For many cooks, the simplest of dishes—steamed rice—is also the whitest of whales. We combine rice and water in a saucepan, apply low heat, and pray that the result won’t be too gummy or too dry. Our prayers are usually unanswered.

But there’s a technique that yields both extremely consistent results and more flavorful rice: pilaf. Following a method that mimics risotto, you start by sweating a base of aromatics (usually onion), then adding rice and toasting it until it’s translucent. This important step both helps lock in the rice’s starch and add a slightly nutty flavor. Then it’s up to chicken stock (or your cooking liquid of choice) to do work.

Photo: Lauren V. Allen

Treat our recipe as a baseline for endless pilaf variations: add more aromatics (such as garlic, shallots, or carrots) at the beginning; experiment with different cooking liquids (and infusing those liquids with other flavors before you use them), and finish the rice with chopped herbs, nuts, or dried fruit, which can turn this simple side into the centerpiece for a meal.


Cast Iron Rice Pilaf


1 cup basmati or other long-grain white rice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped yellow onion
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1¾ cups chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water



Place the rice in a strainer and rinse under cool water until the water runs clear. Let drain.


In a No.8 (10 ¼”) cast iron skillet , melt the butter or olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until it’s soft and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring, until it’s mostly translucent and smells nutty, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the salt and stock, bring the stock to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet and cook without peeking for 15 minutes.


Uncover the pot and check to see the rice is tender and all of the liquid has been absorbed. If not, cover the pot and cook for a few more minutes.


Remove the pan from the heat and let the rice steam, covered, for about 5 minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork and serve.