Boiling Basmati

A friend of mine recounts with much amusement how I once gave a long speech on cooking rice to some hapless woman at a grocery store. Here's the shortened version Rice is the staple of Indian cooking, so one should not treat it lightly. Basmati is the king, but making it as fragrant as the restaurant requires a little technique. There are four steps in cooking any kind of raw (as opposed to parboiled) rice - rinsing, soaking, cooking and fluffing.

In India they would always rinse rice to make sure it was clean, but also to wash away the talc commonly used as a milling agent. Most rice today is clean and has no talc, so rinsing isn't required. Some of the surface starch gets washed away in the rinse, so you might want to do it anyway.

Soaking is a 15-30 minute affair, where cleaned and rinsed rice is left to soak in warm water. It's supposed to soften the grains and release the flavor and should be done unless you're in a hurry. They say you should use the same water to boil the rice so that nutrients are preserved. Cooking - there are two basic choices. The simpler one is to put an exact quantity of water and let it all dry up - called the absorption method. The other is like making pasta; put in excess water and drain when the rice is done - lets call it the draining method. Which one is better? I can't make out the difference but the draining method does get rid of a lot of starch and gives lighter rice that's easier to digest. It also seems to give longer, fuller grains.

In the absorption method, I use just under two cups of water per cup of rice for basmati. The proportion varies with different kinds of rice, but most basmati uses this ratio. The favorite way to cook by absorption is the rice cooker, but be aware that most Chinese and Korean ones are made for sticky rice so don't have a small perforated plate at the bottom that helps to trap excess starch. Without that, the bottom layer of rice will not be edible. Rice can also be made in a microwave or on a gas with a close-lidded vessel that allows steam to escape slowly. You should put a cloth on top of the vessel before closing it, to absorb the water that forms on the underside of the lid.

By the drainage method, you cook rice uncovered in around three cups of water per cup of rice. Here you have to keep watch, or you might end up with an inedible mass of sticky, overcooked rice. It takes about 10-12 minutes for the rice to be cooked al dente - firm but without any hard chalky core. Then drain the water out. The drained water is edible - there are recipes with that too.

The last stage is to let the rice sit covered on very low heat for about 5 minutes while it dries and fluffs up. Most people skip this stage, but without it your rice will invariably be a little sticky and fragile, not the flowing grains you want it to be. The drainage method removes the water and steam trapped in the rice more evenly; in the absorption method you should stir the top layer of rice slightly with a fork.

Final tips - a touch of butter or ghee at the end of cooking adds dramatically to the natural aroma of basmati. Also, my friend puts a bay leaf into the rice before steaming it.


  1. Fantastic! I have been waiting to ask you to follow me round a shop telling me all of this but it is now handily written down and I will print it and post it on the fridge and never make bd rice again. I think my dad would like a copy too -- I'll send him right here!

  2. i always add a bit of salt along with the ghee into the water-rice before the water starts boiling. i find that the basmati comes out really nice, just a hint of salt - tastes great with plain yogurt and mango pickle!

  3. My question is, Shanky, how often do YOU go through with the pre-soak process? In short, how necessary is it to your particular palate?
    Or is time more of the essence to you?

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  5. I admit, I dont pre-soak very often at all with the nicely packaged basmati rice. One shortcut I use a lot is to let the rice sit in the cooker for a while before I switch it on. I do think it makes a difference to the overall fragrance of the finished rice.

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  7. Two years after the original post, I must leave an update.

    Pre-soaking rice for half an hour has a dramatic effect on the length of the grains. You get much longer rice grains in the finished deal if you pre-soak at least 30 min.



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