“What a mess.”

It was my first day working for a very wealthy, very exacting client. I’d lifted the lid on my planned side dish — long-grain white rice bathed in tomatoes and spices — and gasped. Instead of the fluffy, tender pilaf I was supposed to see, I found myself staring at a gloopy, gloppy mash. I stuffed it down one of her three kitchen sinks before casting around for something to serve with the evening’s main course.

You’d think I’d learn. I’d made mayhem with rice before and had no business trying to pass myself off as a rice-making maven (particularly with a brand-new client). No matter the recipe, technique or tricks that I used, fluffy, tender rice was out of my cooking league. Mine was always glop and goo.

I thought back to my rice fiasco yesterday as I scanned The New York Times‘ dining section. There, writer and (very) accomplished cook Kim Severson details her own rice-cooking woes: “Of the many ways I can be humbled in the kitchen,” she writes, “rice is at the top of the list.”

Amen, sister.

Kim goes on to detail how she overcame her rice affliction and learned to cook a fluffy pot. (You can read about it here.)

I may try her technique. But in the years since my own humiliation, I’ve stumbled upon a technique that works for me. It’s a mash-up of tips and recipes I’ve collected over time, plus loads of experimentation.

Here’s how I cook rice that’s nice, in five easy steps:

First, I only use basmati rice. I like its texture and its subtle, nutty flavor when cooked. Sometimes I soak it for 15-20 minutes to get rid of the starch. Sometimes I rinse it. But usually, I just pour it into my pan. It always works.

Second, I adhere to the 1 part rice/2 parts liquid ratio. Any less water or broth, and the rice ends up crunchy. Any more, and I risk gloppiness.

Third, I use a saute pan. No pots. No saucepans. I only have fluffy-rice luck with my large Cuisinart pan and its tight-fitting lid.

Fourth, I toast the rice. Taking a page from risotto, I give my basmati a 5- to 7-minute saute in hot oil before adding any liquid. The oil bath slightly browns the rice. It makes the kernels thirsty for liquid and keeps them separate as they cook. Sometimes I’ll saute an onion or some garlic and ginger in the oil before toasting the rice. But usually, my basmati goes solo.

Finally, I let the finished dish sit before removing the lid. I might throw some herbs or veggies into the mix as soon as the rice is cooked, but I immediately put the lid back on and let the concoction rest for 10 minutes. Then, I fluff it with a fork … no spoons allowed!

Here’s the basic rice recipe that (finally!) worked for me. Let me know what techniques and tricks work for you!

Never-Fail Rice

  • 1 cup basmati rice
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh herbs
  • 2 scallions, green part only, thinly sliced

Gloss a saute pan with olive oil and place it over medium-high heat. Warm the oil until it’s shimmering.

Add the rice and stir until the kernels are slightly browned and popping. (This takes anywhere from 5-7 minutes.)

Add the chicken broth and stir to make sure all the rice is in the liquid. Place a lid on the saute pan and bring the mixture to a boil.

Turn the heat to its lowest setting and cook until all the liquid is absorbed, occasionally shaking the pan so the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom. It’ll take 15-20 minutes for the liquid to disappear.

Remove the pan from the heat. Working quickly, take the lid off the pan and throw in the chopped herbs and scallions. Replace the lid immediately and wait 10-15 minutes. Remove the lid once more, fluff the rice with a fork and transfer it to a serving dish.