Pilaf with Fluffy, Individual Grains
Brown, Crispy Crust That Releases Easily From the Pot
For many home cooks in this country, rice is an everyday side dish made with minimal fuss. But in Iran, a rice pilaf known as chelow (pronounced CHEH-lo) is one of the most important dishes in the cuisine—and actually defines a cook’s reputation in the kitchen. What makes the dish so good is contrast: a marriage of unusually light and fluffy grains with a golden-brown, crispy crust that’s so buttery that you can’t help but go back for more. It’s a showpiece pilaf.
The trade-off has always been the effort involved, as most shortcut recipes yield overcooked rice and pale crusts. The best versions I’ve made call for rinsing the rice before soaking it for 24 hours, parboiling it, packing some of the rice down in hot oil to make a crust, and mounding the rest on top. The whole thing is then steamed for over an hour before being turned out onto a platter.
My goal was a middle-ground approach, where I’d streamline the best versions without sacrificing the pilaf’s defining qualities.
Treat It Right
Traditional recipes call for Persian rice, which isn’t readily available in the United States, so nutty and aromatic long-grain basmati rice is the usual substitute. As for the cooking vessel, since the size of the pot’s base determines the size of the crust and I wanted plenty to go around, I grabbed a large, wide Dutch oven.
I started by focusing on the pilaf portion of the rice—specifically, the rinsing and soaking steps. Starch granules are the primary component of rice; as the granules absorb water during cooking, they swell and can eventually burst, releasing gummy starch molecules that glue the grains together. Rinsing was a must to remove excess surface starch that would otherwise swell and burst. Soaking, meanwhile, helps hydrate the grains before cooking. But was it necessary?
A quick test comparing rice that was rinsed and then soaked for 24 hours with rice that was only rinsed confirmed that both rinsing and soaking yielded fluffier pilaf with more separate grains. After a few more tests and some analysis, I determined that a 15-minute bath in hot tap water provided almost as much hydration as a 24-hour soak—the grains’ presoak weight increased by 25 percent and 29 percent, respectively. Taste tests confirmed that there was little difference; a 15-minute hot soak and a 24-hour room-temperature soak produced grains that were equally fluffy and individual. I also discovered that adding salt to the water seasoned the grains for better flavor.
Besides the two-step prep process, the recipes from my research called for a two-stage cooking process: The rice is first parboiled in plenty of water and then drained and steamed in a well-oiled pot. Eliminating the parboiling step wasn’t an option, since the rice is steamed in too little water for the grains to cook fully and evenly. But accurately timing the parboiling step proved critical. I found that I needed to start timing from the moment I added the rice to the water. Thanks to the jump start that soaking had given the rice, it needed only 3 to 5 minutes in the pot to reach al dente. I also found that transferring the rice to a strainer and rinsing it under cool water before moving on to the steaming step helped avoid overcooking.
The second cooking stage is really a hybrid of steaming and frying. Recipes call for adding fat (I opted for oil) to the empty pot, packing in a layer of rice for the crust, and then adding the rest of the rice and drizzling it with water. After an initial blast of high heat to jump-start the crust formation, I reduced the heat and let the rice steam. In Iran, a special cloth “shower cap” is wrapped around the lid to pull excess moisture from the rice as it steams. The test kitchen does a similar thing with rice pilaf—we place a dish towel under the lid after cooking to absorb moisture—so I knew that a step like this would be worth it. Some recipes note that the longer the rice is steamed, the drier and fluffier the grains will be, but I found that 30 minutes did the trick—longer stints made a nominal difference. The pilaf portion of the rice was the fluffiest I’d ever made, so now I could move on to the crust, or tahdig (pronounced ta-DEEG), which needed some work.
I wanted a tahdig that was deep golden brown, with a crunchy—but not tough—texture and a rich, nutty-buttery, toasted flavor. But my results tasted somewhat lean and bland, the grains cooked a bit unevenly, and I also had some problems getting it out of the pot. I knew how to fix the uneven cooking problem. When packing the rice into the pot, the grains inevitably started cooking as soon as they hit the hot oil. So I moved the operation off the heat. I stirred the oil and rice together in a bowl, packed the mixture into the pot off heat, and only then moved it onto the stove.
Some recipes called for mixing beaten egg or plain yogurt into the rice before spreading it into the pot to both enrich the flavor and bind the grains to help the crust come out more easily. I preferred yogurt (I used Greek), which added richness without identifying itself. What’s more, the proteins in the yogurt helped facilitate browning for improved flavor.
But the crust was still not exactly easy to get out of the pot. Brushing a tablespoon of oil on the sides and bottom of the pot was helpful in this regard but still not perfect. In the end, tradition had the answer: Set the pot on a dampened dish towel or dip it into cool water after the rice finishes cooking. The rapid cooling causes the rice grains to contract, helping the crust release more easily. It seemed easier to let the pot sit on a damp towel, so I went with that approach. Just 5 minutes was all it took to get the rice to slip easily out of the Dutch oven with the help of a spatula.
Three Keys to Perfect Tahdig
Yogurt and oil encourage browning, add richness, and make the crust easier to remove from the pot. Slicking the pot with oil before adding the rice and letting the pot rest on a cool towel after cooking also help the tahdig release.
Once the rice is cooked, some cooks flip the whole dish onto a platter. While this can look impressive, it’s tricky to pull off. I found it much easier to scoop the rice onto a platter, use a thin metal spatula to break the crust into shards as I removed it from the pot, and then arrange the crispy pieces around the pilaf.
For my last tweak to the process, I considered how I’d been putting the parboiled rice back in the pot. After packing down the rice for the crust, traditional recipes call for mounding the remainder in a pyramid shape on top. This step proved essential. When I simply poured the rice into the pot and spread it out evenly, steam couldn’t escape from the bottom of the pot as easily, and the crust cooked up chewy instead of crispy.
A Blueprint for the Best Rice You’ll Ever Eat
This is no ordinary side dish. The combination of fluffy rice pilaf and crispy, browned crust can’t help but make chelow a star attraction. After the rice has been rinsed, soaked, and parboiled, it is steamed in a Dutch oven. The unusual setup is key to producing rice with two very distinct textures in a single pot.
1. Greased Pot: Helps with crust removal
2. Towel-Wrapped Lid: Absorbs excess moisture for fluffy, not gummy, rice
3. Pockets of Butter: Add flavor and more steam during cooking for even fluffier rice
4. Mounded Rice: Allows steam to escape so rice crust beneath cooks up crispy, not soggy
5. Packed Rice Layer: Creates evenly browned, crispy crust
6. Damp Towel: Makes grains contract to help tahdig release from pot
Both the pilaf portion and the crust looked impressive, and the flavor was close but needed a few tweaks. Some recipes call for pouring oil over the rice for enrichment, but I followed the lead of recipes that opted to use butter, poking holes into the mounded rice and inserting bits of butter into them. This added the flavor and richness the rice needed. (The water in the butter contributed a little extra steaming power, too.) For more complexity, I looked to the spice rack. Many recipes call for saffron, but I was satisfied with simple (and more affordable) whole cumin seeds, which added a distinct earthiness. Finally, some chopped parsley lent fresh, bright flavor and color.
The light, fluffy rice and golden, buttery shards of crust were a huge hit, immediately winning over those who weren’t familiar with the dish. When I’m serving rice and want to impress, this is the recipe I’ll turn to.