Why are the simple things such a challenge, especially in the kitchen? Rice seems like it would be the easiest of items to cook, but it often ends up lumpy and stuck together, resembling something more like glue or paste, gummy and tasteless. The good news is that once you’ve figured out what not to do when you cook rice, it’s a pretty foolproof base for all kinds of delicious dishes.
We’ve put together a list of 20 rice mistakes, some common and others you may not have thought about. Don’t take them as criticism—they’re more as a cautionary tale to improve your rice cooking so that you can get the results you want for your recipes. And if you love cooking, sign up for our newsletter to get daily recipes and food news in your inbox!
Mistake: Not storing rice properly
Dust and other contaminants can invade your rice, but there are a few quick steps that will prevent this easily. Rice should be placed in an airtight container, even if it’s in the original package. This can be an actual container with a lid or something as simple as a plastic bag. If you’re still concerned, rice can be kept fresh by storing it in the refrigerator or the freezer.
Mistake: Picking the wrong cookware
The pot that cooks rice the best has a heavy bottom—that way, the heat will distribute evenly. Thinner pots deliver the heat source straight to the delicate rice, which may cause it to burn. A heavier-bottomed pot will also steam the water throughout, allowing it to saturate all the rice grains.
Mistake: Thinking you need a rice cooker
Chef Darin Sehnert of Chef Darin’s Kitchen Table, which hosts culinary classes in Savannah, Georgia, often finds himself in a quandary. He sells cookware and tools and would like customers to buy rice cookers, but he finds that they don’t need it.
“People think all the time that they need a rice cooker, but if you don’t have one, no one has ever said, ‘I have too much cabinet space at home.’ Use what you have,” the chef says.
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Mistake: Using a lid that doesn’t fit snugly
Part of the methodology of cooking rice involves using the correct ratio of liquid to rice and steam to create light, fluffy grains. And if the lid of the pot doesn’t fit, then steam escapes. This also causes the liquid to run thick rivulets of starch down the pot, which is just an inconvenience for cleaning the pot later. It’s better to stick with the recipe and get a tight lid.
Mistake: Treating all types of rice the same
Different recipes call for particular rice varieties. Arborio is traditional for risotto, jasmine rice compliments Asian dishes, and short-grain rice is preferred for sushi. And each type of rice requires a little adjustment in liquid and cooking time.
Brown rice has an outer coating of bran, which needs a little more liquid and time to cook properly. If you are using any other type of rice than long grain, do a little research to make sure you’ve got the right method.
Mistake: Forgetting to rinse
Rinsing the rice removes the dusty starch that is created from the grains rubbing together in the package. Less starch equals less gummy rice, which is the desired result.
Mistake: Not investigating other cooking methods
Everyone has their challenges in the kitchen, and chefs are no different. Chef Darin prefers a different method of cooking rice. “I do the oven-steamed method because I’ve always been horrible at boiled rice,” he says.
His method involves heating a pan and toasting the grains with some fat to get it lightly browned, adding the liquid of your choice, closing the lid, and placing it into a preheated oven for 30 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. The rice comes out and sits and is fluffed to perfection.
Chef Darin also recommends trying to treat rice like pasta. “You can boil rice like pasta. Put it in a large pot of salted water and boil until it’s tender. For people that are rice-challenged, it’s another method,” he says.
The important strategy is to find that method that works best for you.
Mistake: Not toasting your rice
A key part of Chef Darin’s method involves toasting the rice in the pot before any water is added. This injects the grain with a nutty flavor.
“Heat up [the] pan and the fat that you are using to toast the rice. Sauté that until it’s got a popcorn-like aroma,” he says. “That takes basic white rice and gives it so much more flavor without even purchasing basmati or jasmine.”
Mistake: Using the wrong liquid-to-rice ratio
The two parts liquid to one part rice, or 2:1 ratio, is recommended by Chef Darin, in all but a few rice dishes. “If you’re serving that rice under a saucy item like a stir-fry or stew, I personally recommend a 1 1/2 to 1 ratio,” he says. “The rice still will fluff up but will absorb more of the sauce you are putting on top.”
Mistake: Forgetting to salt
If you only add water to your rice, it will be bland. There are so many flavor options with this versatile dish. At the very least, salt the water to give the flavor a boost.
Chef Darin recommends checking out the grocery aisle for alternatives to traditional broth or water. “You can change the ingredients,” he says. “I brainstormed a recipe using carrot juice. I sautéed fresh ginger with the rice and added the juice. It was finished with crystallized ginger and fresh mint, which made a beautiful, intensely-colored orange rice with some green.”
Mistake: Not stirring the rice once (and only once)
In a bit, you’ll see some strong advice to never, ever stir your rice. That’s after it’s been cooking. There is a point where it’s advisable to stir, just one time. When the rice is initially put into boiling water, give it just one stir to keep the grains from clumping and avoid a center of uncooked, hard rice.
Mistake: Boiling your rice instead of simmering it
Too much heat will cause the grains of rice to burst, releasing too much starch. This can be the culprit when the rice turns out too thick. The best way to cook rice is to bring the water to a boil, then add the rice and reduce the heat to a simmer, closing the lid.
Mistake: Lifting the lid
Lifting the lid of the pot releases steam and pressure from the rice. This might cause a drop in temperature, which affects the evenness of the cooking. Rice aficionados swear by never lifting the lid.
Mistake: Stirring the rice
You know you want to do it. You’ve maybe lifted the lid and it’s so tempting to just place the spoon into the rice and liquid and give it a little twirl. Control yourself. This is the worst mistake that you can make in cooking rice and will most certainly result in a sticky, starch-filled result. Heat makes the rice emit more starch. It’s activated when you stir it, causing glutinous rice. Just don’t!
Mistake: Not letting the rice rest
When rice is finished cooking, it’s important to have some patience. Allowing the rice to rest in the pot without disturbing it lets the moisture spread evenly through the grains.
There’s a bonus to leaving it alone, too. The rice can wait on the rest of the food, warm and ready to use. Chef Darin appreciates this convenience while he’s teaching students to cook vegetable stir fry. “It can sit and wait for you,” he says of rice. “It makes it so easy.”
Mistake: Using the wrong tool to fluff
We’ve learned that any method that breaks the grains of rice also adds to the starch and gluey feel of the final product. Fluffing the rice is the same. It is imperative, after resting the rice, that you fluff the grains to get that restaurant-perfect consistency. To do this, you’ll need to use a fork with nice, long tines. Smashing the grains of rice together with a heavy spoon will just make mush.
Mistake: Leaving rice out for longer than two hours
Bacillus Cereus is a common, food-illness causing bacteria that can be found in uncooked rice. While you might think that the spores would die in the hot cooking process, they survive the heat and quickly multiply when the food hits room temperature. A good rule of thumb for rice (and any other leftovers) is to refrigerate your food within two hours.
Mistake: Eating bacteria-laden leftovers
So once the rice is safely in an airtight container in the fridge, how long can it stay there before it turns bad? Four to six days is the max, just like with other leftovers. Take a look at the appearance of the rice and smell it. If it seems strange, throw the rice away. Getting sick just isn’t worth it.
Mistake: Standing up your chopsticks
If you are eating rice with chopsticks, take some steps not to offend your companions. Standing up your chopsticks stabbed into a bowl of rice is said to reflect the food left symbolically at a Japanese funeral with sticks vertically stuck in the middle of the dish. Another funeral tradition is to pass the bones of the deceased from chopstick to chopstick, so it’s also considered bad luck to pass your food this way.
While you’re at it, the best manners are to rest your chopsticks on the small plate you are given for this purpose, not on the dish, which indicates that you are finished.
Mistake: Giving up too soon
If you’ve followed all the directions and you still end up with hard or gummy rice as your result, don’t give up! Alton Brown’s website lists some methods on how to rescue improperly cooked rice, and they aren’t very difficult.
Watery rice can be drained and cooked briefly on a cookie sheet in a 350-degree oven to see if it will dry out. Underdone rice might be salvaged by adding a bit of hot water and allowing the dish to steam a little more.
Now that you know how to cook the best-ever bowl of rice, don’t miss these 24 Best Healthy Fried Rice Recipes.