the appetizer:

Cooking Know-How: Be a Better Cook with Hundreds of Easy Techniques, Step-by-Step Photos, and Ideas for Over 500 Great Meals by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, includes recipes like Biryani (Basic Recipe); Lamb Biryani; and Chicken Biryani.

Cookbook Profile


Makes 8 servings


In some restaurants, biryani is simply a stew ladled over rice. But that's not true biryani—far from it! Biryani is East Indian lasagna: layers of aromatic stew and long-grain rice baked in a casserole—spot-on buffet fare or a company supper.

Cooking Biryani Step 1
The first step in clarifying butter
is to spoon off any opaque white
milk solids ringing the pan.

Step 1 Cook 3 cups white or brown basmati rice until tender. Indeed, biryani is aromatic splendor; so a fragrant rice is best, and basmati, an East Indian favorite, is traditional. To cook basmati stovetop, use 4-1/2 cups water for 3 cups white basmati or 6 cups water for 3 cups brown basmati. Bring the water to a simmer in a large saucepan over high heat. Never salt the water, particularly if you're cooking brown rice. Salt toughens the grains, especially the hulls of brown rice. Stir in the rice, cover, reduce the heat to low, and cook until tender, about 20 minutes for white or 35 for brown.

You could also use Texmati (a recent varietal that's less fragrant but more tender), patna (an East Indian varietal very popular in Great Britain), Carolina, jasmine, or even the whole-grain, more toothsome (and somewhat drier) Bhutanese red rice. These are all long-grain varietals; a low amount of amylopectin (see page 23 of the book) keeps the grains from clumping. Follow the package instructions to cook 3 cups raw rice.

In some authentic preparations, the kernels are first fried in ghee (that is, clarified butter—see step 2 below). The grains slowly toast, developing a nutty taste; the outer layer of starch is somewhat softened. If you'd like to add this step, melt about 2 tablespoons ghee in a large skillet over medium heat; add the raw rice and cook, stirring constantly, until golden, about 4 minutes. Then boil the rice as directed, shaving 5 or 10 minutes off the cooking time.

One note: this version of biryani is heavy on the rice, in keeping with its traditional roots. If you'd like it a little soupier, consider using only 2 to 2-1/2 cups rice for the casserole. Or moisten each layer of rice in the baking dish (that is, in step 8) with a little chicken, vegetable, or beef broth.

Cooking Biryani Step 2
Then the second step: slowly pour off
the clarified fat, leaving almost
all of the remaining milk solids behind.

Step 2 While the rice cooks, heat 2 tablespoons ghee, unsalted butter, or a neutral-flavored oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. An East Indian staple, ghee is clarified butter: just the liquid fat, no attendant milk solids. High-heat cooking causes those solids to brown and turn bitter. Ghee is a smooth, sweet, carefree alternative, always available in tubs at brick-and-mortar East Indian markets and their online outlets. However, read the label and beware of imitators that are just hydrogenated oil with food coloring.

Or forgo the purchased and make ghee. Place 4 to 6 tablespoons unsalted butter in a microwave-safe dish and heat on high in 15-second increments until melted, about 1 minute in all. Skim off any foam, then set aside for 5 minutes. After some of the milk solids have settled to the bottom, spoon off and discard those that remain on the top, gently pulling them to the side of the dish with a spoon. Once they're gone, gently and carefully pour off the clarified, yellow fat lying on top—that is, the ghee. You can also melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat, but the milk solids will take longer to cool and settle, up to 30 minutes.

Cooking Biryani Step 3
A well-stocked Biryani begins with
lots of diced vegetables, small enough
so you will get several in each bite.

All that said, this aromatic stew will never cook at high temperatures; the milk solids will brown only slightly, if at all. So for a quick fix, feel free to use plain ol' unsalted butter, a more accessible if slightly less acceptable choice. Or skip the dairy altogether and use a neutral oil like safflower, corn, or vegetable oil. The stew will not be as rich, but the cayenne and other spices will be more present, more nosy.

Step 3 Add 1 chopped large yellow onion, 1 chopped large tomato, several minced garlic cloves, and 1 to 2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger; cook, stirring often, until the tomato pieces begin to break down, about 6 minutes. These aromatics and vegetables make up the unchanging canvas that serves as the background for the spices and protein. Take care not to brown them too deeply; East Indian cooking often eschews the bitter. (Thus, the use of ghee.)

Some biryanis lack tomatoes; others add them, probably in a bow to Western influence. In this streamlined preparation, one tomato adds necessary moisture; its fleshy pulp thickens the stew without hours over the heat.

Cooking Biryani Step 4
The vegetables are not browned—
just softened slightly to sweeten
considerably and avoid caramelization.

Step 4 Raise the heat to medium and add about 2 cups diced vegetables; cook, stirring often, until softened, anywhere from 3 to 8 minutes. Once cooked, this stew needs to become a fairly uniform melange, like the ragu in lasagna, a rich sauce poured between the casserole's layers. There are two complementary techniques to getting that consistency: 1) slow, even cooking and 2) good knife work. Dice everything into 1/4-inch cubes or slice it into thin, small pieces. If you're making Biryani out of quick-cooking fish, shellfish, chicken breasts, or tofu, stick with quick-cooking spring and summer vegetables:

However, if you're going to use longer-cooking lamb, pork, chicken thighs, or beef, you're free to work with roots, tubers, or winter squash—for example, carrots, potatoes, or acorn squash (that is, the same list used for Beef Stew, page 17 of the book). Most of these hard vegetables should be diced into 1/4-inch cubes; carrots and parsnips, sliced into thin rings.

For a sweet accent in either case, use an apple or a pear, peeled, seeded, and diced or shredded through the large holes of a box grater. If you add either of these, do not add a sweet dried fruit in step 7; rather, give the stew a somewhat tarter accent like dried apricots or cranberries.

Finally, what about canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed? They add lots of starch but a decidedly authentic touch. Use no more than 1 cup, paired with other vegetables.

Step 5 Stir in 2 tablespoons garam masala and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper; heat until aromatic, about 20 seconds. Garam masala (GAH-rum muhSAH-luh, "warm spice") is a blend of ground spices, no one standardized recipe. Higher-end spice companies and gourmet markets sell several varieties; East Indian markets, a boggling selection. Unlike vindaloo pastes (see page 395), garam masala is not hot but rather savory, even a little sweet. Most commercial blends start with ground coriander and cinnamon, then add perhaps ground cloves, nutmeg, cumin, cardamom, fennel and/or bay leaves.

Or create your own garam masala. You'll need 2 tablespoons in all (that is, 6 teaspoons). Start with 2 teaspoons ground coriander; add 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, ginger, and/or cumin; then fill out some of the volume with turmeric and/ or ground fenugreek; and finally add dribs and drabs of other spices, particularly ground ginger, rubbed sage, dried thyme, cayenne, ground cloves, and/or saffron. Here are three blends:

Cooking Biryani Step 6
Stir the meat and vegetables so they're well
coated with the garam masala and yogurt.

Step 6 Add 2 pounds trimmed, cubed meat, chicken, fish fillets, shrimp, scallops, or tofu; 1/4 cup plain regular, low-fat, or fat-free yogurt; and 2 tablespoons lime juice. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tender-if using meat or cubed boneless skinless chicken thighs, about 40 minutes; if using cubed boneless skinless chicken breasts, about 10 minutes; if using fish or most shellfish, 5 minutes; or if using crab or tofu, 2 minutes. The cubes should be smaller than bite-size—about like the vegetables, perhaps 1/2 inch. Biryani is traditionally eaten with the right hand, the rice and stew scooped together. OK, a spoon's a good idea for most of North Americans; but no knife and fork for sure. Plus, small cubes will cook more quickly. Consider these your choices:

Step 7 Stir in 1/2 cup chopped toasted nuts, 1/2 cup chopped dried fruit, and about 3 tablespoons minced basil, cilantro, or mint; season with salt to taste.v To pump up the aromatics, East Indian cooking often finishes a dish with fresh, vibrant tastes such as these three for Biryani:

1. Nuts and their imitators. Toasted and roughly chopped walnuts or pecans add an earthy bite; sliced or slivered almonds should be toasted but needn't be chopped. What about skinned, chopped hazelnuts (see page 217)? Hazelnuts offer a sophisticated, pseudo-Iberian taste, especially delicious if there's saffron in the spice mix. Don't neglect cashews; when toasted, they add a rich sweetness. Do not use salted nuts, such as salted cashews or peanuts.

2. Dried fruit. Chop golden or black raisins so they don't plump into squishy little balls. Or try chopped dried apricots, apples, pears, nectarines, or peaches, as well as dried blueberries, cherries, unsweetened cranberries, or blackberries. In all cases, think about how you want to skew the taste. Going for a sour note? Try dried apricots or cranberries. Looking for a sweeter finish against the cayenne? Try golden raisins.

Cooking Biryani Step 8
Build the casserole layer by layer,
alternating the long-grain rice and the
aromatic stew in the baking dish.

3. Herbs. Basil is nosy against fish or chicken; mint, outstanding with lamb or beef. Cilantro? Always appealing.

Taste now and see how much salt the stew needs. Don't forget that the rice has not been salted. Perhaps 1-1/2 teaspoons, maybe more?

Step 8 Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Layer the casserole in a 9 x 13-inch baking dish, cover, and bake 40 minutes for meat or 15 to 20 minutes for fish, shellfish, or tofu. Layer this way:

After baking, the casserole is best if left to stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Biryani is often served by overturning the casserole onto a large, communal platter, but you could just as easily bring the baking dish to the table.

If you don't dump the casserole onto a platter, you can make a crunchy top layer of rice by uncovering the baked casserole, setting it 5 inches from a preheated broiler, and broiling until lightly browned. (The baking dish must be flame-safe!) For an even crunchier top, brush the top with about 3 tablespoons melted ghee or oil before broiling.

Note: Specific additional instructions for individual biryanis are shown in Lamb Biryani and Chicken Biryani. The Cooking Know-How book includes recipes for six more biryanis.


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This page created July 2009