Why you sauté some rice and pasta, but not all

A college roommate of mine regularly sautéed dry angel hair pasta in butter for a few minutes before tossing the pasta into boiling water. At the time, I remember thinking my roommate was weird.

A little more than a decade later, as I was sautéing dry arborio rice to make risotto, it dawned on me that I was doing essentially the same thing as my former roommate, but with rice. So then, I decided the person who wrote the risotto recipe was also weird.

Then yesterday, out of the blue, I got a ridiculous craving for Rice-A-Roni when I spotted a box of it at the grocery store. I wasn’t raised in a Rice-A-Roni home, so I’m not even sure how I knew what it tasted like. But, I decided to give into my spontaneous craving, and buy a box. When I brought it home, I noticed that the first step in making Rice-A-Roni is to sauté the dry rice and vermicelli pasta in butter. It was at this point where I started to think my roommate, the risotto recipe creator, and Golden Grains manufacturing might not be the weird ones and that instead I might be for not sautéing rice and pasta before eating it.

After perusing a handful of food science textbooks, I’ve realized my final assumption was correct — I’m the weird one, at least as far as narrow gauge pastas (like vermicelli and angel hair) and medium grain rices are concerned. It turns out, sautéing dried grains before immersing them in boiling water has two important benefits:

  1. The grains absorb flavors from the fat used for the sauté (like a nutty flavor from butter or a fruity flavor from olive oil), and
  2. When you’re sautéing, you’re also toasting the grain. You give the grain a crust-like exterior. This crust-like exterior keeps the rice from becoming too mushy (mush works great for rice pudding, but isn’t very good for a paella or risotto), makes it harder to overcook (something that is very easy to do with medium-grain rice), and keeps the grain separated, but still a little sticky (you want to feel like you’re eating rice, but don’t want individual grains to fall off your fork). It gives medium-grain rice and narrow gauge pastas some tooth.

Now that I understand the why, I’m realizing I can improve a number of pilaf recipes I’ve been flubbing lately. Sautéing a nice golden color on the rice first will eliminate the mushy results I’ve been getting.

2 comments posted

  1. Posted by Jennifer - 06/14/2011

    My family’s recipe for Spanish rice calls for it to be sauteed in vegetable oil first, and I can ALWAYS taste in restaurants when they do it that way!

  2. Posted by Michelle - 08/02/2011

    Oh rice, such an elusive and depectively simple grain.

    Here’s how to make perfect pilaf (South Asian style)
    -Saute onions in a scant amount of oil over medium heat, stirring constantly (1 large onion for 3 cups uncooked rice)
    -About 7 minutes later the onion should be a nice golden colour.
    -Add in your rice and stir stir stir so the rice gets toasted and coated with delicious oily oniony bits.
    -Ensure you have boiling water ready to go
    -Add in spices, 1/4 tsp tumeric per cup of rice, 1/2 tsp salt per cup of rice, and optional cumin seeds, cloves, bay leaf, etc.
    - Add in boiling water (1.75 cups water per 1 cup rice) and half cover
    - Stand over the pot, AS SOON AS it comes to a boil lower the heat down to minimum, put the lid fully on, and set a timer for 14 minutes (it’s very important that you do not open the lid or touch it in any way during these 14 minutes.)
    - When the timer goes off, open the lid gently (watch out for steam) fluff liberally with a fork, and move off the heat.
    I guarantee that you will have perfect pilaf, enjoy!

    –Michelle

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