to a boil.

Why then, you may ask, have you encountered so many pot bottoms covered in glued-on, brown-black grains?

When it comes to cooking perfect rice, the devil’s in the details.

5 Tips to Make the Perfect Pot of Rice, No Matter the Variety

Regardless of what type of rice you’re cooking, here are five tips on how to cook rice to perfection.

1. Do You Need to Rinse and Soak? It Depends.

Although you may have been taught that rinsing and soaking rice are essential first steps, that isn’t always the case. It depends on what kind of rice you have and what you plan on using it for.

Rinsing rice is supposed to make the finished product less sticky by reducing surface starch — it also used to be necessary to get rid of the chemicals used to process it. Today, most rice in the U.S. comes prewashed and ready to eat — and if you’re making white rice, rinsing might actually strip away some of the added nutrients.

Soaking can give tougher varieties a head start and improve their texture, but again, traditional white rice really doesn’t benefit from it much — in fact, it might end up mushier as a result.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. In some cases (i.e., risotto), you actually want your rice to be sticky. And costlier imported rices like basmati can benefit from a good soak before you start.

But in general, if you’re making plain old, cheap white rice to go with dinner, you can skip this step entirely.

2. Get the Ratio Right.

The most important part of cooking a batch of rice is ensuring you’ve measured out the correct amount of the two primary ingredients: rice and water.

Your bag of rice will likely list rice-to-water ratios on the back, so you can figure out exactly how much you need for your required serving. However, a general rule of thumb is for each cup of rice, use 2 cups of water.

White rice, which has had its outer bran layer processed away, might require a little less liquid than this; brown and wild rice varieties might require more. Either way, it’s always better to have too much water than too little.

After all, you can always drain your rice in a colander if it’s finished before it absorbs all the liquid… but if you don’t add enough in the first place, you’re looking at a blackened mess.

3. Be Careful With the Salt.

It’s OK to season your rice by salting the cooking water, but be careful about adding too much. Some chefs say this can cause the grains to split open, resulting in a mushy mess instead of the delicious, tender, fluffy rice you’re after.

You can always add more salt and flavorings to your rice after it’s finished — so don’t go crazy with the shaker beforehand!

4. Pay Attention to the Time — but Don’t be Too Attentive.

Even though making rice is technically as simple as boiling water, you can’t just walk away and forget about it. Then again, it doesn’t take well to helicopter cooking, either.

The amount of time your rice will need to achieve perfect tenderness will vary depending on the variety. Again, softer, processed white rice takes less time than wild rice and other natural varieties.

After you’ve added your rice to the boiling water, reduce it to a simmer and cover — no peeking! Set a timer as follows:

Cooking time for white rice: 16 minutes

Cooking time for brown rice: 20 minutes

Cooking time for wild rice: 30 minutes (but it may end up needing 45 minutes or even an hour!)

Once the timer goes off, you can lift the lid and check — but don’t stir!

Generally, finished rice has absorbed all the water and will be studded with tiny holes where steam has escaped. You can pick up a grain or two and do a taste test.

If it’s still hard in the middle, it needs more time. If it’s just about done, good work. Now cut off the heat and put the cover back on — it needs to sit and steam for 10 more minutes before it’s ready to fluff and serve.

5. Customize According to Your Needs.

One of the best parts of rice is its versatility, but that also means there are lots of different ways to cook it “right.”

For instance, if you’re trying to roll your own sushi at home, the stickier your rice, the better. And if you’re planning on frying it up, starting with a mushy batch isn’t such a catastrophe.

You can also use different cooking liquids depending on the final application. Amp up the flavor of savory dishes by subbing chicken broth for water, or sweeten rice bound for a dessert recipe by cooking it in milk.

Like all things in the kitchen — and in life, actually — the most important ingredient in cooking perfect rice is lots and lots of practice.

And if all else fails, you can always nab a rice cooker for less than $20. (I’ll be honest: That’s how I ended up conquering my own burned-rice problem. So if you go this route, don’t worry — we won’t tell!)

Jamie Cattanach’s work has been featured at Roads & Kingdoms, the BUST blog, Ms. Magazine, The Write Life and elsewhere. You can learn more and wave hello on Twitter: @jamiecattanach.