If you want to cook perfect rice — the kind that always stays light and fluffy, with absolutely every grain remaining separate — then we can teach you. But first you will have to make a promise, and that is to memorise three simple little words: leave it alone! If you can do this you will always be able to cook long-grain rice perfectly, and never have to worry about it.
The number one enemy of fluffy, separate rice is the wooden spoon or, more specifically, the anxious cook who wields it. It is nervous prodding, poking and constant stirring that ruins rice. So there you are — that's the basic principle for the most common type of rice you'll have to cook, long-grain rice, but, of course, there are other kinds of rice that need different kinds of cooking. So for the beginner it's crucial to know your rice before you attempt to buy or cook it.
Know your rice
The simplest approach to rice cooking is to think in terms of four types of eating categories: first there's the fluffy, separate kind we've talked about; secondly there's the creamy, soupy kind used in risottos; then the clingy, sticky kind used in the Far East; and lastly what I'd call speciality rices, which have a distinctive characteristic of their own and are therefore not really in any of the categories already mentioned.
Brown or white?
Grains of rice, like wheat grains, are sometimes milled, which means the germ and the outer bran layer are removed in the process, revealing the inner grain, which comes in different shades of creamy white to pure white, depending on the variety. If the bran and germ are left intact, the colour of the grain is a rather appealing greeny-brown — hence the name brown rice. Here the flavour is more pronounced, slightly nutty and the texture is less soft, with more bite than white rice.
The advantage is that this rice contains (as you'd expect) more fibre, vitamins and minerals, but it takes longer to cook: 40 minutes as opposed to 15. But it's good to ring the changes, and there are times when I personally prefer brown to white rice for serving with certain dishes —with chilli, for instance, or in a rice salad. On the other hand, if I'm serving curry, I always prefer white rice, but it's good to experiment to find out what your own preferences are.
The long and short of it
What usually determines the 'eating' categories is the shape of the grain (although there is the odd exception, as you will see later).
Long-grain rice is precisely that, and the longer and thinner the grain is, the better the quality. So the grains should be mega-slim, with needle-sharp points at each end: this is the type of rice needed for separate, fluffy grains, and the best quality is called basmati. This is more expensive than others, but since cooking is about flavour, it is the one to buy, as it has a far superior taste. Although you will see dozens of varieties of long-grain rice, I believe it's well worth paying that little bit extra for basmati. Whether you are using the brown or the white, it's quite certainly the best.
Medium and short-grain rice
Here the grains are not long and thin, but rounder and plumper. This group comes in the creamy and sticky eating category described earlier. Risotto rice varieties include arborio, carnaroli and vialone nano.
In creamy, almost soupy risottos the rice is stirred, which releases some of the starch, and it is this that creates the lovely, smooth, creamy mass. The same kind of plump grain is used in Spain, and one of the finest varieties comes from the Valencia region and is called calasparra, which is used to make paella, though here the grains are not stirred, so they remain firm and distinct but with a moist, creamy edge.
In Japan there are several varieties of short-grain rice, ranging from the mildly sticky to the very sticky rice used to make su
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