I Finally Know Why I Suck at Cooking Rice (AND How to Stop Sucking at It)

October 19, 2016 | By | Comments (11)
Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images


I’ve never made a good pot of rice in my life. Ever. I absolutely f*cking suck at cooking rice. That’s not humility, it’s a fact.

Look, I am comfortable and can generally hold my own in the kitchen. No, I never went to culinary school. But I love cooking/eating/feeding and have sought to build a career based on that love. I’ve held a food editor title for close to 4 years, I’ve been writing about food for twice that long, I’ve been developing recipes along the same timeline, I’ve worked back-of-house in legitimate restaurants, and I still make extra cash through assisting chefs for oddball catering gigs. Point being, I get paid–in dollah dollah bills and street cred–because I know things about food and how to cook it pretty well.

But not rice. Never rice.

Rice–Basic. Ass. Rice.–should consist of distinguishably individual grains; there ought to be a fluffiness to it, but you should still be able to detect the tender, subtle toothiness of the single grains in your mouth. My rice is not that. Or anything close to that. My rice is a glob of gummy, sticky, blown-out, clumpy white crud in a pot. Doesn’t matter the variety, whatever-length grain, any rice I make turns out like overcooked sushi rice. In short, it sucks.

For the longest time, I said that I didn’t like rice. It was a straight up lie, but lying (to the world and to myself) was easier than explaining the fact that I was incapable of producing rice worth eating. Not ideal, but at a point, I just accepted that this was my lot in life, my reality… maybe I had some sort of genetic flaw that kept me from being able to cook rice well. You know, like how cilantro tastes awful and soapy to some people and certain people on this earth don’t experience asparagus pee, because genetics? I genuinely believed I would never be anything beyond pathetic when it came to rice cooking. That is, until about 3 days ago…

Oh yes, I’m about to drop a mad plot twist up in here.

See, I’m surrounded by food people day-in and out, and much of my casual conversation revolves around food, so the fact that I struggle with producing an edible rendition of one of the simplest foods found in home kitchens across the world is bound to come up (numerous times). It happened again the other day. And through the exchange that followed, I uncovered the source of my severe rice handicap: I have always followed (i.e. I trusted) the package instructions. Which is, apparently, a very amateur hour move. Why, you ask?


I know a lot of package instructions don’t reflect the correct way to cook what’s inside of them (as in, keep an eye on your oatmeal), but for some reason… I just never thought twice about rice. Couldn’t tell you why it literally never occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I shouldn’t just follow the back of the bag blindly. But unfortunately, this is a prime example of how the world can be a very cruel place for naive chumps like myself.

The instructions on the package are geared towards making sure there’s no possible way that your rice will be undercooked… producing overcooked, waterlogged rice glue isn’t a concern. No, because if you produce undercooked crunchy dried out rice that burns to the bottom of the pan after following the instructions–clearly, there’s something wrong with the instructions. But if you produce rice that is fully cooked, but just happens to suck, it feels like there’s something wrong with you.

While that very well may hold some degree of truth, I’m pretty sure that whatever is wrong with me isn’t something that would impair my ability to cook a batch of basmati.

Anyway, the problem with my rice is that I have always put too much water in it. Many packages tell you to follow a 2 to 1 ratio of water to rice… when really, it should be more like 1 1/4 to 1 ratio. Thankfully, the test kitchen chef who pointed out my error also told me his foolproof method for cooking excellent rice (after he was done laughing at my package-trusting ass). Let me break it down for you:

  1. Pour your dry rice into a pot. It doesn’t matter how much you’re making (I’d suggest dumping 11/2 to 2 cups of rice in), just shake it into an even layer.
  2. Now, place the tip of your middle finger gently on the surface of the rice, so that your bird-shooting finger is standing vertically like a proud flagpole stretching up over a soon-to-be victorious rice landscape. Now, add enough water to the pot to reach the first knuckle on this finger. Not your main, center-hinge knuckle. The first one. Right above your finger nail.
    1. Numerous people I respect and trust around the office refer to this motion as the “Knuckle Technique.” They present it like it’s some sort of ancient magic… and if that makes cooking rice feel more fun to you, by all means, Harry Potter the sh*t out of that starchy side, but I think the important takeaway is that your rice is covered by just about 1/2-inch of water.
  3. Plop a lid on your pot and bring the water to a boil over high heat. And when I say a boil, I mean a real boil. Not kind of almost a boil–but a rolling boil that makes the lid start rattling.
  4. When you reach this point, sprinkle in a little salt and give the contents of the pot a good stir. Then reduce the heat to low or medium-low, just to maintain a simmer, and return the lid to the pot. Simmer your rice for 12 minutes–set a timer.
  5. After those 12 minutes are up, remove the pot from the heat and allow it to stand for another 12 minutes. But do not at any point remove the lid. This is important. What you’re doing here is steaming the rice to completion–that’s the key to perfect rice (as most rice cooker manufacturers will tell you). If you remove the lid for a quick peak, you release steam and essentially shoot yourself in the foot. There’s literally no reason you need to lay your eyeballs on that rice after you take it off the heat. I promise, it’s still in there, so just place your trust in the magic of your knuckle, keep the faith, and keep the damn lid shut for another 12 minutes.
  6. OK, 12 minutes have passed? Cool. You may now remove the lid. And BOOM. You have a most excellent pot ‘o rice. (I hope.)

I was able to cook my first pot of rice that I’d actually be willing to feed to another human (who isn’t somehow obligated to love me no matter what) the other day using the method as it is described above. I didn’t even want rice, but as soon as I was told that not-terrible rice was a real possibility for me, I had to try.

Just last week, I cooked a pot of the same rice gunk I’ve cooked for years (at least 1/3 of which cakes hopelessly onto the bottom of the pan) to act as a mediocre-at-best bed for my coconut curry chicken. This week… people, this week, I made rice unlike rice I’ve ever made before. I wasn’t ashamed of it. It was a freaking Tempur-Pedic bed for my stir-fried veggies. I feel wiser, I feel empowered, and I feel hope for the future.

And I would like to encourage you now with two principle takeaways:

  1. You should be intelligently skeptical of all package instructions.
  2. Happy ever afters are possible. Don’t stop believing.


*Note: The method described above applies to white rice, not brown. Because given the choice between brown rice and no rice… I’m not eating rice. That said, if you do want to apply this method to brown rice, you’ll simply need to increase the amount of water and the cooking/steaming times a bit. 



  1. Black_Raven135 (@RosaleeAdams)

    Totally useless….I have no idea what you are talking about when you say add enough water
    to the first knuckle…of what finger?
    You said to place middle finger on surface of rice…and whatever is bird shooting
    You mean stick your index finger into the rice?
    Instead of being cute, why not try just relating it in terms that make sense?

    October 19, 2016 at 4:08 pm
  2. Mary Ortis Creighton

    @Rosalee Adams, she said it’s the middle finger, just touching the top of the rice, don’t put your finger into the rice. So it sounds like the water level is to the first knuckle, so about 7/8 of an inch of water is added to the pot, I think. That would be an easier measure to understand, I agree but since it’s hard to judge that without some way to measure in the pot, this makes sense. Maybe a ruler would work, but your hands are probably cleaner!

    October 19, 2016 at 4:38 pm
  3. GymW (@Jim_Weil)

    To Black_Ravin135: Is your reading ability centered in your anus? (yes it is rude but based on your rude comment, you deserve it!). To quote with brackets around what you have seem to be able not to read:

    “Now, place the tip of your {middle finger gently on the surface of the rice}, so that your bird-shooting finger is standing vertically like a proud flagpole stretching up over a soon-to-be victorious rice landscape. Now, add enough water to the pot to reach {the first knuckle on this finger. Not your main, center-hinge knuckle. The first one. Right above your finger nail}.

    FYI: “Bird Shooting Finger”:🖕

    October 19, 2016 at 4:42 pm
  4. Allison MacKay

    I use a method from an old Chinese cookbook, rinse the rice 5 times. Insert first finger into the rice all the way to the bottom ands add water to the second knuckle. Bring to a boil uncovered and wait till the surface of the rice resembles clam holes (!) Sort of like pancakes when they’re ready to flip. Do not stir.Cover, Reduce heat to barely a simmer. 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Let sit covered for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and stir. Some sticking is normal.

    October 19, 2016 at 6:57 pm
  5. Jane Ellen Turner

    what?????———–I was always told that for every cup of rice you add 2 cups of water–so this inch of water does not compute to me !??!!?!??

    October 19, 2016 at 10:57 pm
  6. Lisa S (@lsapzza)

    I always knew the package directions were terrible so I started using about 1 3/4 cups liquid for every cup of rice but it still comes out gummy once in a while so I may try this.

    October 23, 2016 at 4:34 pm
  7. Savithri Amendra

    Ask an Asian how to cook rice. first of all measure the amount of rice you need. if you are a single person make two portions. I usually use a yogurt cup to measure rice per person. Leftover rice can be stored in a covered container in the freezer and used later. Soak the rice for about 10 mits. This helps the starch and other chemicals to soak up and release it. wash it about 8 times rinsing each time with clean water. Now drain the rice and put in the cooking pot. pour water until it’s over the rice. NOW put your middle finger just to touch the top of the rice, don’t poke your finger in the rice. pour water until the water comes up to the first knuckle of your finger, see that the rice is even and the water is exactly on that point of your finger. put the fire on. better gas than electric, cover and let it boil. when you see bubbles coming from the top of the lid, reduce the fire and open the lid once and close it again. now let it be like this for at least 20 mits. open lid and check if the water is just about under the rice, shake the pot and cover again and leave it. it should be ready in about 8 minutes after this. turn off the fire and leave in the pot for about 20 minutes and take a fork and break up the rice lumps. Now its ready to eat. Have fun!!!

    October 23, 2016 at 9:56 pm
  8. Noel Batucan Pantoja Mate

    Each type of rice uses different water level when cooking. I’m a filipino and here in the Philippines, rice is a staple and we cook it every day and at least twice a day. But don’t worry even some of us Pinoys also fail when it comes to cooking rice.

    Each family usually has its preference for their cooked rice (kanin in Filipino). Some prefer their rice sticky or a bit wet and soft (malabsa), and some with just enough moisture and the grains separate (buhag-hag) when you spoon it and place on your plate. This type (the 2nd) is the best for fried rice.

    When cooking rice, I wash it at least 2 times and following the knuckle method, the water is at a knuckle and a half. When using a cup to measure, it’s 1 1/4 cups of water for each cup of uncooked rice. Adjustments are made the next time.

    October 24, 2016 at 4:28 am
  9. Debbie Maria McCarrick

    I have always used 2 cups water 1 cup rice and as soon as it comes to a boil, cover lower heat and cook for 15 minutes. This has always worked. That being said I now own a fuzzy logic rice cooker and it is mystical and magical and cooks it perfect every time, even brown rice, lol.

    October 24, 2016 at 9:53 am
  10. Sallee Gotlieb

    What a performance, I always make perfect rice, I usually use Basmati, unless I am making something specific. 1 cup of rice, 2 cups of water (and so on), a little bit of coconut oil in a deep frying pan, fry rice over in the oil, let it get really really hot and opaque, then add the water (boiling), put the lid on and then simmer for about 15 mins, then take off heat! Voila!

    October 29, 2016 at 2:39 am
  11. Nicholas Eric

    Not only did it take waaay to long to reach the point, but when you finally get to the instructions (ELEVEN paragraphs later), they are incomprehensible. I’ve read step 2 five times and I still have no idea what it’s saying.

    This piece desperately needs a copyeditor.

    December 22, 2016 at 1:26 pm

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