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Silky, Savory Chinese Rice Porridge

By Andrew Janjigian Published

Soothing, simple to make, and endlessly versatile, congee should be part of your regular dinner—or breakfast—rotation.

Congee—and every other version of rice porridge that’s made across East and Southeast Asia—is one of the earliest and most enduring forms of culinary thrift. For centuries, maybe even millennia, Chinese cooks have stretched the grain by boiling it in plenty of water until it dissolves into something that hovers between starch and soup. Depending on the regional style, the rice might be simmered with pork bones or preserved greens until it’s thick and glossy (juk in Cantonese) or cooked in plain water or light broth to a thinner consistency and served with a variety of savory accompaniments (baizhou in Mandarin). In either case, the milky-white gruel is Dickensian in the best possible way: plain sustenance that’s economical and appealing at any time of day.

That’s particularly true at breakfast, when congee (a generic term for the dish borrowed from a Tamil word that describes grain-based soups) is consumed the way oatmeal is in Western diets. It’s also classic fast food at lunch and popular late at night, when it’s just the thing to tide over an empty stomach till morning. It’s even served as baby food; as gentle, hydrating fare when you’re sick; and as nourishment for the elderly.

Congee is also a dead-simple, forgiving thing to make; without much thought, you can improvise a version that’s good enough. But the variety of rice, the type and amount of liquid, and the cooking time all affect its flavor and consistency, and the more I make congee (these days I make it often—when the ground frosts, when I have a cold, when I have fried shallots to use up), the more I want a precise formula I can repeat that’s better than good enough.

During the five recipe test, we observed that while the ingredients were more or less the same across the board, the results—particularly the porridges' consistencies—varied widely.

I’m partial to both the creamy consistency of juk and the contrast between baizhou’s clean, neutral base and assertive accompaniments. And since I found plenty of recipes that fall in between those distinct styles, I felt justified in making my own ideal hybrid: a thick but pourable porridge done up with an assortment of toppings that would make congee fun to cook and versatile to eat. With kitchen staples (soy sauce and fresh herbs), it would be a simple snack; with substantial proteins (runny eggs and stir-fried meats), it would be the ultimate kind of rice bowl.

During testing, we experimented with condiments that complemented the clean, subtly savory flavor of the rice. Among them: chile oil, soy sauce, peanuts, cilantro, and fried shallots.

The Golden Ratio

Congee can be made with any kind of rice, but long-grain varieties are common. I chose conventional long-grain but also liked fragrant jasmine for its subtle popcorn-like savoriness.

The question was how to nail that perfect porridge consistency—particularly the glossy liquid surrounding the rice grains—so I dug into the factors that affect it most: the ratio of water to rice and the cooking time.

According to recipes I found, ratios can vary from about 7 parts water to 1 part rice to more than double that. I tried a few, bringing 1 cup of rice and various amounts of water to a boil in identical Dutch ovens and gently simmering them uncovered for 1½ hours. It didn’t take long to see that the results were better—thick and creamy yet fluid rather than stodgy—when there was more water in the mix. After a bit more tinkering, I settled on a ratio of 10 cups liquid to ¾ cup rice, slightly higher than 13 to 1.

I’d been seasoning the pot with ¾ teaspoon of salt, but at this point I also opted to cut the water with 1 cup of chicken broth, which added just enough savory backbone without obscuring the congee’s clean, neutral flavor.

Long Simmer for Good Body

Forty-five minutes might sound like a long time to cook white rice since the grains will be tender much sooner. But don’t be tempted to shortcut the simmer: The liquid surrounding the grains should be viscous and glossy, which happens only once the rice has softened completely and released starch into the water.


Shortcut the Simmer

If you’ve cooked much white rice, you know that it doesn’t take more than 15 minutes or so for the grains to turn tender. But most congee recipes call for simmering the rice for a minimum of 45 minutes or as long as 1½ hours. This allows for the grains to thoroughly break down and release their starches into the cooking liquid. Only when that happens does the liquid thicken and take on that glossy, pearly sheen.

Using my newly calibrated liquid-to-rice ratio, I confirmed that 1½ hours of gentle but steady simmering produced the smoothest, creamiest congee. But could I expedite the process? I tried soaking the raw rice and even soaking and then freezing it before cooking (the latter causes the grains to burst and break down more quickly). Neither helped much. But what if I just cranked up the heat?

As it turned out, vigorously simmering the rice produced porridge every bit as creamy as the low-and-slow method did in about half the time. But I had to partially cover the pot to speed cooking and minimize evaporation, which caused the starchy liquid to boil over. (It’s the same problem that causes a pot of oatmeal to erupt: The starches form a viscous gel that swells and blocks the water bubbles from escaping. Eventually, so many bubbles build up that the porridge spills over.) Fortunately, I could avoid the problem by rinsing the rice to remove any excess surface starch that would fuel the formation of starchy gel, and wedging a wooden spoon between the lid and the pot kept them well separated, giving the bubbles plenty of space to escape.

With my porridge formula clocking in at under an hour, I put together a few easy toppings. But I always keep “project” accompaniments in mind, too; rich stir-fried or braised meats or condiments such as salty, funky pickles or fiery, deeply savory chili crisp can transform this dish into something so extraordinary that you might forget it comes from almost nothing.

Recipe Congee (Chinese Rice Porridge) with Stir-Fried Ground Pork

Soothing, simple to make, and endlessly versatile, China's iconic savory rice porridge should be part of your regular dinner— or breakfast— rotation.

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16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.