Rice

The Absolute Best Way to Make White Rice, According to My Korean Mom

Her tried-and-true method, 50+ years strong.

by:
October  9, 2018
Photo by Julia Gartland

Growing up in the suburbs, my family and I would go to steakhouses often, our Friday night ritual at the end of the workweek. Think: ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, Louis Huang's Cattleman's Ranch Steakhouse. As soon as we'd come home from dinner, even after that huge meal, my dad would head straight to the kitchen and eat a spoonful or two of cold leftover white rice (the gonggi bap) straight out of the rice cooker. Maybe with some ice-cold kimchi from the fridge, a sheet or two of gim (roasted seaweed snack). Dinner was never dinner unless there was white rice to round everything out. It was as if he couldn't feel fully satiated without it.

I wonder if other Koreans can identify with this longing for rice to complete a meal. It signifies for me a long-lasting lore I've always felt that white rice is food, and food is white rice.

It is significant, isn't it, how the word for "rice" in so many cultures is synonymous with the one for "food"? In Korean, bap means both "rice" and "food," or "meal." In Mandarin, it's fàn. In Japanese, gohan. I'm no linguist or historian, but it makes sense to me that this would be the case for cuisines where white rice is at the center, always the starch on the table, the prized crop in the agricultural makeup of all these cultures' food economies.

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Top Comment:
“There are lines inside the rice pot to indicate how much water to put in, according to how many RICE COOKER MEASURING CUPS (the measuring cup that comes with your rice cooker) of rice you wash. I sometimes use this method and it does align with the methods mentioned in your article. When I first started washing the rice as a preteen, I argued with my mom as to the proper level of water as her fingers were a bit longer than mine, so we compared hands and I just measured her middle finger to see the point on my finger that aligned with hers. Perfect rice every time ever since. Oh, and the line inside the rice pot corresponds exactly to her finger measurement. I checked, lol. ”
— Cheryl H.
Comment

I think there's also a lot of mystification out there about how to cook white rice. Maybe because everyone does it differently: It's likely that your way of making it is different from your friend's or from Tejal Rao's, from mine. Indeed, how we cook food differently will always be an indication of the variability of culture, and the notion that there is no one right way.

It is significant, isn't it, how the word for "rice" in so many cultures is synonymous with the one for "food"?

That said, there is a right way in my life, and in my brother's, and in my dad's. I thought it was high time that I share some wisdom from my own mother Jean, whose rice is quite famous for being perfectly fluffy, never mushy, and exactly right. She's been making it for 50 years and, as far as I know, hasn't changed her method since. It comes out immaculate every time, so there's got to be something to it right?

I have to say here: This method uses an electric rice cooker, which is prevalent in every Korean household, like an electric kettle might be in every British household. If you're looking for the stovetop method, proceed here:

Otherwise, here's my mother's method, which, I've learned in recent years, is a little different.


How to Make Perfect White Rice in a Rice Cooker

  • First, Jean rinses short-grain white rice (the sticky kind you get at Korean and Japanese restaurants, not jasmine nor basmati, not Uncle Ben's, but this one) straight in the rice cooker. That is, she fills the removable inner pot with rice (never measures), takes it over to the sink, fills it with water, stirs with her hands, and pours the cloudy water out—and repeats this process, say, three or four times until the water runs clearer. She used to make me do this when I was little while she prepped dinner, and I'd get rice all over the sink (which is why now I always rinse my rice in a sieve).
  • Next, she fills the inner pot (a little water in there is fine, good actually) with enough water so that when she places her palm flat into the rice, the water level rises to the crease in her wrist where it meets the hand. I always thought this was black magic. "My hand is way bigger than yours!" I'd say. And she'd go: ¯_(ツ)_/¯. But I'd end up making rice like this for decades, sticking my palm into the rice and feeling anxious about the lack of science of it all. How accurate could this be, really? Eventually, when I started developing recipes that required exact measurements, I was able to figure out the actual rice-to-wrist-level-water proportions. Which came out to be about 1 cup water for every 1 cup rinsed, drained short-grain white rice. Remember: This is for the rice cooker, not for the stove, so if it doesn't sounds like enough water, just trust me (or rather, trust my mother).
  • This next step is subtle but, in my experience, essential (especially if you're using the 1:1 water to rice ratio above): My mother lets her rinsed, drained rice sit in its water for a bit before cooking. Sometimes she'd forget about it completely and it'd sit there, and sit there, and sit there. But the idea is that the rice should soak. The resultant texture is, for me, so much fluffier, rounder, better. Even when you think you don't have the time, just soak it a little. Five minutes is better than zero. These days I set a timer for exactly 10 minutes, which I've learned over the years is totally sufficient. Longer is fine, if you forget like her (and me sometimes), but any longer than an hour or so and you run the risk of entering mushy rice territory.
  • Finally, press the button and wait. But don't watch it. A watched rice cooker never steams.

How do you cook your white rice? Let us know in the comments below.

33 Comments

Chely C. October 15, 2018
being A southern South American that lives in Hawaii I have learned about rice cookers recently and use the pointer finger first knuckle technique but always add a few pats of butter or olive oil to the water and hymalian sea salt. I use medium grains instead of short. Is this a reasonable thing to do? Or too spanishifed? (Made up word)
 
Smaug October 15, 2018
Actually, I believe the word is "hispanicified".
 
Evelyn October 15, 2018
I understood it to be spanish from Spain, not Hispanic.
 
Cheryl M. October 15, 2018
Growing up, my mother made rice with every single dinner, whether it was chicken, steak, meatloaf, or lasagna. By the time I got to college I couldn't look at another grain. I didn't eat white rice for almost five years (except at family dinners). I finally began to crave it again in my mid twenties, and bought a rice cooker like the one my mom had. I used it with the measuring cup that came with it. I've been making rice in my InstantPot lately and the rice cooker has been relegated to the garage. I don't know if it's just my imagination, but there's some magical quality about the rice cooker that just isn't there with the InstantPot.
 
saltnpepperhere October 14, 2018
Yas!! I've switched from electric rice cooker to using Instant Pot for rice and the 1:1 ratio works perfectly there too :)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 15, 2018
Whoa, cool. Do you find that the Instant Pot rice tastes any different from the rice cooker rice?
 
Cheryl H. October 14, 2018
There are lines inside the rice pot to indicate how much water to put in, according to how many RICE COOKER MEASURING CUPS (the measuring cup that comes with your rice cooker) of rice you wash. <br />I sometimes use this method and it does align with the methods mentioned in your article. <br />When I first started washing the rice as a preteen, I argued with my mom as to the proper level of water as her fingers were a bit longer than mine, so we compared hands and I just measured her middle finger to see the point on my finger that aligned with hers. Perfect rice every time ever since.<br />Oh, and the line inside the rice pot corresponds exactly to her finger measurement. I checked, lol.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 14, 2018
Ha! Love the precision and that you checked. Sounds like something I'd do...er, did.
 
Laurence T. October 14, 2018
I was raised in the pointer finger method (which translates to 2 portions water to 1 portion rice) but will be trying the palm-wrist manuever tonight. And the soaking for 10 minutes! When my kids went off to college, the first thing I packed for them was their own rice cooker! Interestingly enough, my mother’s rice pot wasn’t electric...just a cast iron pot with a slightly raised edge so the bubbling rice water wouldn’t spill over the edge. My evil sister (jk) appropriated it before I could, darn her! LOL
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 14, 2018
I love the many little details in this story/comment. Thank you for sharing, Laurence. A rice cooker truly is a must-have for college dorms.
 
Smaug October 13, 2018
Uncool, maybe, but I measure it. However, the measure can be anything from 1/1 to 2/1 depending on the desired result. There seem to be a million methods out there that all work perfectly well, perhaps because cooking rice is really simple- after all, you're just trying to get dried seeds to absorb water, which they are designed to do.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 14, 2018
Right, for me it's so dependent on mood. Sometimes I want the 2/1 softness of rice you don't have to chew. And depends on the dish I'm cooking or serving with.
 
Smaug October 15, 2018
After looking at the zillion replies to this thread, I become rather curious as to why people don't measure their rice- I suppose it's possible to be stuck in a situation where there's nothing to measure with, though just about any cup, glass, or anything resembling a container will serve, but the effort required verges on nonexistent- you don't really even need to wash your cup.
 
Lucia L. October 10, 2018
I use the pointer finger method--where I fill the inner rice cooker pot with rice then water. I stick my pointer finger all the way to the bottom of the pot, and use my thumb to mark where the flat surface of rice hits my pointer finger. Then keeping the thumb in place, I move my pointer finger up to the surface of the rice and the water level should be where the thumb is. I'd add more or take out water as needed. Basically I want double-ish the water to rice. I also use the Kokuho Rose rice--so good!! :)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 10, 2018
Do you soak your rice?
 
Laurence T. October 14, 2018
Kohuko Rose is THE only rice to use! Grew up in Hawaii and “two scoop rice” is my staple to this day.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 14, 2018
It's really the best.
 
Stephanie J. October 10, 2018
My children are both adopted from Korea. Every summer for ten years they went to a Korean cultural camp for adoptees. I volunteered in the kitchen each summer. This is how I learned to cook passable Korean food..from the older Korean woman who ran the kitchen and taught me with love, laughter, yelling and food randomly shoved into my mouth while my hands were full (taste this..this is how it should taste!). Beautiful memories, and the very place I learned to use the wrist method. Our rice cooker sits proudly on our counter at all times and my kids complain if it gets put away, they say the smell of it is home. <3
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 10, 2018
I love this. Thank you for sharing.<br /><br />+1 wrist method!
 
Lindsey D. October 10, 2018
This is exactly how my husband taught me to cook rice! He grew up in Singapore so he knows good rice. ;) Thank you for the reminder.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 10, 2018
No way! He uses the wrist method? And soaks?
 
Lindsey D. October 10, 2018
Sorry, I should not have typed "exactly." Every step was the same except the wrist method. He taught me to use my index finger as a gauge for the water level. When the water hits the first bend in my finger then the water level is correct. ;) But yes to everything else.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 10, 2018
Love it. Emily (below) was taught to use her pinky! Ha!
 
Ttrockwood October 10, 2018
These are such good tips! I knew of the water to the knuckle trick, but of course now will measure with the palm/wrist version. I have tried so many ways of cooking rice over the years from boiling like pasta to baking in a covered dish etc and when i want white rice i want exactly what comes from the rice cooker. With a bit of soy sauce and butter of course.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 10, 2018
I love buttery white rice. Thanks for reading :)
 
Emily October 9, 2018
I am not Korean, but learned a similar trick from a Korean friend--if you stick your pinky finger so that it touches the top of the rice, the water should come up to the first knuckle crease on that finger. Seems like the same principle, and one I always use!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 10, 2018
Ah, I've heard the pinky/first knuckle trick. Sounds more accurate. I love these alt methods b/c they seem to come from cultures that don't use measuring cups as much as Americans do. Maybe.
 
Kevin October 9, 2018
Mom sacr-riced a lot for us... I love her for that. Oh and her rice was good too.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 9, 2018
Rice one!
 
Jamie C. October 9, 2018
Omg, I learned to use the palm-water-level method too! Yes, I also thought it was black magic too but you just learn to adjust to your specific hand size.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 9, 2018
Ha! I was asking around all day yesterday and everyone looked at me crazy. Glad it’s not just me (or Jean, for that matter).
 
Hana A. October 9, 2018
Jean knows what's up.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 9, 2018
It's rice to see her legacy in print (so to speak).