How to cook perfect rice - in a frying pan

Rice is central to Japanese cuisine, so like most Japanese people, I have owned a rice cooker for as long as I can remember. Therefore, I usually cook rice in it. Sometimes I resort to another appliance, such as a pressure cooker for cooking brown rice. But truth be told I am not that good at making rice in a pot, mainly because I rarely have to do it. My rice cooker is always there for me. (My basic rice cooking method is here.)

But, recently I've been in several situations where I haven't had a rice cooker, but really needed to make some rice, either for eating or to make demo bentos during my book tour. That's when I decided to try making the rice in a frying pan. I'd seen this method on an NHK TV show called Necchuu Sutajiamu (Passion Stadium...yep I know, Japanese program show names can be a bit odd, especially in translation) back in October, and had been very intrigued at how easy it looked. I looked it up the program's website (Japanese page) as well as a how-to on Cookpad (also Japanese), the Japanese mega-cooking site, and gave it a try.

And you know what...it's so easy, and the results are really fantastic! I had perfectly cooked rice in less than 30 minute from measuring out to serving. Amazing!

I've tried commonly available methods of cooking rice before, such as adding rice to boiling water or vice versa, letting rice come to a boil in water in a pan and putting a lid on and letting it rest, and so on. None of those methods really worked to my satisfaction, especially for Japanese style rice -- you know, the kind that goes with Japanese meals, that gets turned into sushi rice, and so on. I am extremely picky about how my rice turns out. So this method was quite a revelation for me, in terms of how easy and foolproof it is.

I did have to make some small adjustments to the basic method to accommodate the quirks of an electric stovetop (as I explained in my my fried rice in a frying pain article, electric ranges are common in Europe, not so in Japan or the U.S., and I'm constantly adjusting my methods accordingly). Otherwise though, it's such a quick and easy method of making rice that I have been doing it this way quite often.

Recipe and method: Cooking Japanese-style rice in a frying pan

Note that the recipe/method here is for Japanese-style white rice. It should work with other white rice types too, but you may need to adjust the water amounts. Brown rice will need to be soaked in water for several hours if you're going to try cooking it in a frying pan. (I've seen brown rice that has been pre-treated to cook in the same amount of time as white rice in Japan and some Japanese grocery stores elsewhere, so you could try looking for that.)

You need:

  • Japanese style medium-grain white rice (see Looking at different types of rice)
  • A frying pan with a non-stick surface. I used a 28 cm / 11 inch diameter model. I recommend a similar size for making 1 to 2 cups of rice.
  • A tight fitting lid for the frying pan. The lid does need to fit well so that excess steam gets trapped. A glass one is nice since it lets you see your rice's progress without opening the lid.

Following the method described in my basic rice how-to, rinse the rice and drain it well. (Rinsing does make a difference in taste! You just need to do it a few times.) Put the drained rice plus 1.1 times the amount of water by volume in the frying pan. So, if you have 1 cup of rice, use 1 cup and a bit of water. For 2 cups of rice, use 2.2 cups (about 2 and 1/4) water. I don't recommend doing more than 2 cups at a time in this size frying pan.

At this point, ideally you'll let the rice soak a bit (about half an hour) for plumper grains, but you can skip the soaking if you're in a big hurry.

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Put the frying pan on the stovetop over high heat with the lid on. Bring to a boil - the water will bubble aggressively, like so.

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Give the rice a good stir up from the bottom with a spoon or spatula.

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Replace the lid tightly. Lower the heat immediately to low.

If you're using an electric range, the heat will not respond instantly so you'll have high heat for a couple of minutes. Take the frying pan off the hot burner for a couple of minutes until the burner has had a chance to cool down to the low level.

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Let the rice cook on the low setting. You'll see the water get absorbed rapidly and big, starchy bubbles on the surface. This only takes about 5 minutes so be sure you're hovering near the pan with an eye on it! (I do other dinner-prep stuff while the rice is steaming.)

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Once the bubbles have subsided, you'll see the surface of the rice with nice, even steam holes all over it. As soon this happens, turn the heat up to high for a minute or two, then turn the heat off. If you're using an electric range, take the pan off the hot burner and put it somewhere else (like on top of an unused burner).

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Let the pan rest with the lid on for a minimum of 10 minutes. This is very important, otherwise you may end up with a little hard center in your rice grains. Al dente is good for pasta, not for rice! (At least, it's not good for Japanese style rice. Other rices, I don't think so either.)

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And...here's the cooked rice. Looks beautiful, doesn't it?

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Here's the rice fluffed up. Perfectly cooked and ready to eat as-is or turn into onigiri, sushi rice, or whatever your heart desires.

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And...there are no burned bits stuck to the pan - I love easy cleanup! (Note: if you use a regular frying pan withint a non-stick surface, you may get some stuck-on bits. Also, if the final burst of high heat is too long, the bottom of the rice may get a bit brown.)

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I had some of this batch as tamago kake gohan, raw egg and soy sauce on hot rice - one of my favorite breakfasts or snacks. (Not recommended unless you have really fresh, safe eggs.)

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To sum up

Why does this work? According to that Passion Stadium broadcast it's because in a frying pan, the rice is spread out thinly on a large cooking surface, so it cooks fast and evenly. (That's why you shouldn't cook more than 2 cups (US cup measure, where 1 cup is about 240ml) of rice at a time in a 10-12 inch (26-30 cm) frying pan. If you're doing a large amount of rice, I'd recommend two frying pans going at once!

The tight fitting lid is very important, otherwise too much steam will escape during the cooking process. The one I use is a model that fits pans of various sizes, and is really handy.

I think this method is preferable to cooking rice in the oven. It's just as foolproof, much faster (you can have the rice all cooked in the time it takes to heat up a big oven) and far more energy efficient. And I like it better than microwave-cooking rice too, because I find having open take the bowl out of the microwave and stirring, etc. to be too cumbersome. To avoid all that taking out and stirring you need a special microwave-rice-cooking bowl, and this is all about not having to get special equipment to cook rice.

My rice cooker is still my everyday rice cooking device, since you can't beat its hands-off reliability and delayed-cooking-with-timer capability, not to mention the keep-warm feature. But if you don't have a rice cooker, and don't want to get one for whatever reason, or you're in a hurry to get some rice cooked in the shortest amount of time, I hope you'll give this a try!

(ETA: Yes, I do know what paella and risotto are. The texture of the rice in either dish is completely different from what I want Japanese style rice to turn out to be.)

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