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Arroz Rojo (Mexican Red Rice) Recipe

Why It Works

  • Rinsing, drying, and toasting the rice grains before cooking minimizes excess starch, ensuring fluffy perfectly cooked rice.
  • Quickly softening the onions and garlic before blending them with the tomatoes creates the aromatic red tomato sauce base that defines arroz rojo.
  • Cooking the rice with chicken broth adds richness and depth of flavor to the finished dish.
  • Simmering the rice with a whole serrano chile adds a touch of warmth and gentle heat to the arroz rojo.

As a kid growing up in the Midwest, I first encountered arroz rojo, red rice, in lackluster Mexican restaurants as an unassuming side dish that I’d eat alongside tinga de pollo and refried beans. I’d take a few bites, but the greasy, not particularly flavorful rice mostly went unnoticed on my plate. Then in college in Los Angeles, arroz rojo was a cheap and filling side in my college cafeteria and at many fast-food joints. These versions of the tomato-based rice dish were more palatable, but I still didn’t pay much attention to it. In my mind, it was still essentially plate filler. It wasn’t until I moved to Mexico as an adult that I learned to fully appreciate this simple side dish that I eat with friends and in-laws at my home in Sinaloa. 

What is Arroz Rojo?

Great arroz rojo consists of fluffy, perfectly cooked singular grains of rice cooked in a flavorful puréed tomato and chicken stock mixture. It’s well seasoned, aromatic, and rich without being heavy or greasy. It’s is a well known Mexican staple, and it’s easy to see why. It’s relatively quick to make and reheats well in the microwave or on the stove with a little broth, making it convenient fare for daily meals as well as for get-togethers of all sizes. It pairs well with almost anything: chiles rellenos, grilled chicken, barbacoa, mole, albóndigas, or a simple pot of beans, to name just a few dishes. 

It’s a dish packed with flavor, but only if it’s prepared with care. The rice dish is fairly simple: Softened onion and garlic are blended with tomatoes to form the flavorful base. The rice is toasted in oil, then cooked in the blended sauce with chicken broth. After that, serrano chile is added, along with carrots and peas for a classic combination that adds color, texture, and sweetness.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Arroz rojo can be made with virtually any vegetable instead of the peas and carrots—think corn, green beans, potato, and squash, to name a few. It can also be prepped with any type of broth. In Sinaloa, one of my favorite variations involves shrimp broth and fresh or dried shrimp; this dish is often eaten as a main course during Semana Santa when red meat is forbidden. With so many variations to choose from, I decided to focus on one of the most classic versions of arroz rojo. This version is flavorful and flexible—just the rice with the typical additions of peas and carrots. Here’s how to cook it perfectly at home every time.

How to Prevent Gummy Rice

As mentioned above, great arroz rojo features plump and fluffy singular grains of cooked rice. Like with many rice dishes, the first question is if and how to get rid of extra starch, which can turn the final product into a gummy block. For plain white rice, the standard is to rinse the starch off, over and over (and over). Once the water runs clear, the rice is ready to cook up into perfectly fluffy, separate grains.

But I knew that not all cooks rinse their rice before making arroz rojo. So does it really make a difference? I prepared batches with the rice rinsed five times, like I usually do for white rice, and compared it to batches rinsed once or not at all. The difference between unrinsed and once-rinsed rice was smaller than I expected (though the flavor seemed a bit cleaner on the rinsed rice). The rice grains I’d rinsed five times were barely more defined than the once-rinsed batch, though I could see plenty of milky white starch running off in the repeated rinses. But if one rinse left so much starch behind, why didn’t more rinses make more of a difference?

After investigating (and re-reading Tim Chin’s deep dive into the science of cooking white rice), I finally connected the dots to something an acquaintance had mentioned about how toasting the rice grains improved the final texture. Frying the dry rice grains in oil actually destroys much of the surface starch (not to mention the warm toasted-grain flavor it adds). That’s why one rinse is plenty for this dish.

Use Just Enough Oil for Rich, But Not Heavy, Rice

Another concern was the amount of oil. How could I make a tasty, hearty arroz rojo without it turning greasy? A certain amount of oil is needed to prevent sticking and allow the flavors to bloom to their full potential as you fry up the onions and garlic and toast the rice. For this recipe, I found that a tablespoon of oil was sufficient to soften the onions and garlic before transferring them to the blender to blend with the tomatoes. Adding another tablespoon of oil to what was left in the pan was enough to thoroughly coat the rice to ensure it toasted evenly.

Those two tablespoons of oil plus the fat content of a rich, homemade chicken stock or high-quality store-bought stock resulted in rice that was flavorful but not heavy.

How to Build Rich, Savory Flavor in Arroz Rojo

After about a dozen batches, I had the texture just right but the flavor wasn’t where I had hoped. My first instinct was to more deeply brown the rice, onions, and garlic before adding liquid to build savory flavor. The greater the effect of the Maillard reaction, the better the result, right?

Wrong. After the rice passed golden and had started to brown, it began to crumble into little pieces. Instead of fluffy individual grains, I ended up with a paste of cooked rice crumbs. I also found that the flavors of the onion and garlic mellowed and sweetened so much when I cooked them for an extended time that the resulting arroz rojo was insipid. I found success going in the opposite direction. I cut off the rice-toasting process when it just turned golden and only just softened the onion and garlic. In the resulting dish, a little sharpness from the alliums balanced the umami of the chicken broth and the sweetness of the peas and carrots.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

For cooking arroz rojo, a combination of blended fresh tomato and chicken stock are standard. I generally prefer the more nuanced, balanced flavor of homemade stock and that’s what I prefer to use in this recipe, but store-bought chicken broth also works. Many cooks in Sinaloa, where I live, prepare the rice with water and a spoonful of bouillon powder. Bouillon is a common and familiar ingredient in Mexico and there is something comforting about the bouillon flavor that also works well with this dish, in my opinion.

Cues for Perfectly Cooked Rice

The other key to achieving those fluffy, perfectly cooked rice grains is using the right amount of water. Theoretically, a one-to-one ratio of rice to water is enough to cook rice, but in practice some of that water always escapes the pan in the form of steam. This recipe includes a ratio of one part rice to one and a half parts water (or in this case, broth), plus whatever amount of water is contained in the blended tomatoes and onions. With this quantity of water, my rice cooked in about 12 minutes without becoming pasty.

The precise cooking time can vary considerably based on small differences like the pot used, the fit of the pot lid, and the exact heat level of the burner you use at home. Luckily, there are other clues that can help determine when the rice is finished. By peeking under the lid, you can see if the broth is visibly boiling. If so, you still have at least a couple minutes before the liquid is fully absorbed and it’s time to turn off the heat. The other major clue is the steam: When the rice is ready, the amount of steam coming off the pot decreases and the smell of cooked food becomes more concentrated. If it smells toasted or burnt, that’s a pretty clear signal that it has gone too far (though it’s still edible if you don’t mix in the toasted parts at the bottom).

After cooking the rice, it’s important to leave it covered for at least 10 minutes to finish cooking and absorbing the steam. Fluff the rice to mix it, and then serve it as a side, garnished with cilantro if desired. The cooked chile can be discarded or thinly sliced and served on top of the rice for more heat.

And there you have it: In just about 40 minutes, you can make arroz rojo that nobody will simply push around their plate. It’s a wonderful side for myriad dinners, and after cooking arroz rojo dozens of times over a couple weeks, I can say that, reheated and then topped with a generous portion of avocado and a little hot sauce, it also makes an amazing lunch.

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