March 1, 1999

14 Min Read
Pilaf and Risotto -  Grain-Based Delights

Pilaf and Risotto -
Grain-Based Delights
March 1999 -- Applications

By: Ann Juttelstad
Associate Technical Editor

  Quick-cooking, versatile and easy-to-use, rice has a great future in many dishes, both as a side dish and as an entree base. Years ago, the typical rice side dish consisted of a mound of white rice topped with butter, salt and pepper. Now, however, people are clamoring for "newly discovered" dishes from around the world. And foremost in the lineup are two classic dishes that hail from Mediterranean origins - pilaf and risotto.

Global grain

  The grain of choice for many pilafs and risottos is rice. This ubiquitous grain, eaten by two-thirds of the world's population, grows throughout the temperate and tropical countries of the world. Rice has not only been cultivated across the globe, it is also one of the most ancient grains, having been grown as a crop for more than 5,000 years. According to the USA Rice Federation, Houston, TX, the first documented account of rice planting is by a Chinese emperor around 2,800 B.C. Since that time, rice has migrated around the world, becoming the staple grain in many cultures.

  Because of its long history and the variety of climates, altitudes, soil types and growing conditions in which it is raised, rice has developed distinctive varietals, each with unique cooking, processing and eating qualities. There are more than 40,000 types of rice that can be identified.

  In most parts of the world, only two types of rice are categorized, long- and short-grained. However, there are three basic grain sizes recognized in the United States - short-, medium- and long-grain. Short-grain rice has plump grains that are almost round, with the length and width nearly equal. It cooks up into a soft mass in which the grains cling together. This type of rice is favored in Japan, and is used in sushi. Medium-grain rice has a grain that is two-to-three times longer than its width. These grains cook up moist and tender and have a tendency to cling together when cooked. Medium-grain rice is used in recipes where a creamy consistency is desired, as in rice desserts, puddings and risotto. Long-grain rice cooks into distinct particles with unique identity. With a length four-to-five times longer than the width, long-grain rice is light and fluffy when cooked.

  In addition to grain length and cooking characteristics, flavor is an important part of the rice profile. Aromatic rices can be identified by their distinctive, nutty flavor.

Sometimes described as having a "popcorn-type" aroma, they are suited to recipes in which the delicate aromatics can be appreciated. Jasmine, della and basmati are all aromatic rices that have seen an increase in consumer acceptance in recent years.

Rice's rising popularity

  Rice consumption has been on the upswing in the United States. This can be attributed, in large part, to the growing ethnic populations in the country, particularly the Hispanic and Asian peoples, both of which eat rice as a staple in their traditional diets. But, these populations are not the only reason why rice consumption is up. The growing awareness of worldwide culture has given rise to the diversity of rice applications. Italian, Indian, Turkish, Pakistani and Moroccan cuisines all feature rice as an important ingredient.

  A recent survey from the USA Rice Federation concludes that 38% of consumers eating away from home - including commercial and institutional foodservice customers - ordered rice dishes with their meals. These foodservice consumers are not all Hispanic or Asian, observes Don McCaskill, director of R&D for Riceland Foods, Inc., Stuttgart, AR. "The bottom line is," he says, "people of plain old Western European extract are eating more rice these days." This is mainly because they are exposed to ethnic foods that have created more of an awareness of rice and its many guises.

  "In the early '80s," McCaskill continues, "U.S. consumption of rice was around 10 to 11 lbs. per person per year. Now, that consumption is up to around 25 lbs. per person per year." These shifts in consumer eating habits offer a great opportunity for food formulators to pick up on the trend and offer consumers more and better food choices.

Piles of pilaf

  "Rice marketers are marketing pilaf, tons of pilaf," says Michael S. Gordon of Gordon Hanrahan Inc., representing the USA Rice Federation. Traditional pilafs combine long-grain white rice with finely minced vegetables such as onions, carrots, bell peppers and garlic. Historically, this mixture would have been baked in an oven in an aromatic broth, such as chicken stock, until the rice was tender, fluffy and infused with the flavors of the blend. Nowadays, though, consumers are looking for quick and easy meal solutions. Rice pilafs have adapted.

  Long-grain white rice, with its high-amylose and low-amylopectin content, cooks to a light texture with a distinct shape. However, traditional cooking methods are too time-consuming for busy lifestyles. Oven-baking or stove-top preparation require 30 to 40 minutes to cook a typical pilaf recipe - too long for the average consumer, who wants to take no more than 15 minutes to prepare a meal.

  Parboiled white rice is a better choice when formulating convenience foods. Parboiled, or converted, white rice is long-grain rice that has been steam-cooked in its hull, then dried, hulled and polished. The steaming process enhances the rice's nutritional characteristics, allowing it to retain 80% of the nutrients of unprocessed brown rice, says Chris Keegan, corporate chef, Uncle Ben's Inc., Houston, TX. Parboiled rice might retain two-to-four times as much thiamin, for example, as its regular raw counterpart. Studies have shown a thiamin content of 0.70 mg in parboiled rice as compared to 0.18 mg in regular milled rice. In addition to the nutritional boost that converting gives to rice, it also ensures that the rice will cook up light and fluffy - in about 15 minutes.

  When cooking converted rice on an industrial scale, Keegan says, ratios of rice and water differ slightly from home-use recipes. Typically, 2-1/4 cups of rice are used per cup of rice in a home recipe. However, when scaling-up for industrial-sized batches, a ratio of two cups of water per cup of rice is used.

  Pilafs have an advantage in foodservice and HMR applications. They hold up well under the adverse conditions of steam tables and reheating. They also freeze well - with a frozen shelf life of at least six months - and can be an economical addition to a prepared-meal plan.

Ingredient accessories

  Pilafs can be seasoned with a variety of flavorings, and food formulators are straying far from the basic pilaf concept. Adding meats, seafoods, cheeses, spices, olives, greens or even yogurt brings fusion flavors to the mix. Since rice is adaptable to many different flavor concepts, combinations are endless. Product designers also have a wide variety of ingredient forms to choose from, depending on the application and the desired end result.

  For those looking to formulate dry mixes with added vegetable pieces, freeze-drying maintains shape, color, flavor and nutritional value better than other drying methods because the process does not disturb cell structure. The porous nature resulting from freeze-drying allows the finished product to be rehydrated quickly when used in rice applications.

  Drum-dried ingredients are produced by removing the moisture from slurries, using two identical steam-heated cylinders revolving inward and downward. These "drums" dry product within seconds at relatively low heat levels. The result is a flake or powder that reconstitutes immediately and retains most of the color, flavor and nutritional value of the natural product.

  Cheeses add piquant flavor to rice mixes, and can aid in browning. Parmesan cheese, with its potent flavor and low moisture content, up to about 32%, is an ideal ingredient for use in rice mixes. It imparts a sharp, nutty flavor at relatively low usage levels, and is the classic addition to risottos. Cheese powders provide color and flavor to rice mixes, and can be specially blended to produce signature flavor profiles. Cheddar-cheese blends are particularly complementary to high-intensity vegetable flavors such as broccoli, cauliflower and asparagus. Milder cheese flavors such as ricotta, mozzarella and cream cheese blend nicely with herbs, onion and butter.

  Milkfat in cheese adds texture and acts as a flavor carrier, helping to release other flavors. The dairy profile is pleasing to consumers, adding a "homestyle note" to rice dishes that consumers respond to, according to Dairy Management Inc., Rosemont, IL. Additionally, real cheese contributes nutritionally to a rice mix by serving as a protein source.

  Herb and spice blends can add classic touches to seasoning mixes, or can be combined to produce fusion flavors. The Mexican-style flavors of cumin and cilantro add a south-of-the-border character to a pilaf mix, while nuts, raisins and cinnamon lend a Moroccan touch.

  Seasoning blends are often mixed separately in order to maintain integrity of individual vegetable and herb pieces. They are then packaged in form-and-fill envelopes and added to a boxed rice mix in a separate filling operation. This keeps the flavors of the blend intact until the consumer opens the flavor packet and adds water to reconstitute the seasoning.

Component categories

  Pilaf can be made with a variety of grains, either in addition to rice or taking its place. Consumers are looking for quick-cooking whole grains, new types of rice and varietal corn in an effort to get more whole grains into their diets and to cut back on the amount of meat and fat they consume, notes Kate Foley, sales and marketing, Woodland Foods, Gurnee, IL.

  "Barley is a traditional Eastern-European grain used to make pilaf," continues Foley. Kasha, buckwheat groats and wheat berries all have applications when formulating pilafs. Typically, these grains are combined with orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, which provides a "toothy" texture, she says. However, most pilaf formulas call for cooking the pasta and grain ingredients separately, then adding them together at the end of the cooking process. This compensates for disparate cooking times of the ingredients.

  Pilafs can also be formulated with another traditional ingredient - bulgur. Bulgur is a parboiled, dried and cracked whole-grain wheat that is prepared in much the same way as is rice for pilafs. Often, the dried, cracked grains are roasted to enhance their flavor. Its wheaty flavor makes bulgur a good choice when formulating with strong flavors, and is typical of Turkish cuisine, which draws on the assertive flavors of cumin, garlic and yogurt. However, even though it's parboiled, bulgur takes longer to cook than plain long-grain or converted rice - typically about 40 minutes.

  Other alternatives to traditional rice in pilaf blends are legumes such as lentils or split peas. These quick-cooking (typically 20 minutes) dry ingredients add texture and flavor to a pilaf dish, whether used solo or in addition to rice. Lentils and split peas are colorful additions to a formula as well, with shades ranging from green or pale yellow to bright orange and earthy brown. With their high fiber content and mild flavor, the incorporation of legumes can go far in adding value to a prepared product.

  Grits present another option for adding flavor to pilaf mixes. This finely ground, hulled-corn product can be used not only by itself, but as an adjunct to rice. Common throughout the southern United States, grits add a regional touch to side dishes, and are a good complement to spicy cajun fare such as hot peppers and andouille, a highly seasoned smoked pork sausage.

  "Cous cous is very, very hot for use in foodservice and upscale manufacturing venues," says Foley. Cous cous is a steamed, dried pasta of Middle-Eastern origin.

No matter what the application, pilafs can find a place in nearly any meal solution. Easy-to-use and quick to prepare, pilaf mixes contribute flavor, color and texture to a side dish or act as a foundation for a center-of-the-plate entree.

The Italian classic

  Although Italy is commonly associated with a huge variety of pasta dishes, risotto is its entry into the world of rice. Risotto results from a uniquely Italian way of cooking rice, which for centuries has been associated with a singular type of the grain - arborio rice from the Po region of Italy.

  Arborio rice is a "large bold rice with a characteristic white dot in the center of the grain," according to the USA Rice Federation. Its length-to-width ratio classifies it as a medium-grain rice in the United States, but as a short-grain rice elsewhere in the world. At an average of 6.8 mm long and 3.2 mm wide, it has a length-to-width ratio of 2:1. In comparison, American medium-grain Bengal rice has a length-to-width ratio of 2:3.

  The high amylose content of arborio rice, averaging 19%, lends the rice a starchy, creamy character when cooked, while still maintaining a distinct "bite." However, the cooking process distinguishes risotto from any other rice dish in the world.

  Traditional risotto is prepared by first sautÈing the rice in butter or other fat to thoroughly coat the kernel. Then, the extremely slow addition of hot stock or broth swells the grain. Constant agitation during the cooking process removes minute amounts of starch from the kernel. This starch blends with the liquid to form a creamy, almost sauce-like consistency while maintaining the kernel integrity. The result should be neither gummy nor soupy, gluey nor chalky.

  Italian-style risotto is made to be consumed as soon as it is prepared. It does not sit well over heat, and does not reheat well. The entire cooking process takes 30 to 40 minutes, and requires constant attention. For this reason, it has been difficult for HMR providers, restaurants or in-store-delicatessen operators to offer authentic risottos for their customers. However, the demand for this product is on the rise, as consumer's tastes become more sophisticated and they insist on variety at the grocery store and in the restaurant.

  A less-traditional method of preparing risotto is to cook the rice as in the traditional manner, stopping at just past the half-way point in the cooking process. The rice can then be spread out and chilled. When needed, it can be added back to the original cooking pan along with some additional melted butter or olive oil, and the remaining amount of hot stock can be stirred in. This yields an acceptable product, but it is still time-consuming and labor-intensive.

Rapid risotto

  Luckily, modern processing techniques have taken some of the mystery and hassle out of risotto. The result can satisfactorily substitute for the labor-intensive model while providing authentic flavor and texture.

  Using medium-grain Bengal rice instead of the more-expensive arborio allows processors to utilize a rice that has much the same flavor and textural character as arborio. With 15% amylose and a gelatinization temperature of 638C, Bengal rice is similar to arborio, with 19% amylose and a 608C gelatinization temperature.

  Precooked Bengal rice cooks up quickly, in six to eight minutes. The process expands the kernel, making it more porous and more similar in texture to the arborio variety. Using rice flour to coat the kernels, as well as including it in the seasoning blend, mimics the creaminess attained by the stirring process. The result is a creamy rice dish that maintains its bite. In addition, Bengal risotto can stand up to a steam table or restaurant situation without becoming sticky, says McCaskill.

  Typical seasonings used in risottos include Parmesan cheese, shellfish, game, sausage, mushrooms, wine and herbs. American consumers favor rice blends such as broccoli and cheese or chicken and herb. Lemon-and-asparagus is a popular flavoring. "Or take an Oriental trip," says Foley, "and add the flavorings of one culture to the cooking technique of another. Add toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds or shiitake mushrooms to the traditional Italian dish."

  Tradition aside, alternatives to a rice-based risotto include the use of pearled barley, which cooks to the same creamy character as traditional risotto, or large cous cous. "You can make these dishes as plain or as fancy as you want," says Foley. "Any starchy de-hulled grain can be used to make a risotto."

  The versatility of pilafs and risottos lends itself to an enormous variety of dishes. These can be the mainstay of meals eaten at breakfast, lunch or dinner. For example, risotto works well as a stuffing for fillets, fish or chicken, or can be molded into cakes and briefly sautÈed to form a crispy crust. "Let your imagination run wild," advises Foley. Give consumers what they want - or what they don't even know they want yet. Innovation and tradition can combine to make products that are at once new and different and comfortable and familiar.

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