This Persian basmati rice recipe (chelo) with saffron and potato crust isn’t as intimidating as one would think especially with these detailed step-by-step instructions and how-to video.
What is comfort food for your family? For many this could be soup or a stew. The word “comfort” brings images of a warm hug, or a blanket to wrap yourself up in as the months start to cool. In our house, our go-to comfort food is basmati rice served with saffron.
It is the foundation food in all of our Persian dishes. From Persian kabob to Persian stews (khoresh), we always serve it with this long grain rice. When we are sick, when I want a no-brainer meal, whatever roast or meat I come up with, I typically serve it with this basmati rice recipe.
What is basmati rice?
Rice comes in all sizes and colors. What differentiates the different varieties of rice like basmati or jasmine is how long each rice grain is: long-grain, medium-grain, and short-grain rice. Sushi rice is an example of short grain rice, which is very starchy and sticky. Arborio rice, which you use for risotto or paella, is a medium-grain rice and is less sticky than short grains
Which leaves us to long grain rice, which includes basmati and jasmine rice. Of all of the rices, the long grain varieties are the least sticky and starchy. But what makes basmati rice so special, is that it is the longest grain of any rice and it so incredibly fragrant when cooked. Cooked basmati rice is fluffy without being sticky.
Basmati rice is a favorite among middle eastern countries. The bulk of the world’s supply of basmati rice is cultivated and grown primarily in India. But Persians and Indians prepare basmati very differently.
Basmati rice does come in both brown and white versions. Remember, brown rice still has the outer husk or covering of each grain. This basmati rice recipe is for the white version.
How to prepare this Persian rice recipe
So now that you know the difference between the varieties of rice, you need to understand how to prepare basmati rice. It is very different from how you prepare most other rices. Basmati rice does have starch in it, and Persians like to remove some of that starch before cooking it so it is less sticky.
To make chelo, Persian basmati rice, the traditional way you have to clean it, wash it, parboil it, strain it and then steam it. I was very intimidated when I first made this basmati rice recipe, as well as any other Persian dishes, as I was a novice. I thought it was complicated.
But the more I made it, the more I learned from my mistakes. And I have broken it down very simply in my recipe directions and video.
How to use saffron to make basmati rice
Saffron is used to make that yellow rice we all know and love in Persian chelo and even in Spanish paella. The best way to use saffron is to keep it in its thread form. Then when you are ready to use it, crush the saffron threads with a mortar and pestle. Add some hot water, like a tablespoonful, and let the saffron steep and wait for 10-20 minutes.
This steeped saffron water is a bowl of bright orange water. But don’t let that color fool you either! Because when you mix that golden orange water with rice, you end up with some beautiful yellow rice. And that smell, it’s swoon worthy!
You can use the saffron infused water two ways with this basmati rice recipe. It all depends on how you serve your plate of basmati rice. If you want to serve your rice as I have in the top picture, a platter of white rice topped with golden yellow rice on top, you need to do the following. Steep the saffron and let it sit until the rice cooked.
Once down, scoop out a top mound of steamed rice and place it in a bowl. The amount you need is up to you, but I would say at least 1 cup of cooked rice. Pour the saffron liquid in this small bowl of rice and mix it together until it is all golden. Using a spatula, transfer white rice to your platter, top with yellow saffron rice and place potato slices around the dish.
But, when I am serving basmati rice at home, I don’t need a big presentation of saffron on top of my rice. I simply add pour the steeped saffron water over the top of the pot of rice BEFORE I steam and cook it (after it has been parboiled and drained). When I serve my rice, the saffron rice is mixed in with the white rice.
Where can I buy saffron?
Yes, saffron is an important part of this Persian basmati rice recipe. No you cannot substitute saffron for turmeric – they are completely different spices. “But, Laura, saffron is just soooo expensive!”
Yes, saffron is expensive. If you really want to learn why, read my article all about saffron. Not all saffron is the same. But lucky for you, I sell high quality Persian saffron for a reasonable price with free shipping in the US.
Preparing basmati rice for me now is second nature. I do it without thinking, while assisting with homework or talking on the phone. I wish I could provide you with the aroma that basmati rice brings. The sweet saffron smell. It means home to me, to my husband and to my kids. It is definitely a big, bear hug – comfort food for my family.
And I hope you enjoy the video, which features the music of my dear cousin, Emad Bonakdar, who is a genius on the guitar. His music transports me to another world, another time. I suppose it’s my way of meditating.
- 3 cup basmati rice
- 16 cup water
- 2 TBS salt
- 1 TBS hot water
- 1/2 tsp crushed saffron
- 2 1/2 TBS extra virgin olive oil
- 1 russet potato, cut into 1/4-inch thick circles
- 1 tsp coriander seeds (optional)
- In a medium-sized bowl soak rice with water.
- Gently wash the rice by stirring the rice in the water with your hand. This helps wash some of the starch and grit out. Pour out the water and repeat two more times.
- After washing the rice a third time, rinse and then cover rice with water and add 1 TBS salt.
- In a small bowl combine crushed saffron with 1 TBS hot water and set aside.
- In a 5-quart non-stick pot add 8 cups of water and 1 TBS salt and bring to boil.
- When the water has come to boil, pour out the water in the bowl containing the soaking rice. Add the wet rice to the boiling water.
- When the water comes to boil again and the rice floats to the top of the pot (approx. 6 mins), pour the contents of the pot into a fine colander. You know your rice is ready to strain if you bite a rice kernel and the center is still uncooked.
- Return the pot to the burner, set heat to medium and add 1 1/2 TBS oil.
- If using coriander seeds, sprinkle them on the bottom of the pot, and arrange potato slices over them.
- Using a spatula, gently scoop the drained rice into the pot. Make sure you do not push the rice in together as this will result in mushy rice. Scatter the rice throughout the pot, in a pyramid shape until finished. Your pot should not be filled to the top. You will need about 3 inches between the top of your rice and the top of the pot. If you must tap the rice off of your spatula, do not tap it against the pot. This will move the rice in the pot and press them together. Tap your spatula against the colander.
- Using the handle of a long wooden spoon or another utensil, gently press several holes around the rice down to the potato crust. This will allow the steam to travel freely through the pot. Pour the saffron mixture over the top of the rice.
- Drizzle over the rice with 1 TBS oil. You can also cut 2 TBS butter into small pieces and dot along the top of the rice.
- Pour the saffron water on top of the rice. When you serve the rice, the white and yellow rice will be mixed together. NOTE: If you want all of the saffron rice on top of the white rice when you serve, do not pour the saffron water now. Save it until you are ready to serve. Scoop out about 1 cup of cooked rice and place in a bowl, pour in saffron water and mix until all yellow. Transfer rest of white rice onto serving platter and pour yellow saffron rice over it (as pictured)
- Cover the lid of your pot with a clean towel or several paper towels, and set firmly over your pot to prevent steam from escaping. The towel will keep the condensation from dropping back into your rice and turning the rice into mush.
- After 7 minutes, lower the heat to low and let the rice finish cooking for another 45 mins. You will know your rice is done because it has fluffed up. Another trick to see if your rice is down is to lick your finger and quickly touch your wet finger against the side of the hot pot. If you hear a sizzle sound, your rice is done (and hopefully your finger isn't burned!).
- To serve, you can place a large round platter over the top of the pot, then carefully invert the pot and remove gently. This will create a cake-effect, with the potato crust showing on top. Or, you can use a spatula to gently remove the rice and scatter on your serving platter, creating a pyramid-effect, placing the crunchy potatoes on top or surrounding the rice.
Serving Suggestions: Rice can be served two different ways. First, you can place a large plate over the top of your pot. The plate must be large enough to cover your pot with plenty of room to spare. Grab the plate and pot handles and carefully lift the pot and flip it over so the pot is facing down on the plate. Put the plate on the table and gently wiggle and lift the pot up.This method is pictured above.
A second option is to use a spatula to gently scoop the rice out and onto the platter. On the bottom you will find the crust (called "ta-dig") and you can place the pieces along the platter.
Cooking Tips: If you have undercooked your rice during the boiling stage and your rice isn't cooked after 45 minutes, you can add a couple teaspoons of water to the rice, cover the pot again and have the new steam help finish the cooking. If your crust is soggy, leave it in the pot and let it sit under medium-high heat until crunchy. If your crust won't come out of the pot, stick the bottom of the pot in a sink filled with a couple inches of cold water. This will help the crust come out.
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Serving Size:1-2 cups
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 436Total Fat: 6.5gSaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 399mgCarbohydrates: 84.6gFiber: 2.4gSugar: 0.7gProtein: 7.9g