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I rarely ate rice growing up, and only recently started cooking it. I started with basmati, and seemed to do alright with that, but my wife (who used to live in Korea) said she preferred rice to clump together, as opposed to the perfect individual grains of a nicely cooked basmati.

Well, as embarrassed as I am to say so, I've been struggling with this two-ingredient dish. I've tried using short-grain rice, which helped somewhat, but using my basmati technique on it is not yielding the desired result.

After doing some research, I've found a slew of conflicting advice, on nearly every point, including:

  • Wash / don't wash
  • Soak / don't soak
  • Use less / more water
  • Boil hard / steam on lowest setting

What I would love to know is, what do each of these factors really do?

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2  
FYI, I wash the (long grain or basmati) rice about 5 or 6 times, soak it for 20 minutes, use enough water for it to come up about 7-8mm above the surface of the rice, boil it hard with the lid off until the water has boiled away from the surface, then turn the heat off and put a tight lid (with foil) on it for at least 15 minutes - clumpy rice every time. –  ElendilTheTall Jun 8 '11 at 11:49
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Maybe you can add 'Salt/no salt' and 'Rince/don't rince' to your list. –  Mien Jun 9 '11 at 15:16

4 Answers 4

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Rice is mostly made of starch. Starch is, in itself, a molecule made up of glucose components attached to each other. There are two types of starch: Amylose - it is a long straight chain of glucose - and amylopectin, which has a branchy and fuzzy structure. When you cook a rice which is rich in amylose, the grains stay separate. When you cook rice which is high in amylopectin, its starch molecules catch on each other and cause clumping. So the main factor is indeed the type of rice. While the amylopectin rich varieties in general are short grained and amylose rich ones are long grained, it can be that you accidentally picked a non-sticky short-grained rice.

Washing will cause less sticking. Normally, the starch in rice has to be released from the cells before it can stick. In a bag of rice, there are many cells which are broken mechanically during handling/transport, and their starch is free, clinging to the surface. If you wash it away first, you have less sticky grain so less clumping.

Now for soaking. Starches are packed very close in a grain. For gelation (that's when they cook and swell) you need both enough water and the right temp (70 degr. C). As heating is quicker than water penetration, presoaking makes things quicker. I guess soaking will help stickiness a bit, because there will be more molcules ready to swell in a short time. Plus, some of these will come undone from the grains and start swimming free around. This turns the water itself into a weak glue (so don' discard).

Using less water will help with stickiness. This will result in a bigger concentration of free starches in the water.

A slow simmering should also promote clumping slightly, as the starches will have more time to swell, move around, and hook to new starches.

All arguments above are the theoretical explanation for the direction in which the factors you mention are likely to influence clumping, given that the rice is always the same. In practice, their effect should be much smaller than choosing the correct type of rice. In fact, amylopectin rich rice types aren't soaked as often, because they don't need it - amylose is packed tighter. I don't know about washing habits, but it is cooked with less water, because it needs less. And any rice should be cooked slowly, a hot boil overcooks the outside and leaves the inside hard.

In the end, if your wife wants the rice she is familiar with, you must buy short-grain japonica rice. Else ask for a "sticky" indica, that's better than just eyeballing grain length.

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There are a number of things that effect the resulting product when cooking rice. It comes down to two factors. The length of the grain and the way it is prepared. The shorter the grain, the more starch is released. A short grain rice, will tend to clump together as their will be a lot of starch released to the surface and all around it. Longer grains will not release as much starch, so you get individual clean grains.

Brown rice is rice, that hasn't had the bran removed. White, polished rice, is simply the same grain, with the bran taken off. The bran contains lots of nutrients and adds a new level to the flavour, but also significantly slows down the cooking time.

So... regarding some of your discrepancies:

  • I generally wash my rice. There is usually enough starch in whichever rice I pick for the application. If I want clumpy rice, I use a short grain. If I want individual grains, I go for a long grain.
  • Soaking is a way to cut down on cooking time, as it can be done before hand. A soaked rice grain, will absorb some of the water, so it will cook faster. This is useful, for brown rice which takes much longer to cook.
  • Less/more water... I find that usually it's pretty exact. A cooked grain will take the same amount of water to cook. I'm not sure why you'd want extra water other than being unable to measure in the first place... I use what my mom/grandmother taught me. Touch the top of the rice with your pointer finger, add water to the first knuckle. Works every time.

Alton Brown has some really good explanations of different grains and cooking methods in a few Good Eats episodes:

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ok sorry if i'm being too technical here, but i am curious why it is that the shorter grains release more starch? (i can ask this in the food science section if need be) –  Kati Jun 9 '11 at 5:35
    
cancel that request! just read rumstscho's answer about the glucose chains. makes sense. thanks to you both. –  Kati Jun 9 '11 at 5:39

To avoid the water issue I just add far more water than required and then use a strainer to get the rice as soon as it's done.

The thing I heard about washing it first is that there can be grains in the rice that don't become soft when cooked and this can give you the feeling of having very very fine sand in the rice. I never had this issue so I don't wash my rice.

Soaking, as talon8 pointed out is only really a thing for brown rice for reducing the time to prepare the rice immensly.

When it comes to water temperature, I boil it so that there are bubbles but not too strong so there is no foan boiling over. The bubbles keep the grains moving and I assume that this reduces the cooking speed slightly.

I think that there aren't any differences when it comes to taste, at least I didn't notice any. Just figure out what works for you :)

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The real steam method as follows might work for you:

  1. Wash the rice as usual.
  2. Soak for 30 minutes if desired. (For people preferring a firmer texture, skip this)
  3. Pour in hot water (same amount as the rice, i.e. 1 cup rice to 1 cup of water). Again, adjust to taste. Less water for firmer texture. More for softer.
  4. Put the bowl into a steam pot (the kind that you use to steam dim-sum, or just a larger regular pot with enough water and a small rack at the bottom to hold up the bowl). Steam for 40 minutes.
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