Perfecting Rice: My Experience with Cooking Rice

If you’re like me and you grew up in an Asian household, you’ve probably never lived a day of your life without a rice cooker. How hard can it be? Measure the rice, add the water, and flip the switch: that’s it. At least that’s what I thought.

Turns out rice needs a little more TLC than that!

Do you have a rice cooker?

Regular rice

Rice for onigiri/musubi

Rice for fried rice

Do you have a rice cooker?

First off: buy a rice cooker if you don’t have oneIf you’re planning on eating more rice, the easiest way to cook it (and free up a spot on your stove if you used to boil it) is to buy a rice cooker. You don’t need a fancy Japanese one if you think this is just a phase—you can get perfectly reasonable ones for under $50 at your local big box retailer (and they get cheaper the smaller they are in case you don’t have a lot of people to entertain).

My suggestion for a single/couple is a 5 cup cooker: you can cook as little as 2 cups (which should be enough for a single meal), or the full 5 for meal prep. For families of 3 or more, I recommend getting a 10 cup cooker (which usually calls for a minimum of 3-4 cups) just in case you end up needing to entertain, too. You can get the kind which keeps your rice warm, or you don’t need to if you don’t want to—the more expensive Japanese ones allow for pre-programming if you’re always out of the house if that’s something appealing to you, too.

Rice keeps well in the fridge for up to 5-7 days, or in the freezer for longer. You can use that rice for regular rice, or to cook in other dishes like risotto or fried rice.

Regular rice

For regular rice, it’s actually not all that different from how you’re used to cooking rice. These instructions are best for short-grain/sushi rice.

  1. Measure your rice with a rice cup; a rice measuring cup is roughly about 3/4 US cup or 180 mL. Rice measuring cups are usually available at Asian grocery stores, or can be ordered online.
  2. Wash your rice. Typically you wouldn’t want to do this in the rice pot itself (as to not damage any lining), but in a large mixing bowl. The best type is one with a little strainer on the side of the bowl to get rid of the water more easily. If you have a Japanese dollar store near you, you may be able to find a bowl/strainer combination there.
    • In washing your rice, you don’t need to be rough—wash in a circular motion. You’ll want to wash it until the water is clean enough for you to see the rice clearly with water above, which usually takes three or four times.
  3. Soak your rice: To allow your rice to absorb enough water, soak your rice with fresh tap water for at least 40 minutes; the water should cover the rice and have a bit of leeway for the rice to grow (about half an inch or 1 cm). For us non-Japanese where your rice is most likely old, try to soak it for an hour.
  4. Transfer your rice to a fine strainer (one where your rice won’t get stuck). Toss up and down to get rid of the extra water (the water your rice didn’t absorb) quickly. A couple minutes (roughly 10 tosses) should suffice.
  5. Now you can place your rice in your rice pot and measure your water accordingly; it’s roughly 200 mL of water for every cup of rice if your pot’s markings are faded. Flip the switch, and you’re good to go!
  6. You’ll want to wait a few minutes (5~10) before opening your rice cooker to let the water content settle. Once you’re ready, draw a big cross with your rice paddle, going all the way down to the pot, then start turning the rice out to let the rice at the bottom have some air.

A new trick I learned is taking out roughly 1/4 cup of water out of your final measurement (or just measuring a meniscus below what you normally do), and throw in an equivalent amount of ice cubes (usually two or three)—this lengthens the cooking time marginally, but makes your rice shinier.

Onigiri/musubi rice

Traditionally, you’d salt your rice after cooking or by wetting your hands and adding salt to it so the salt is on the outside as you make your onigiri. But what if instead, you just cooked the salt into the rice itself?

That’s right: mix the salt in with your water before you cook your rice, and you won’t need to salt when making your onigiri at all!

Follow the same method as “Regular Rice” with a couple edits:

  1. Soak your rice for 15 to 30 minutes instead. Drier rice is easier to handle, and you won’t have that stickiness on the outside.
  2. Decrease your normal amount of water by about a meniscus or two. So if you normally top off on the line or right above the line, try to top off right below the line.
  3. For less saltier rice, add about 1/4 tsp of salt for every 2 cups of rice. For saltier rice, you can go up to 1/2 tsp of salt for every 2 cups. This salt goes in the water before you start cooking it!
  4. Once your rice is done, take it out and place into a shallow bowl or pan, and fan the rice. You want some of the moisture to escape, but you don’t want the rice to cool down too much.
  5. Use a minimal amount of force and water (on your hands) to shape your onigiri. You want the rice to stick together, but you don’t want to smash the grains.
  6. For those using the 1/4 tsp salt for every 2 cups, a very small sprinkle of salt at the top of your onigiri is recommended—this tricks the mind into thinking the whole onigiri is that same level of saltiness.
  7. When you wrap your onigiri in nori, put the shiny/smooth side inside closest to the rice. This helps keep the nori crispy (for those who like it crispy).

Rice for fried rice

Personally, I prefer using long-grain or basmati rice. They retain less moisture, and make the fried rice not only easier to make over a lower heat (I’m not a big fan of scorched rice—blasphemy!), but the resulting fried rice is close to a Chinese/Thai fried rice that just falls off the fork. If I’m making kamameshi or meshi-style rice, I’ll use short-grain rice since it reacts to the higher heat better and ends up stickier, a key component in meshi.

Traditionally, people swear by using day-old rice. This usually works better because the moisture is typically lower. However, with long-grain or basmati rice, with enough planning you can cook your rice and fry it the same day!

I cook my rice without as much care since I’m going to fry it anyway: I’ll plop it in the rice cooker after cleaning it and let it sit for 20 minutes before cooking it.

  1. Measure and wash your rice as normal. On the side, prepare the necessary amount of your preferred broth to cook your rice in: beef, chicken, mentsuyu, etc. I usually use beef or chicken.
  2. You can choose to soak or not soak your rice. I shorten the soaking to 15~20 minutes if I’m crunched for time.
  3. After the rice is done cooking, let it sit for the same amount of time as you normally do, and then turn out into a pan or a bowl.
  4. Cover with a towel (as to not fully dry the rice out), and place under a fan to get rid of most of the moisture. This can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. To speed it up, turn the rice with a rice paddle every 5~10 minutes.
  5. At the same time, you can feel the rice to see how dry it is. The rice shouldn’t stick to your hand when you touch the top lightly.

Once the rice is ready, I use a pan and a wok: I’ll cook all my ingredients except the rice and egg in the pan.

In the wok, crack your eggs directly in the wok over high heat (with a small amount of oil), and stir rapidly to scramble within the wok. Once the eggs are almost fully cooked, start adding your rice in thirds. Once your rice is added, you can add your fried rice ingredients, and your shoyu to flavor. Cooking sake can also be used as it dehydrates quickly.

Hopefully that helps! I’ve found the ice cube trick and the saltwater trick to be pretty wild game changers in how I make and enjoy my rice. Is there anything I didn’t cover? Feel free to comment or reach out on social media!

Reference on cooking regular rice (in Japanese)
Reference on cooking onigiri rice (in Japanese)

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