Power to the Pilaf Transcript

18,000 Feet - 3:07 pm

[no title graphic presented for this episode]

    Each day, about two-thirds of the people on this planet fuel up on rice. And why not? It's nutritious, versatile, delicious, economical. It's even hypoallergenic. Yet still, there are a lot of Americans who don't know pilaf from paella any more than they can tell the difference between texmati and arborio. In short, rice is still just a little bit mysterious. And since we are doggedly determined to decipher all culinary conundrums, we have no choice but to fling ourselves in this tiny, vulnerable, woefully underpowered aircraft into the heart of Cajun country. That's right. We're going to find our answers at the International Rice Festival in Crowley, Louisiana. Oh, and by the way, this is definitely Good Eats.

Crowley, LA - 4:15 pm

    Half an hour west of La Fayette sits Crowley, Louisiana, rice capitol of the world. Once we obtained lodging it was time to crack the rice mystery.


Air Conditioned · Phones
TV's · Free Parking
Reasonable Rates

Hoppe Farms - 5:39 pm

GUEST: Old Lady

    So, we started at ground zero. We're not sure when rice was first cultivated, but we're pretty sure that it happened around the Kohrat region of Northern Thailand about 5,000 BC. We know that the Chinese were cultivating rice by 28 hundred BC because we've gotten written records of it. But by the 4th century BC, the Indians were actually shipping rice to Greece. From there it was just a hop, skip and a jump to Persia, over the Nile River Delta into Africa where rice just loved the savannah wetlands and rice went really well with the gumbos there.
    Now, American colonists wouldn't taste rice until about 1625, when luck would have it, a storm-beaten galleon bound for Madagascar limped into Charleston Harbor. Now, a local planter lent assistance and was rewarded by the captain with a small bag of golden seeds. Now, odds are he would have rather have had the gold, but things worked out pretty well for him.
    See, the Carolina lowlands were the perfect place to grow rice. But the mud was so soft, the machinery, even oxen, just sank into it. So, it had to be worked by hand, hence slavery. It was rice, not cotton, that began the plantation era in the South. Not only could the African slaves do the work, they had the knowledge of the rice from their homeland. By the early 18 hundreds, Charleston was shipping out some 50,000 tons of Carolina Gold Rice per year and it was considered to be some of the finest rice in the world.
    Well, the end of the Civil War brought the end of slavery and it ended the rice cultivation in the Carolinas. But by then, somebody had already figured out that the low river areas around Louisiana, east Texas and Arkansas, not only could support rice, but the heavy machinery needed to cultivate it in modern times. So today, most of America's rice is cultivated in states like Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Texas, Louisiana and California.
    The folks at the mill gave me the grand tour: showed me how the husk is removed to make brown rice and how the bran is removed to make white rice. Even showed me the laser that sorts out the broken bits. Then I went over and checked out the rice cooking competition, the rice eating competition and even the rice threshing competition. But I still hadn't found what I was looking for. Why is rice light-and-fluffy one day and a solid block of goo the next? Finally, a long time rice cooker broke the silence. A rice cooker? Imagine my surprise.

    The self-appointed rice capitol of America, Crowley has been throwing this little October Harvest party for, I don't know, 60 years? During the day time, it's all rice: growing rice, threshing rice, cooking rice and a lot of eating rice. But come ... 

The Kitchen

... night time, it's just a big party.

    Complicated machinery and secret methodologies aside, there's just no substitute for knowing your ingredients.

    There are literally thousands of varieties of rice. From the foothills of the Himalaya come the long, lightly perfumed basmati grains. Tar Baby-like sticky rices from the paddies of Japan, the amazing self-saucing arborio rices from Northern Italy, Thailand's jasmine offers its heady perfume at a fraction of basmati's price. Now appearing in a paella near you, Spain's Valencia. We have wehani, texmati, della, blue, red, black japonica, wild rice which isn't really rice to begin with—it's an aquatic grass—and even white rice. When it comes to rice cooking there're only two questions you got to ask: first, what's the grain length and second, how is it processed?









    Each of the 10,000 plus different varieties of rice fall within three commercial classifications: long grain, medium grain and, you guessed it, short grain.

Short: Sticky,  4-5 mm

Medium: Fluffy then Sticky,
5-6 mm

Long: Fluffy, 6 mm +

    Short grain rices are grown mostly in Asia and California, and when cooked, these stubby little guys are sticky enough to be formed into Sushi or picked up easily with chopsticks. In a strange, double, malapropian twist, short grain rices are often called sweet or glutinous rices despite the fact that they don't taste sweet at all and they contain no gluten whatsoever.

Short Grain
Sticky When Cooked

    The starch coat on medium grain rices like Italy's famed arborio can be coaxed right off of the grain producing the characteristic creaminess of risotto and rice pudding. Now although fluffy when first cooked, medium grain rices get sticky as they cool down. But since their starch doesn't crystallize, they're a good choice for salads and cold dishes.

Medium Grain
Release Starch Into Liquid
Stick As They Cool
Good For Salads

    At four to six times longer than they are wide, long grain rices don't release starch into their surroundings the way medium or short grain rices do. So, what do you get? Beautiful, fluffy, individual, relatively dry grains. In other words, American rice.

Long Grain
Don't Surrender Starch
Seperate [sic]

    Now, long grain rices are great all-purpose rices, except when it comes to cold dishes. See, the starch in these grains crystallizes when cooked and cooled which results in rock hard little grains. When reheated, though, the crystals do dissolve again. So what is bad for, say, salad is good for fried rice.

Due to their popcorn-like fragrance, long grain rices like
basmati and jasmine are called "aromatic" rices.

    Once it's threshed off the ear, each grain is still encased in a husk. Remove the husk and, voilà, brown rice. See, like most grains, the inner part of the kernel, or endosperm, is surrounded by a thin layer of bran which is where most of the nutrients are. Since its a tough little cuss, brown rice needs about 3 times as much water and time to cook as the same amount of white rice. The hassle is worth it, though, because brown rice has a great nutty flavor and a stronger nutritional punch than its buffed up brother. It can be sold as is or the bran can be rubbed off to reveal the pearly white underneath.


Brown Rice


3 x H2O/Time


    White and converted rice will keep for years on the shelf as long as you keep them in air tight containers with lids. I like these kind of big-mouth jobbies, easy scooping. Now, brown rice on the other hand is a completely different matter because, remember, it's still got the bran on it and the bran means oil and oil will go rancid in just 6 months on the shelf. The answer is the freezer. In here you can keep it for one to two years. But, since fats oxidize and pick up off flavors, the thing to do is to keep it inside a zip-lock bag and then keep that inside another sealed container. Spoilage foiled again.

Rice bran oil is nearly flavorless & has a very high smoke point.

The Kitchen

    Oh. Dang. [rice cooked badly]

[Dog dish]


GUEST: "W", Equipment Specialist

    Before settling on a cooking method, I thought I'd better check out the rice cooker scene with my equipment specialist, W.

W: I thought you weren't going to come around so often.
AB: Hello, W. I need everything you've got on rice cookers.
W: Come on.

    The ever helpful W strutted her wares. The cookers ranged from simple heated pots or buckets, ...

Living Room

... even, to a fuzzy logic model that not only cooked rice to perfection but scared the heck out of the dogs while delivering it. Mysteriously, all these machines seemed to grasp some piece of knowledge that had alluded me.

ROBOT: [rolls up to AB with a pot of rice]
AB: [samples, nods approvingly, shoos him away]

Thank you ???, Master.


W: Rice cookers work so well because they know something that you can't.
AB: The Colonel's secret 11 herbs and spices.
W: No. The temperature inside the pot.
AB: Yeah?
W: When all the water's been absorbed by the rice the temperature begins to increase. Sensors then pick up on the change, tell the machine to let the rice rest and keep it warm until service.
AB: Wow. Sensors. I'll take it.
W: Uh, not this one. We're going to keep it simple for you.
AB: Eh.

The Kitchen

    We gave a few of the models a spin and several did an excellent job, especially with brown rice—traditionally tricky because of its longer cooking time. Many models doubled as steamers, too. We even made some pretty decent jambalayas. So, if you cook rice a lot, don't mind spending 50 to 100 bucks or more, and have counter or cabinet space to spare you have our blessing. Now, the microwave cooker we tested didn't save any time but it performed consistently and freed up valuable stove and oven space.
    The problem is, you can't make risotto in a rice cooker. And what's worse, you can't make pilaf. It seems the word 'pilaf' is from the Persian, pilaw, means rice dish. Well, there's a little more to it than that. A pilaf always starts with long grain rice, and it's always sautéed in a bit of fat, usually butter, before any liquid is added to the pan.

    Now, like most of our favorite dishes, pilafs make excellent freezer, fridge and pantry Velcro. Today's pilaf will feature things we just scared up from around the kitchen. We've got some green peas—frozen is fine but we'll thaw them—we've got some leftover onion that we've chopped, about half an onion, half a red bell pepper, an orange, a bay leaf and some chicken stock.

Green Peas
1/2 Onion
1/2 Bell Pepper
Orange Zest
Bay Leaf
Chicken Stock

    And, there might be one more ingredient but it's a secret. Kind of a personal thing. Excuse me. Saffron. I'm just going to get hold of a few of these precious little strands and bloom them in hot water. More on this later.


    One of the two secrets to rice cookery is heat management. Now, since this [oven] is one of the few heated environments we can really control and trust, it's my favorite place for cooking pilaf. We'll start over on the cook top but finish in here at 350º.


    Okay, let's light this candle. Two tablespoons of butter melted over whatever medium happens to be on your range.

2 Tbsp Butter

    Now, I like a pan that is wider than it is tall. But you can use any heavy sauce pan as long as it's got a tight fitting lid. Now, when the butter melts add your onion and your bell pepper along with a couple of pinches of kosher salt. Stir to coat then turn down the heat. We want this to sweat, not to brown or sauté. You want to cook it slowly until the aromatics become soft and fragrant.
    Now, these ingredients do not a pilaf make. Pilaf is a method. Even if nothing ended up in this pan but rice, a little fat and water it will still be a pilaf.
    Now, the second secret to happy rice is finding the right ratio of rice to liquid. The instructions on your average bag of rice always says the same thing, "1 cup rice, 2 cups water."  If that were right, and I don't think it is, one could deduce that a 2 to 1 water/rice ratio would always be the way to go no matter how much rice was involved. Well, it isn't that way. Not only are 2 cups of water more than any respectable cup of long grain rice needs, but the proportion of water to rice actually goes down the more rice you cook. Here's how we see it.

    Now, for the sake of argument we will restrict our demonstration to American long grain white rice. One cup of rice will cook very nicely, thank you, in 1 1/2 cups of water. It seems pretty simple, right? But, the plot thickens.

1 1/2 Cups H2O
1 Cup Rice

    Two cups of rice will cook perfectly in 2 3/4 cups of water. Wait, it gets even weirder.

2 3/4 Cups H2O
2 Cups Rice

    Three cups of rice can be cooked to perfection in 3 1/2 cups of water.

3 1/2 Cups H2O
3 Cups Rice

    Which obviously makes it seem apparent that the more rice you cook the less water you need. Now, if you have a slide rule and you know how to use it you could probably figure out some handy formula or at the very least come up with a good comedy routine. "Hey, Abbot. When are we going to have more rice than watuh?"

In Japan, rice fields are often named like people.

The Kitchen

    Our veggies are soft and fragrant, so it's time to add the rice. I'm going with two cups of American long grain polished rice, not converted.

 2 Cups Long Grain

Pressure steamed prior to milling, converted or par-boiled rice retains
many of the bran's nutrients, which explains its golden color.

    I'm going to stir to coat and turn up the heat. I want the butter to get hot enough to kind of caramelize some of the sugars that are on the outside starch of the rice kernel. That's going to give the pilaf its characteristic nutty flavor. How long to cook? Well, until you smell nuts. Every good cook I know is constantly tasting and smelling things. Why trust your nose? It grew where it is specifically to help you find stuff to eat. So take a lesson from your dog and listen to your nose.
    [sniff, sniff ... sniff]  I smell nuts. Sure thing. Three and a half minutes. And our rice has taken on a beautiful gold color and definitely a nutty aroma.

    So, we're ready to add the rest of the ingredients. We're going to start with the liquid. We've got a total of 2 and 3/4 cups because we've got 2 cups of rice. Now, a quarter cup of that has been used to steep the saffron and you can tell that it's already let go of a lot of its gorgeous color. It's going to perfume and color the whole batch. So, in it goes along with the rest of the stock. I want to wash out the saffron bowl to get all that color out. Great. Give it a stir.

2 3/4 Cup Liquid

    I'm going to toss in a bay leaf, ah, what the heck, two bay leaves and about a 1 inch wide strip of orange zest. Now the most important ingredient, salt. Rice, like any starch has got to be cooked with salt or it won't matter how much you add later, it will never taste right. Now, I like to get this up to about, I don't know, seawater flavor so I'm going to add a teaspoon and a half of salt, give it a stir and then taste it ... not with the fingers I had in the salt. Good.
    Bring the heat up to high, stir it once and then throw away the spoon. Never again will a spoon t... No, never again will a spoon touch this rice. Let it come to a boil.
    I love that time folding trick.
    We have a boil so it's time to talk about lids. We need a tight cover that won't let steam sneak out of the pan. Here's a cool trick. Say you've got a boil, which we do, turn off the heat and then spread a barely moist dish towel over the pan. Then cover and fold up the edges. This is also going to keep condensation from dripping off the lid back into the pan. Okay, in the oven.
    Now, you may have to rearrange the racks to get the handle in a bit. Set your timer for 15 minutes and walk away. You know, I feel good about the 15 minutes because I know my oven is at a cozy 350º. How do I know? Because I've got a thermometer in there to tell me so. Now, rice bag instructions have to be a little bit vague for cooking times because they can't be sure about your range heat anymore than they can microwave wattage. So, they have to average a guess.

Baseball Field

    The fall flowering crocus is ground zero for saffron. Each tiny flower contains three little threadlike stigma which have to be picked by hand. Now, if you picked this patch and about 43,000 more just like it—it's about 5 of these infields worth—you'd have a pound of saffron with a market value of about a $1,000 making saffron the most expensive food on earth.
    Now, Kashmir saffron is the best. It's easily recognized by its solid red threads. Now, Spanish and Turkish saffron like this can contain up to 10% yellow stamens so they're a wee bit less intense. Personally, I don't notice the difference in flavor as much as the difference in price which can be substantial. Now, luckily a little goes a long way. We only used about a  quarter's worth for our pilaf.
    Now, we suggest you buy saffron from a specialty spice catalogue, not from a store where it may have been laying around losing its punch. And never settle for crushed or powdered saffron. It's almost always been cut with turmeric. Now, keep your saffron in a heavy plastic bag or a jar with an air tight lid. The safe, is optional.
    [beep, beep]  What's that? Fifteen minutes already?

The Kitchen

    Fight with all your might the urge to open that lid for at least 10 minutes. Fifteen would be better. Twenty would be okay. See, there's still a lot of heat in there. That rice is still cooking. You open that lid now, whew, well, that rice will miss its one shot at being all it can be. And believe me, a grain is a terrible thing to waste. And don't worry. If something did go wrong in there, odds are we can fix it.

    Okay, break time is over. You can look at your rice if you're ready with a bowl or a serving platter to turn it out into. Ah, looks great.

15 Minutes Later

    But, danger lurks just below the surface. See, the starch is a little unstable. Stirring could turn the whole thing into a gummy mess. So, turn it out onto a large platter. Just let the grains fall where they want to go. Now, you may fluff the rice.
    Use a large serving fork or a pasta fork and go ahead and take out the zest and the bay leaf. They have given their all. And now it's time to go with the peas. The rice is plenty hot enough to warm it through. If you want to get fancy, consider, maybe, golden raisins or, my favorite, chopped pistachios. That is a fine looking pilaf.
    Now, rice is, it's not manufactured. It's a natural product and every grain is different. Every crop is different. And because of that, you can't very well expect every pot of rice to be the same. What I'm getting to is that even if you do everything right, occasionally there's going to be an accident. But most of them are fixable.
    For instance:  if you cook your rice and it's done but a little watery, just drain it in a colander, put it back on a sheet pan or jelly roll pan, put it in the oven for about 5 minutes. It will dry up. If it's a little on the underdone side just drop, say, a cup, well, half a cup even of hot water in the pan, slap on the lid and wait five minutes. The steam will cook it the rest of the way. If on the other hand your rice is gooey and gummy and mushy, well, consider finding yourself a good rice pudding recipe. Or do what I do, feed it to the dog.

In China, quitting a job is referred to as "breaking the rice bowl".

Church Front

    Considering its history, versatility, cultural significance and the fact that it's cultivated on every continent on earth except for one, you might say that we've just barely cracked the book on rice. But we hope that you know more than you did half an hour ago.

    Just remember: short is sticky, long is fluffy, white cooks quicker than brown. Now brown smokes "converted," nutritionally speaking, but converted does edge out white just by a hair.

Short is sticky

Long is fluffy

White cooks quicker
than brown

Brown smokes converted nutritionally

Converted edges out
white barely

    And consider this fun fact: of all the rice cultures on earth every one of them considers rice to be a symbol of fertility, which is why we've been throwing this [rice] at weddings for the last few millennium and not corn cobs, small watermelons, or live fish. See you next time on Good Eats.

    Visit us on the web at www.foodtv.com.

Hit Counter

Last Edited on 08/27/2010