Basmati rice is a variety of long-grained rice that originates in the foothills of the Himalayas and is traditionally served in Indian and other South Asian cuisines.
Frequently served alongside various curries, braised or roasted meats, or as the main ingredient in classic biryani, basmati rice is sometimes served plain but often flavored with turmeric or saffron, both of which impart a characteristic yellow hue.
Its distinctive nutty flavor and unique, slightly floral aroma is similar to that of jasmine rice, which is commonly used in Thai and other Southeast Asian cooking. When cooked, basmati has a slightly softer grain than jasmine rice, while jasmine has a nuttier flavor.
Brown Basmati Vs. White
Like all rice, basmati rice is available in brown and white, with the white version produced by removing the bran (which is the outer husk or covering of each grain) from the brown version, as well as the germ, which is the seed that causes the rice plant to grow, leaving the white starchy portion.
Because bran provides dietary fiber and essential fatty acids, and the germ contains a number of nutrients, the brown version of basmati rice (and all rice) is generally considered healthier than the white version. Brown basmati also has a more nutty flavor and a firmer texture than white.
Structurally, basmati rice has the longest grains of any rice, and it is known for lengthening during cooking. It is also extremely narrow, with pointy rather than rounded or stubby ends.
Basmati Grains: Light and Fluffy
Some recipes call for soaking basmati rice before cooking it, but this is entirely wrong. High-quality basmati rice undergoes a two-year aging process specifically to dry it as thoroughly as possible, which in turn concentrates its distinctive flavors and aromas.
Soaking it undoes all of this, while also making the rice more sticky, which is the opposite of what a properly prepared basmati should be. Indeed, basmati rice is prized for its light, fluffy consistency, with the grains remaining separate rather than clumped together.
On the other hand, rinsing it before cooking is a good idea, as it helps to remove any starches from the surface of the grains which would tend to make the cooked rice stickier.
Cooking Basmati Rice
Given the emphasis on fluffiness rather than stickiness, it's not surprising that basmati rice is typically prepared using the cooking method which happens to produce the fluffiest, least-sticky rice, regardless of variety, and that is via the pilaf method.
You can, of course, ordinarily prepare basmati rice, via simmering it or cooking it in a rice cooker, but if you want to experience it in all its aromatic glory, the pilaf method is the only way to go.
Fortunately, the pilaf method is simple enough, although it does require an extra step or two. It comes down to sautéeing the uncooked rice in oil, along with some finely minced onions and other aromatics, then adding hot stock or broth and transferring the whole pot, tightly covered, to the oven and cooking it until all the liquid is absorbed.
Sautéeing the rice beforehand contributes greatly to fluffiness as it coats each grain with oil, which in turn helps prevent sticking. The high heat of the oil also imparts a toasty flavor and helps bring out more of the rice's nuttiness.
Similarly, cooking it in the oven ensures that the heat envelops the pot evenly, rather than with stovetop cooking, where the heat comes from directly underneath, causing the grains to stick to the bottom of the pot.
In traditional Indian dishes such as the classic biryani, the pilaf is flavored by adding whole spices such as allspice, star anise, whole cardamom pods, and cinnamon sticks along with the stock before transferring it to the oven.
Buying and Storing Basmati Rice
While the traditional form of basmati is grown in India and Pakistan, there are a few U.S.-grown hybrids that go by names such as Texmati and Calmati. Also, a hybrid of basmati and jasmine rice known as Jasmati, combining basmati's soft grain with jasmine's nuttier flavor, can also be found.
All of these varieties are available in white and brown. Whether you opt for the traditional variety or one of the hybrids, all types of brown rice take longer to cook. And when it comes to storing it, the shelf life of the white versions is significantly longer, because the fatty acids found in the rice bran can eventually turn rancid and spoil.