Properly cooked plov: rice grains separate from each other, not mushy
For the longest time, my plov would always turn out too sticky and mushy, and I didn’t know why. I assumed it was because I didn’t have the special rice used in Uzbekistan. Occasionally, my plov would magically turn out perfect, but I wasn’t able to replicate it. Recipes online had all sorts of conflicting information, from soaking the rice, to not soaking the rice, to adding 2cm of water on top of the rice, to adding no water at all. I experimented with all sorts of things and in the end usually just ended up with a pot of sticky rice.
But now, after two years of making plov, I have finally figured out what causes it, and how to make perfect plov every time.
Overly sticky plov is caused by cooking the rice with too much water. The correct amount of water is 1:1 in volume to the rice, PLUS the amount lost to evaporation. You cannot scale this amount up!
It’s as simple as that. All of that water you add to the pot needs to be absorbed by the rice or evaporated. Most of it will be absorbed. If you add too much water, the rice absorbs too much, and it becomes sticky and mushy. Critically, if you cook with the same cooking setup, about the same amount of water gets evaporated, regardless of how much rice you cook. That means you cannot scale the water amounts!
Ironically, most plov recipes seem to be rather vague about how much water is needed, usually suggesting you add 1-2cm of water (or “up to the first knuckle”) on top of the rice. Adding that much water is most likely going to lead to mushy rice unless you are cooking with the exact same setup as the person recommending it (that method leads to mushy rice for me). In fact, when you watch videos of professional plov makers, it usually looks like they are pushing around a big layer of dry rice on top (it isn’t dry, they are raking it back and forth so all the rice cooks evenly). If they put 2cm of water over their rice they would end up with a giant vat of mush! Personally, when I put the rice in, it looks like the water is just barely covering it – but again, this will vary depending on your setup.
Further complicating things is the issue of whether the rice should be soaked or not. Some claim that this can remove more starch and make the rice less sticky. After going through a long period of soaking the rice, I have decided it is best not to soak the rice. Your rice is going to absorb some amount of water depending on how long it soaks, how absorbent the rice is, and ambient conditions. If it absorbs more, you need to add less water later, and vice versa. Since it’s difficult to know how much the rice absorbs, this adds a layer of uncertainty. It is very easy to add too much water, ending up in a ruined, overly sticky plov. If you do not soak, you can control exactly how much water goes into your rice. You can achieve a perfect plov texture without any soaking. It’s best just to avoid this potentially plov-ruining step.
Step by step, here is how to ensure the right water amount. 1. Determine the correct amount of water to use. You need to use 1:1 in volume of water to volume of rice, plus the amount lost to evaporation. The amount lost to evaporation depends on the rice used and your cooking setup, and honestly, is determined by trial and error – but err on the side of too little water. In making plov, the only times you really need to worry about water evaporating are 1) when you boil the water to make zirvak – which you then turn down to a simmer, so little water is lost and 2) when you boil the water to cook the rice. Some types of rice take longer to cook than others, meaning more water will be evaporated. If you use a wide, flat pan, you will lose more to evaporation than if you use a deep, round pan. If you soak your rice (which I don’t recommend doing), it will cook and absorb so quickly that very little is lost to evaporation, so you need to add almost no water at all. To complicate things, keep in mind the other ingredients in the pot (e.g. carrots, meat, onions) also give off water, so you might even need less than 1:1 in certain circumstances!
For me, using a flat-bottomed round kazan on a gas stove with calasparra rice, I lose very little to evaporation, so I add only 1/2 cup of water. In other words, if I am cooking enough rice to fill a 1L jar, I put 1 liter of water plus 1/2 cup of water (so ~1.1L). If I decided to cook 2 jars of rice, then I would use 2 liters of water…plus 1/2 cup of water (so ~2.1L). If I decided to cook 1/2 a jar of rice, I would use 1/2 liter of water…plus 1/2 cup of water (so 0.6L).
2. Do not soak your rice. As stated above, this introduces uncertainty because we don’t know how much gets soaked up. You could, in theory, weigh the unsoaked and soaked rice, figure out how much is soaked up, then soak your rice in the exact same way each time, but I just don’t see the point. Plov tastes perfectly good without soaking.
3. Measure exactly the right amount of water, and add all of the water in the broth stage. Eyeballing it is not going to work reliably, unless you always cook with the exact same amounts of ingredients every time. I eyeball basically everything in cooking, but this is the one thing I do not.
4. Do not add any extra water during the rice cooking stage. Only add water if your rice is too hard (literally can’t chew through it) and there is no water left in the pot. By not soaking and not adding any additional water later, we have controlled the maximum amount of water our rice can absorb.
Oftentimes, when you taste the rice after the water is absorbed, it still tastes very crunchy and uncooked. It is very tempting to add more water and cook it a bit longer but this is a no-no; I have ruined many perfectly good pots of plov this way. As long as the rice has swollen to its correct size and you can bite through it (however crunchy), then all you need to do is steam it and you will have perfectly cooked rice.
The water to rice ratio is the number one determinant in whether the plov will be sticky/mushy or not. But here are a few other things to consider:
Pick a rice type and stick with it – Some variants of rice are more prone to stickiness than others. East Asian rice is simply unworkable no matter how careful you are with water ratios, as it is naturally sticky and starchy. Risotto rice tends to be sticky. Basmati rice tends to be un-sticky, but isn’t really the correct shape or texture. I have been happiest with paella rice. The important thing is to pick one type of rice, learn exactly how to cook it, and stick with it. When you switch rice types, you are apt to screw up the plov.
Wash the rice – Don’t soak the rice, but just before adding it in, you need to wash it – run the faucet over it, mix it around with your fingers, and pour out the cloudy water. Repeat until the water is nearly clear (you won’t get it perfectly clear). Then add directly into the broth. This gets the starch off the rice, helping it to be less sticky.
Rice steaming time is important too – It is slightly less important than the critical water amount, but still important for perfection.
The amount of time you steam the rice is something of an art. Too little, and the rice is undercooked. Too much, and even if you have the right amount of water, the rice can be overcooked and stick together. Guidelines: if your rice is nearly done before steaming, steam 20 minutes. If your rice is still very crunchy, steam 30 minutes.
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 “drain and steam” 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.
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 a high quality rice, 2) draining and 3) steaming.
Importantly, a rice cooker will NOT make fluffy basmati rice! Rice cookers are pretty much only for making Asian varieties of rice which are eaten somewhat sticky. If you use a rice cooker to make basmati rice, it will probably come out kind of sticky or mushy, and it won’t resemble the rice in Indian restaurants.
Secondly, sometimes people recommend the “absorption” technique where you boil the rice in the correct amount of water then cover it and let it “absorb” the water and steam until fully cooked. That method works fine only if you cook the exact same type of rice and the exact same amount of rice every time under the exact same conditions, and is best only for cooking small amounts. It is highly prone to error and can result in overcooked or undercooked rice if you get the amount of water wrong. To achieve perfectly fluffy rice every time for any amount of rice, use the drain and steam method explained below. However, sometimes a recipe will call for the absorption method because the rice is being flavored by the broth (e.g. Saudi kabsa). We’ll address the fine points of that method in a later post.
I use two types of basmati rice: the regular kind (e.g. Tilda brand) and the “sella” (sometimes called “sela”) kind. Regular basmati rice is the best type to eat plain with curries, and has a nice aroma to it – but it is rather delicate and the grains can break easily, so you must be very careful with it when cooking. “Sella” rice is good to use for biryanis. It is parboiled, giving it a yellowish translucent color, and making it very resilient and non-sticky. It is nearly impossible to cook it wrong. The downside of “sella” rice is that it does not absorb flavors that well and is a bit rubbery tasting compared to the delicate regular basmati rice. If you have never cooked rice like this before, I recommend starting with “sella” as it is a bit more forgiving. Kalustyan’s in NYC sells both varieties.
Whatever kind you buy, make sure it is a high quality brand, rather than a generic “basmati” rice you find in the store.
1)Wash your basmati rice several times until the water runs clear. Then soak the rice for 20-30 minutes. Drain the rice after you are done soaking it.
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 cardamom, bay leaf, and other whole spices as you like. 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 70-80% done – a bit crunchy, but nearly edible.
4)Quickly, drain the rice in a colander. Do not let it sit in the colander long, otherwise it will start to clump up!
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. Put clean cloth towels between the lid and the pot, and close tightly (paper towels can do in a pinch if you don’t have any towels lying about). 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)When you are done steaming, turn off the heat and let it sit covered for another 5 minutes. Then open the lid (being careful not to burn yourself on the escaping steam) and fluff up the rice a bit with a fork. Let it sit uncovered for another few minutes so the rice can cool down and firm up. 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.
I first ate plov (плов) in a small canteen in Turpan, an oasis city in the deserts northeast of the Tarim Basin. Uyghurs call it “polo”, and restaurants in Xinjiang make it in gigantic kazans outside, dishing it out as ordered and topping it with a hunk of fatty lamb meat. It was one of my first tastes of Central Asian cuisine, and incidentally the first dish I started cooking with. I’ve learned a lot about making plov since my first post on it over a year ago; this is a complete re-do of the old recipe with new photos.
Plov could be considered a pan-Asian dish; whether Uzbek plov, Uyghur polo, Indian pulao, Afghan palaw, Iranian polow, or Turkish pilaf, the basic idea is the same: rice and oil. The recipe I present here is for Uzbek plov (specifically, Fergana style), which tastes very similar to Uyghur polo, and is the most common type of plov in restaurants outside of Central Asia. Uzbekistan is the spiritual “homeland” of plov with many different regional varieties.
How should plov taste? In the ideal Uzbek plov, the rice grains should be separate, maintain their form, and not stick together. The rice should be tender, yet firm: a good plov is not mushy and sticky like porridge, nor is it creamy like a risotto. The closest equivalent in European cuisine is probably paella.
Plov should be rather oily, and after eating there should be a layer of oil left on the plate. The meat for plov should be tender lamb meat. The carrots should be in big chunks, soft and sweet, having been caramelized during the cooking. Overall, the plov should have a nice balance of tastes between savory/lamb meat, salty, oily, cumin, and sweet (onion & carrot).
Cooking utensils It is best to make plov in a kazan. In the past, I made plov in a cast iron wok (and you can see this in many of the photos), but your plov will turn out much better in a kazan. It’s very easy to mess up plov, especially if you use the wrong cooking vessel. Read this post to learn what kazans are and where you can buy one.
Making plov is a journey that will probably require many, many tries and many soggy, mushy, burnt, or not-cooked-enough plovs. I have been making it for over two years and every time I make it, I still find some way to hone my technique.
There are many plov video recipes on the net, but the most simple, straightforward one I have found is this one (in Russian).
IMPORTANT! Unlike most of my other recipes, the proportions (critically, that of water to rice) are extremely important in plov. Incorrect proportions can ruin the dish. This recipe serves 5-6 people.
0.5 kg rice: The choice of rice has a huge effect on the finished product, as much so as your cooking. I recommend paella rice, specifically Spanish calasparra rice as it is the most similar in size, shape, and texture to the rice used in Uzbekistan. Risotto rice can also work, but tends to be too sticky. Basmati will work, but it isn’t at all like Uzbek rice. East Asian rice will not work because it is too sticky.
In plov, it’s very important that the cooked rice grains stay separate and not a sticky mush. The Russian term for this desired consistency is “рассыпчатый.”For this reason, it’s basically impossible to obtain a good result with East Asian rice, which by design is supposed to stick together.
Basmati is often used to make plov outside Central Asia, but in texture and shape it is really quite different from the rice in Uzbek plov. On the plus side, it tends not to stick together, making it a good choice for a beginning cook. Look at the difference in these two pictures below. On the other hand, in northern Afghanistan they have their own “Uzbeki pulao” which seems to be made using basmati rice. They use a special, parboiled type of basmati rice called sella rice which holds its shape and tends not to stick together or get mushy, unless you really drown it in water.
So to summarize, here are my criteria for correctly cooked plov rice:
1) Uses medium grain rice, not basmati, not parboiled
2) Rice grains “al dente”, a bit of chew
3) Rice grains not mushy/sticky/creamy; grains should be individually defined and separate easily when you fluff or toss the rice.
Rice to water proportions: This is really important in making plov with the correct texture, and for whatever reason seems to be completely overlooked in almost all recipes. I am all for eyeballing things but this is the one time you need to be crazy precise in measuring, unless you want a pot full of soggy mush. I do not soak plov rice as it introduces too much uncertainty (how much water did the rice soak up) potentially leading to mushy rice, and does not noticeably improve the final outcome. Essentially, you need 1:1 in volume of water to rice, plus the amount of water lost to evaporation. This will vary depending on your cooking setup and the type of rice you use (since different rice varieties can take longer to cook). I generally use 1:1 plus about 1/2-3/4 cup of water.
0.5kg lamb meat – I have used lamb shoulder chops and lamb leg, all work fine for plov. 700 mL of boiling water – note is not a ratio, so use this with 500g of calasparra rice as mentioned above. Scaling this may cause the recipe not to work. 2 medium onions 3 large carrots Cumin seed – You need the whole seeds – cumin powder is a poor substitute. Grind a few good spoonfuls of cumin seed with a mortar and pestle – it doesn’t need to be a powder, just lightly ground is fine. 2 garlic heads
Dried chilies or fresh chili peppers – not that many, maybe 5-6 small ones or 1-3 big ones. Can be omitted. Salt Vegetable oil and/or lamb tail fat
Barberries or raisins (optional) – barberries can add some nice acidity to the dish. I typically don’t like raisins in plov (too sweet), but some do.
Directions (takes about 3 hours start to finish)
1. Cut the onions into slices (half moons).
2. Cut the carrots into big sticks. You want fairly big pieces, maybe ~2 inches long and 1/4 inch thick. While it may seem like a lot of carrots, keep in mind they will shrink dramatically during cooking. Generally err on the side of too much carrot. I don’t think I’ve ever had a plov with too much carrot, but I’ve certainly noticed when there is too little.
3. Debone and cut up the lamb meat. Cut out the fat and bones, and keep aside. Chop the lamb meat into medium sized pieces.
4. Heat up the kazan and heat the oil. Put the kazan on high heat. Once the kazan is hot, add vegetable oil to cover the bottom in a fairly deep layer, and wait a bit until the oil heats up.
If you are lucky enough to have lamb tail fat (курдючный жир, kurdyuchniy zhir) then instead of oil, you can cut the fat into slices and melt them into oil. The resulting fat crisps make a tasty snack. Remove the crisps. Lamb tail fat is a luxurious rarity for me here in NYC, so I usually melt the fat pieces into oil, then add vegetable oil. I buy it at the Fortuna grocery in Brooklyn.
5. Prepare the oil. If you are using vegetable oil, take a small onion, remove the skin, and fry it in the oil, letting it cook on all sides until the whole thing is brown, then remove the onion and discard it. While vegetable oil in small amounts lacks any discernible taste, the amount we are using means you are going to notice its flavor. Vegetable oil has a weird taste to it, and putting the onion in helps absorb the weird flavors and replace them with onion-y flavors. If you really can’t bear to use up the extra onion, you can skip this step, but your plov might taste off.
6. Fry the fat and bones and meaty bone pieces. Fry these pieces until they get to a nice golden-brown and you smell the aroma of lamb fat. Then remove them and keep the meat and bones aside (you can discard the fat pieces). This will help to further flavor our oil.
7. Fry the meat. Fry until it develops a nice golden brown around the edges, then remove it and set aside so it doesn’t overcook during the next steps.
8. Fry the onions until they are a light brown color. They don’t need to be fully caramelized, just a little brown around the edges is fine.
9. Put in the carrots and add about 3/4 of the prepared cumin seed. Fry for 15 minutes until the carrots are soft. Cook them as long as you need to until you can easily pierce them with a fork. Then add the meat back in and fry everything together for a minute or so.
10. Make the broth. Take the boiling water and pour it over everything. Put the bones back in. Put in the garlic heads and the chilies. Add raisins and/or barberries if you are using them. When the water boils, turn it to low heat, and let it simmer for at least 40 minutes to 1 hour, uncovered. This broth is called “zirvak.”
11. Remove the bones, garlic, and chilies, and salt the broth. If any of your bone pieces have a good amount of meat on them, save them for later. Keep the garlic and chilies aside. Salt the broth and taste – it should be very salty. Remember, you are going to add rice in, which will absorb the broth.
12. Wash the rice and add it in. First, wash the rice, mixing it around with your fingers then pouring out the cloudy water. Do this a few times until you get the water fairly clear. Then carefully add the rice in a layer on top of the other ingredients. DO NOT MIX THE RICE IN WITH THE OTHER INGREDIENTS – IT NEEDS TO BE IN A LAYER ON TOP. Carefully smooth out the rice into an even layer.
All of the water we see in the pot needs to be absorbed by the rice (some will evaporate, but the majority will go into the rice). This is why the measurement in the last stage is so critical. If we added too much water, the rice will be forced to absorb too much, and become soggy and mushy.
This is the stage at which most plov recipes incorrectly tell you to add water and is the culprit of so many soggy and overly cooked plov. If you measured the water correctly in the previous step you do not need to add any additional water. In fact, if you watch videos of professional plov makers, they never add any additional water, and the rice sits “dry” on top of everything.
13. Cook the rice. Turn the heat as high as possible. There should be big bubbles bursting all over the top of the rice. Rake the rice back and forth, slowly flipping the top layer to the bottom so that all the rice can get cooked evenly.
14. Let the water boil off. As the water boils, it should drop below the top of the rice. We want the water to be completely gone.
At this point, the rice should have absorbed the water, but not be “done.” In other words, the rice should have grown to its full size and “look” done, but it should still be crunchy and undercooked when you bite into it. If you can chew through the rice, do NOT add more water! I have ruined many perfectly good pots of plov thinking that the rice needed more water. It does not. Steaming will take care of it.
However, it should not be so hard that you cannot chew through it. If the rice is too hard to chew through, add a tiny bit more water as necessary and cook until you can chew through it. Otherwise, turn the heat down to medium and let the rest of the water boil off.
As the water drops, make holes in the rice to help the water escape more quickly. Check the holes and the sides of the kazan for any water remaining – keep in mind oil will always be at the bottom, don’t burn the stuff at the bottom thinking the oil is water and trying to boil it off. When the water is gone, turn the heat back down to minimum.
15. Steam the rice. Make a small “hill” of rice, and top with the rest of the cumin. Push the garlics and chilies and any hunks of meat on the bone into the top of the rice layer. Make some holes in the mountain to help the steam circulate. Cover the kazan. Make sure that the cover is tight and no steam at all escapes – wrap the lid with towels for a tighter seal and weigh it down with something (I use a bowl). After a minute or so, the cover should be hot to the touch. This final steaming stage is going to turn our plov rice from “crunchy” to “done” and give it that wonderful fluffiness that we desire.
After the cover is hot, turn the heat down to low, and let this steam. The exact time is something of an art, and depends on how done the rice was in the previous stage, and the type of rice you use. If the rice tasted very crunchy and un-done, let it steam for longer: 30 minutes. If the rice tasted almost done, then steam it for less: 20 minutes.
16. Finished! Take off the lid, and remove the garlic and chilies and bone pieces. If the rice is still undercooked, then you can steam it for longer (re-cover it, heat up to medium until the pot is hot again, then turn down to low heat again). It might only be the top layer that is undercooked, in which case just mix it well and steam until the rice is done.
Scoop up the rice and gently shake it back into the pot, to help the rice grains separate from each other. Carefully mix the meat and carrots on bottom with the rice, being careful not to mush the rice together. Plate the finished plov and garnish with the garlic and chilies and meaty bone pieces.
Serving: Plov is often served with a salad of sliced tomatoes and onions called “achik chuchuk.” Just mix sliced tomatoes and onions with salt and a dash of pepper. Sliced cucumber and hot pepper is often added as well, and I like putting in a splash of white vinegar. You can add some greens like mint or cilantro or dill if you like. Traditionally, people drink hot green tea with plov (and in general any greasy dish).
Rice became a sticky mush / overcooked – This happens if you use too much water and unfortunately by the time you realize it, the rice is pretty much ruined. It’s critical to err on using too little water, and add as needed.
Rice unevenly cooked after steaming / rice on top too hard, rice on bottom too soft
This happens if the cover is not tight (steam escaped), or you are using a wok or regular pot instead of a kazan (because the thin-walled wok is poor at retaining heat and keeping the top warm where the rice is). In this case, you can flip the rice on top onto the bottom, mix everything up, then steam it for a bit longer.
Tasteless/not salty enough – Besides the obvious culprit of not salting the broth enough, this can happen if you don’t brown the onions enough.
Rice burns at bottom – this happens if you aren’t careful about keeping the rice in a layer at the top.
Meat burns at bottom – Usually happens if you cook the rice for too long during the final steps when all the water is gone. It is also very easy for the food on the bottom to burn if you use a wok or a flat-bottomed pan to cook plov instead of a kazan.