Chicken and rice is the easiest way to get me all fuzzy and nostalgic. Steamed jasmine rice with saucy chicken korma was my amu’s go-to weeknight dinner. When I was sick she’d simmer chicken, rice, and turmeric until it melted into a silky porridge. And for blow-out celebrations, she busted out her biggest pot to layer basmati with yogurt-marinated chicken for saffron-stained chicken biryani.
Nothing feels more wholesome or welcoming than chicken and rice, which is probably why everyone’s mom in nearly every corner of the earth has their own take—from Hainanese chicken rice, to Spanish and Latin American arroz con pollo, to Japanese oyakodon, to West African jollof rice with chicken.
This one-skillet chicken and rice is so versatile it can take you wherever you want to go. Once you learn the basic steps and techniques, you can play with the spices, aromatics, and mix-ins. Take inspiration from your favorite chicken and rice recipes, or invent something totally new.
Think of these two recipes as a template—a place to learn the chicken and rice ground rules before you venture off on your own:
One-Skillet Paprika Chicken Thighs & Pepper Rice is inspired by Spanish paella, with smoked paprika and an aromatic sofrito (a flavorful base of bell pepper, onion, garlic, and tomatoes, and the traditional starting point for many Spanish dishes). One-Skillet Garam Masala Chicken Thighs & Saffron Rice has everything that reminds me of my amu’s big-party biryani crammed into one skillet—yogurt, prunes, and potatoes, but in a small-enough portion that I can make it without the party.
How to Go Off-Script With Chicken and Rice
First Things First
To start, give the chicken and rice some time to work for you. This means dry-brining the chicken and soaking the rice.
Dry-brining is as simple as seasoning something in advance, and it works wonders for chicken, fish, tough cuts of meat, and even certain vegetables. Evenly coat chicken thighs in a mixture of kosher salt, black pepper, and spices, and let them hang out for as little as the few moments it takes to prep the rest of the dish (at room temperature) or as long as a day in advance (in the fridge). Not only does this simple step season the meat to the bone, but it also dries the exterior, so all the fat renders out and the skin gets super crispy.
Soaking rinsed rice in cool water for 15 minutes to 2 hours helps it cook more evenly—especially important in this method, in which the rice steams uncovered, so those chicken thighs stay crispy. For basmati rice in particular, a quick soak ensures that the grains grow long, tender, and stay intact while cooking.
Let’s Get Cooking
The next step is searing the chicken. Even though the word sear makes me (and maybe you) think of ultra high heat, a good sear is more about direct, versus intense, heat. Start the chicken thighs skin-side down in a cool pan. As the skillet heats up, the fat will leisurely melt out of the skin, then become deeply golden and crisp. And yes, you can have a brown chicken thigh that’s still covered in flabby skin, so avoid super high heat and take your time with this step.
Pick a Flavor, Any Flavor
Now it’s time to make a powerful flavor base. First, blend an assortment of aromatics, which are the vegetables and herbs that provide the dish with a foundation of flavor. This usually includes onion, carrot, garlic, and other fragrant things like ginger, fennel, and tender herbs like parsley or cilantro. By pureeing these aromatics instead of chopping them, you can pack a lot of flavor into the rice, without adding any chunky bits.
Next, cook down this blended mixture until it’s caramelized and concentrated. This adds so much richness we don’t need any stock. I like to cook down the aromatics until there’s so little moisture left that the fat is forced to separate and pool on the surface. This visual indicator lets me know that the aromatics have switched from steaming in their own juices to sizzling in fat, developing new complex flavors and allowing the spices to bloom to their full potential.
In the Paprika Chicken, our aromatics are: red bell pepper, onion, and garlic. In the Garam Masala Chicken, you’ve got: onion, garlic, and ginger. Play around with these examples—swapping the garlic for ginger, blending in whole bunches of herbs, and adding fresh or dried chilies. This is where the skillet rice gets all its personality.
We’re Almost There!
After adding water and bringing the mixture to a simmer, it’s time to season well with salt and adjust the heat so it’s just right. You want to see lots of little bubbles—not big ones, which means that your heat is too high, the water could simmer off too quickly, and leave you with undercooked rice. But you don’t want to see slow, lazy bubbles either—this means that the heat is too low, leaving the top layer of rice undercooked while the rest gets mushy and soft. It takes a little practice to figure out just what this looks like on your burner and in your pan, but once you nail it, you’ll know it for life.
How do you know when the rice has absorbed the water and the chicken is cooked through? Just listen: The gurgling, crackling sounds of simmering and sizzling will quiet down. When I’m lucky, I end up with a golden brown crust on the bottom of the skillet. And even when I’m not, I’ve still got a full skillet of comfy chicken and rice to crawl into.
Now that you know these steps, feel free to go off-script and create your own unique dish. Or at least confidently use up whatever’s in your pantry, knowing that you’ll end up with something delicious.
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