Basics: Cooking Japanese style brown rice on the stovetop in a pot

As part of my weight loss efforts, not to mention generally trying to 'eat better', flirting with 'makurobi' (the Japanese word for macrobiotic, and also meaning a 'hipper' version of macrobiotic cooking) and such, I've been cooking more brown rice as opposed to polished white rice. Fortunately my rice cooker has a gen-mai (brown rice) cooking setting. If you don't have a rice cooker with this setting though, it can be a bit tricky to make brown rice that is soft and plump, sticky enough to stick together for things like rice balls (onigiri) and sushi rolls, and most importantly, cooked through properly with no raw center. After some trial and error, consulting many cookbooks and web pages, I've come up with a method which has proved to be pretty reliable.

lecreusetpot.jpgThere is one caveat though: you need a really heavy bottomed, thick-walled pan. A plain old thin-walled saucepan simply won't cut it. I used a 24cm diameter or medium-sized round Le Creuset French Oven, pictured here. It's a wonderful pot that I use just about every day for various things. (It's not an exaggeration to say that it's the best investment I've made, kitchen-equipment wise, and I'm saving up my pennies now to buy both the smaller and larger versions.) It is expensive if you buy retail (if you have a Le Creuset outlet store near you be sure to check them out) but worth every penny. And, it is cheaper than a good rice cooker and more multi-purpose too.

As an alternative, you can use a heavy cast-iron pot. In fact, rice was traditionally cooked in cast iron pots in Japan (tetsugama), and recently some manufacturers have introduced high-end rice cookers with cast iron inserts in Japan.

Whatever pot you use, be sure it has a heavy, tight-fitting lid. A light lid will dance on the pot and rise up, causing the steam to escape, which you don't want to happen. If you don't have a tight or heavy lid, put an inverted plate inside the pot as a sort of second inner lid, followed by the regular pot lid. You want to keep the steam inside as much as possible. There's a picture showing this on this (Japanese) page. (They are using a ceramic pot there but the principle is the same.)

It does take quite a long time to cook brown rice properly. However, you can freeze it in portion-sized batches, and nuke each pack in the microwave covered in plastic wrap - it revives itself wonderfully. So I have taken to making 4 to 5 cups worth of dry rice at a time, and dividing it up. This helps in the portion-control race too.

Basic brown rice in a pot

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  • 5 cups rice
  • 7 to 9 cups cold water
  • a pinch (or about 1/8th tsp.) salt

Briefly rinse the rice and drain well in a colander or sieve. (Unlike white rice there's no need to polish-wash it.)

Put the rice, water and salt in the pot. Note that the ratio of rice to water is about 1 to 1.5, up to about 1 to 1.8. The lesser amount makes a firmer rice; I prefer to put in about 8 cups to every 5 cups of rice.

Put on the lid and leave to soak for at least 1 hour, preferably 2 hours or longer (up to about 8 hours). This soaking is necessary to ensure even cooking of the grains. Putting it to soak in the morning and cooking in the evening works, __as long as it's not too hot in your kitchen__. In the summer you may want to put the rice to soak in the refrigerator. If it's too warm the rice may start to ferment and turn nasty.

Put on the heat to medium - no higher - and slowly bring the pot up to a boil. (You heat it at medium heat to prevent burning on the bottom.)

As soon as the water is bubbling somewhat briskly, turn the heat down to low. Put the lid back on, and leave to simmer slowly for at least one hour. Depending on how dry your rice is to begin with, and how long you soaked it, it may take 2 hours or more, but if you've soaked it enough it shouldn't take more than an hour.

At the end the rice should have completely absorbed the moisture. If not, turn the heat up to high for a couple of minutes to evaporate the excess moisture.

Turn off the heat, pull the pot off the heat source (important especially if you are using an electric range), put the lid back on and leave to rest for at least 15 minutes. This resting time can't be skipped if you want to have really plump rice.

Remove the rice to another container (a wooden ohitsu is ideal, but a bowl is fine) and fluff up the rice with a spatula.

If your rice develops a crusty bottom, just carefully take the non-crusty rice off and put it into another container. Scrape the crusty bottom off the pan - it should come off fairly intact. This part is called the okoge and many Japanese people consider it to a sort of delicacy. You can put it into ochazuke, serve with vegetables in sauce like crispy noodles, or crisp it up even more in a little sesame oil and pour a few drops of soy sauce over it to make a kind of rice cracker. (Some people even dry roast it even further until it's a very dark brown, and grind it up for a sort of brown rice 'coffee'. I don't like this at all myself, but to each his own!)

Edit: Dealing with small amounts of rice

This past year (2009) I've been making rice in much smaller amounts, because I've been living all over the place in holiday apartments, which lack adequate freezers. I have found that for small amounts of rice, a much lower ratio of rice to water works better. Also, the amount does vary quite a bit depending on the kind of rice. If you are making up to 2 cups of rice, try a 1 to 1.2 ratio of rice to water (so, 1 cup of rice and 1.2 cups of water) instead of the 1 to 1.5 recommended above for large amounts. If that still results in too-wet or gooey rice, try lowering the ratio to 1:1.1 or even 1:1. It might be useful to note down the ratio that works for a particular kind of rice.

Note: If you cook brown rice in a rice cooker with a 'keep warm' feature, don't leave it in warm! Brown rice kept at a warm temperature too long will quickly turn very nasty.

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