How to make fluffy basmati rice like in Indian restaurants

Hyderabadi biryani with fluffy basmati rice.

I started an Instagram: @silkroadchef – follow if you want to see what I’ve been cooking! I’ll still post here but it’s an easy way for me to post cooking photos that don’t justify an entire post.

Today’s post is all about how to make fluffy basmati rice like you may have tried in Indian or Persian restaurants. This style of rice cooking is used to make plov/chelow/polow/pulao in Iran, Azerbaijan, and the Indian subcontinent. Unlike the method used for Uzbek plov where the rice is cooked together with other ingredients and absorbs the broth, in the “Persian” method, the rice is cooked by itself, drained, then steamed. This ensures fluffy rice and individual grains that don’t stick to each other. We’ll go over specific recipes with this rice, like Hyderabadi biryani or Azeri plov, in another post.

Azeri style plov with kazmakh (Persians call it ‘tah-dig’) – the crispy rice at the bottom of the pot.

For a long time, I would buy basmati rice in the store, cook it, and find it tasted nothing like the fluffy rice in Indian restaurants. The secret to making perfectly fluffy basmati rice is 1) using high quality rice, 2) draining, and 3) steaming for a long time.

“Sella” basmati rice.

High quality rice is really half the battle. I use “sella” basmati rice and it comes out great every time – it’s almost impossible to cook wrong. On the other hand, if you use a cheap, generic brand basmati rice, it may not turn out that amazing no matter how good your process is. And of course it goes without saying you need basmati – other types of rice will always be somewhat sticky no matter how you cook them. Try to buy your rice from specialty South Asian or Middle Eastern grocers. I buy my “sella” rice from Kalustyan’s in NYC.

1)Wash your basmati rice several times until the water runs clear. Then soak the rice for 20-30 minutes.

2)Pour water over the rice until 2-3 inches of water cover the rice. Add salt and oil to taste. If you are making Indian style rice, you can put in cardamoms and bay leaf. Set this on high heat until you get a rolling boil.

3)Let the rice cook in the boiling water for a few minutes, sampling a rice grain every now and then. The rice needs to taste 80-90% done – maybe a tiny crunch left on the inside, but it needs to be edible.

4)Quickly, drain the rice in a colander. I can’t overemphasize how important this step is – this is what differentiates this type of rice from rice cooker rice.

For Azeri or Persian rice, you may want to make a kazmakh(Azeri) or tah-dig(Persian) – the rice that turns crispy from touching the pot. Getting this right will involve trial and error and most likely it will just stick to the pot without coming off cleanly. Mix some yogurt and egg in a bowl, and add some of the mixed rice. The mixture should be mostly rice, and not too liquid.

You can also make a saffron infusion to add color and flavor (if you just want the yellow color, turmeric will give the same effect and is much cheaper). Just grind up some saffron stalks and mix with hot water.

5)Now we start the steaming phase, but don’t turn the heat on for now. Ready an empty pot – a kazan works best if you have one, but just use a regular pot otherwise (don’t use a wok!). If you made a kazmakh or tah-dig, spread it in a layer over the bottom of your pot. Then put the drained rice into the pot, and form it into a mountain. If making Azeri or Persian rice, you can drizzle some saffron-infused water over it

6)Now you need to bundle up your pot so the steam can stay inside. If using a regular pot, put either paper towels or clean cloth towels between the lid and the pot, and close tightly. If the pot is too wide for the towels to span it, just wrap it tightly with cloth towels. In either case, weigh down the lid with a bowl or other heavy object – we don’t want any steam to escape.

7)Now turn the heat to medium and let the rice pot warm up for about 5 minutes. Then turn this to minimum heat, and let it steam for at least 20 minutes, ideally 30 minutes or even longer. More steaming = fluffier rice.

8)If making Azeri rice, you can open up the pot after 15-20 minutes, put a big slab of butter in the middle of your mountain, then wrap it up again and let it steam for another 20-30 minutes.

9)The rice is ready! Lift the lid (being careful not to burn yourself on the escaping steam), fluff the rice up a bit, and serve. For Indian rice, you may want to add a touch more oil after the rice is done cooking and mix well. If you made a kazmakh/tah-dig, pry it out with a knife and serve it with the rice.

Butter chicken served with basmati rice.

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