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Rice and Pasta in Soups: Stop the Bloat

by Elizabeth Skipper | January 1st, 2014 | Ask the Chef
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noodle soupWhen I tried making a chicken rice soup, I cooked the rice before adding it to the soup so that it wouldn’t absorb all of the liquid.  However, the rice still seemed to bloat and reduce the amount of liquid.  Should I just serve the rice on the side? Would it be the same for pasta?

How much time elapsed between the time you made the soup and when you served it? That shouldn’t have been a problem if you were serving right away or soon after making the soup. However, starches like rice and pasta will continue to absorb the liquid they’re in. So precooking the rice won’t keep it from continuing to swell as it’s sitting.

Because of this problem, I often leave rice or pasta stored separately from soup for my clients, as I do for myself. Mostly they find it, occasionally they don’t. Like the gal who found the noodles for the soup after she’d served it up – didn’t she wonder why the container was labeled “Chicken-Noodle Soup”? We had a good laugh about it, and now she knows to hunt around a little in the refrigerator before deciding the chef was being forgetful.

There’s another way to keep your rice from bloating or over-cooking in storage. Long-grain white rice takes 20 minutes to cook; so if you cook it for 10 minutes, it will be undercooked when you store the soup. Be sure to wait until the soup is cooled before adding the rice; this will minimize the amount of broth the rice soaks up as it sits. If it’s at all warm, the rice will continue to cook as it cools.

Or, you can precook the rice for 10 minutes, store it separately from the soup, and add it to the soup as it’s reheating. Just simmer another 10 minutes or so before serving.

Some people feel that rice cooked separately and added later is missing the flavor that’s present when the rice is cooked in the soup. There’s a solution to that, too. Save out some broth and cook the rice in that. Remember the proportions – one part rice to two parts liquid, by volume. And rice expands three times in volume when cooked. So if you want one cup cooked rice to add to your soup, cook 1/3 cup rice in one cup broth.

Rice will continue to soak up the liquid it’s stored in, but pasta is worse. I remember the time I had some leftover pasta shells (the large kind meant for stuffing), and put them in soup. Yes, I cut them up beforehand, but by the time the soup was done they were almost back to their original cooked size! It ruined the soup and made me much more selective about what kinds of pasta are suitable for soup.

For chicken noodle soup, I prefer small or medium noodles, not the wide ones. Save those for serving under dishes like Swedish meatballs with sour cream gravy or chicken paprikash. Orzo (which looks like rice grains), ditalini (a small tubular pasta like short straight macaroni), acini de pepe (Italian for peppercorns, they look like little beads), and the like are all good. Or you can break spaghetti into short lengths and use that. Follow the same guidelines as for rice, using the cooking times given for each, with the exception of the liquid to pasta ratio. Boil it up in water for about half the cooking time, drain, and store. Add to the soup when heating. Because it’s small, it shouldn’t over-cook by the time the soup’s done.

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