May 24, 2021

🍛 Making a Side of Rice More Flavorful

Learn 4 techniques for making a side of rice more flavorful.

Rice is the perfect side dish. But let’s be honest with ourselves. It can be a little bland. And sometimes that’s okay! You want a simple bowl of rice to contrast a rich curry. And you wouldn’t want the rice to overpower fresh, buttery, raw salmon. 🍣 But sometimes we want more.

Use rice to sneak extra flavor into a meal. Whether it’s in a burrito, served as a pilaf on the side, or the base for stir fry, rice makes a difference in what you taste. So go against the grain. 😉

Let’s talk about making the rice less boring.

If you’re interested in learning more about the different types of rice and how they impact your cooking, check out this past newsletter on rice.

4 Ways to Add Flavor to Rice

1. Toasting Rice

But please don’t put rice in your toaster people! 😉 Instead, toast it in a pan. Whenever you apply direct heat, you add flavor. And that principle applies to rice too.

Instead of combining rice and water in a pot, first, add a bit of fat to the pan along with your rice. I like to start with a cold pan here. It will help make sure some of the grains don’t accidentally burn. Because a grain is such a terrible thing to waste. 🧠 🥁

As the pan heats up, stir the rice frequently. You want to make sure all the grains are coated in fat and cook evenly. The rice will start to turn slightly translucent on the ends when it’s done. But more importantly, you’ll smell a nutty aroma. Once you smell that, your rice is ready for the liquid.

2. Create an Aromatic Base

You can give your rice more flavor by…adding flavorful ingredients! Pretty straightforward, right? We aren’t sending people into outer space, folks! 🚀🧑‍🚀🪐

An aromatic base gives you a strong foundation of flavor for your rice. So how do you build an aromatic base? Start by sweating aromatic vegetables—sweating is cooking without browning—before you toast your rice. Think onions, shallots, celery, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, ginger, garlic, or whatever else you got.

To take it to the next level, brown some tomato paste after your rice is almost fully toasted! The paste adds umami, depth, and some tomato flavor to the rice. Tomato paste is my secret ingredient for flavorful Mexican rice.

But don’t stop there. Continue to build that base with sturdy herbs and citrus peels! Cilantro stems, bay leaves, thyme, and rosemary will all incorporate flavor into your rice as it cooks. Long, wide strips of lemon or lime peel will add brightness. And unlike the zest you get from a Microplane, strips of the peel will hold up well as the rice cooks.

Once you’ve got your base ready, you can add your liquid.

3. Cook in Flavorful Liquid

This is a bit of a no-brainer too. Cooking with a flavorful liquid creates flavorful rice. Using a good stock is the first thing to try—you’ll taste the stock so make sure it’s a good one! But don’t limit yourself to just stock.

I love to cook rice in coconut milk. It adds a subtle creaminess, nuttiness, and sweetness to the rice. I use the same amount of liquid I would normally, but I replace about half the water with coconut milk. You can use all coconut milk, but it will make the rice much richer and heavier. I recommend using coconut milk in the can for the thicker, creamier consistency. And I’d avoid using coconut cream unless you were cutting it with a good amount of water. Or go all-in on the coconut cream and make piña colada rice! 🍹😉

Another option is to cook the rice in a salsa-like liquid. Try blending juicy tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, and jalapeños with water. Then use that as your cooking liquid. The rice will absorb all those flavors!

Lastly, don’t forget the salt! Just like cooking pasta, if you want the rice to be flavored on the inside, add a good pinch of salt when you add the liquid.

4. Stir in Extra Flavor at the End

Once your rice is done cooking and rests for about 5-10 minutes, look at incorporating a few bonus ingredients.

For extra herbaceous rice, finely dice herbs and add them to melted butter or olive oil while the rice cooks. The fat will bring out more flavor from the herbs and help carry that flavor throughout the rice. You simply stir that herb and fat mixture in right before serving.

Or instead of cooking with a flavorful liquid, try adding it at the end. Start by using a little less liquid when you cook the rice—this makes sure the rice doesn’t end up too wet. While the rice cooks, blend cilantro, a touch of water, scallions, jalapeños, and oil. Or whatever flavor combo that sounds good to you! Once the rice is done cooking, add your flavor smoothie. Then let the rice sit so it has time to absorb the liquid.

There are also other simple add-ins. Nuts add crunch. Peas add sweetness. Citrus zest and juice add a strong citrus flavor when added at the end. Even sushi rice is flavored with a little bit of sugar and rice vinegar after it's done cooking. 🍙

Deciding How to Flavor Your Rice

Just because you have the four techniques above, it doesn’t mean you should do all four every time you make rice.

When thinking about which technique to choose, consider the main dish. Here are two examples.

  1. Chipotle braised chicken thighs are hearty and bold. The floral and aromatic quality of a simple cilantro lime rice balances it beautifully. To make cilantro-lime rice, I’d toast my rice in a bit of butter. Then I’d throw in a couple of strips of lime peel and a handful of cilantro stems. And then cook the rice in salted water. Why not stock? A flavorful stock would cover up the cilantro-lime flavor. Once the rice is done, I’d stir in cilantro leaves, lime zest, and lime juice right before serving. 🍚
  2. If I was doing a simple beef and broccoli stir fry, I might make a creamy coconut ginger rice. Here’s how. I’d smash chunks of ginger and sauté them in a bit of coconut oil. Then I add the rice and toast it until I smell that nutty aroma. Then I’d add a mixture of half coconut milk, half water and cook it normally. If I wanted an extra-strong ginger flavor, I’d stir in just a little bit of grated fresh ginger to the warm rice. The heat will mellow the fresh ginger’s punch.

So when you think of flavoring your rice, think about what the meal is missing. Does it need some creaminess? Some brightness? Are there certain flavors you'd love to work in? Go with what sounds good! You got this!

Where I learned this: Watching this great episode of Good Eats and cooking rice recipes from Milk Street.