We make a large quantity of rice, but it gets dried out before the end of service. How do I keep it fluffy and soft?
– Cook, Blythe, Calif.
Rice is an item that needs to be batch cooked for efficiency. You ask a key question: How do you ensure that the quality of the rice and, accordingly, the guest’s experience, is consistent? If you make the rice at 5 p.m., will it be tasty at 10?
There are a few ways to keep your rice soft, and they all share the same characteristic: preventing the surface of the rice from drying. Once it dries, it is challenging to bring it back to an acceptable texture.
In general, it is best to avoid holding mechanisms like steam tables or pots that expose the surface of the rice to air. Instead, opt for rice cookers designed for this purpose (adding some additional water as needed) or, if you do not have access to one, a hot holding cabinet with high humidity can work just as well. In a pinch, a low oven or dry hot holding cabinet can work if you add humidity and keep the rice tightly covered.
If none of those options are feasible, you can also chill the rice and reheat it in small batches with a few drops of water. Harold McGee says in “On Food and Cooking,” “Leftover rice is often hard due to the retrogradation of the starch, which is cured by heating it up to the gelation temperature again. Rice is easily softened by reheating to 160 F or above, either with a little added water in a pot or in the microwave oven.” But I’ve found that the reheated rice doesn’t match the properly hot-held rice in quality or texture.
My advice for producing consistent rice over the course of service is to have two electric rice cookers. As commercial kitchen equipment goes, they can be relatively inexpensive. Make rice every hour or two in small batches. If you are worried about taking time to make rice during a busy service, you can always premeasure (mise out) the components so that all you have to do is combine them in the cooker and click the button. As the rice gets low in one cooker, start the next one, transferring the remainder to the top of the other cooker as needed.
As always, be sure to follow food safety protocol for hot holding (or chilling and reheating) per applicable health codes.
More on keeping rice soft here.