Authentic Mexican red rice (arroz a la mexicana) is one of the most popular ways to eat rice in central Mexico. White rice is lightly fried before being cooked in a broth seasoned with pureed tomatoes, onions, and garlic. This rice will become one of your go-to side dishes for all of your Mexican favorites, like enfrijoladas, chile rellenos, tacos, enchiladas, or mole!
A history of rice in Mexico
Rice is pretty synonymous with Mexican food (rice and beans anyone?), but rice is not actually native to Mexico. Rice was brought to Mexico via the Philippines during Spanish rule and over the next couple hundred years became Mexicanized through a variety of regional preparations. Besides being prepared as a side dish or as a small course, rice is also used to prepare desserts (like arroz con leche), drinks (like horchata), or ground as flour to make tamales. Many types of rice can be found in the modern Mexican grocery store, however, long thin-grain rice is one of the most widely consumed varieties.
How this Recipe Came to Be
While living in the US, I struggled to make flavorful, un-mushy authentic Mexican red rice. I wanted to be able to cook this typical side dish to accompany our Mexican meals but just couldn’t seem to get the texture right. I would blend tomatoes, onions, and garlic in the blender and add to the rice, covering and steaming like traditional white rice. The result was always a bland, mushy mess.
It wasn’t until we moved back to Mexico that I learned the “proper” way to make arroz a la mexicana. My mother-in-law made mole and invited us over to share a meal. The mole was delicious, but I couldn’t stop eating the red rice she had made to accompany it. The grains were cooked to perfection, soft, but not sticky, and seasoned with tomatoes, onions, and garlic. I asked her how she did it. The recipe I am sharing with you here uses the same techniques that she learned from her mother decades ago.
Now, my mother-in-law is notorious for not remembering exact ingredients, let alone process, methods or quantities. She cooks intuitively, making delicious dishes from what she has on hand and adjusting as she goes to achieve the outcome she wants. After she explained her method to me, with rough quantities, I decided to consult a higher authority. Diana Kennedy is renowned for her extensive research on traditional Mexican dishes and their preparations. I was happy to see that Diana’s method and quantities closely matched those that my mother-in-law had provided (source: El Arte de la Cocina Mexicana). Using both of their methods, I began practicing this traditional side dish!
Tips for Making Authentic Mexican Red Rice
I mentioned earlier that long, thin-grain rice is what is traditionally consumed in Mexico. The rice that I purchase from the local market is shown in the above photo. This rice doesn’t come in a bag with a label, so I can’t be sure exactly what variety it is. I would suggest using long or medium-grain white rice for this recipe. I know the trend is towards, healthier, whole grains, but I use plain white rice for this recipe and it turns out delicious every single time 🙂
The type of pan used is important. I typically make this rice in a stainless-steel skillet, about 12 inches wide with side-walls about 3 inches high. If I am making significantly more rice, I use a large paellera (the pan used to make paella) or a traditional clay cazuela. You don’t want a deep sauce pan or a skillet that is too shallow or wide. A pot that is too deep will leave mushy rice at the bottom and won’t give you the room you need to carefully scrape and turn the rice. A skillet that is too shallow or wide will allow the liquid to cook-off too quickly, resulting in rice that is underdone. I use a flat, wooden spatula to work the rice in the pan as it cooks.
I am going to walk you through the traditional method that I learned from my mother-in-law. Although there are other ways to make Mexican rice, I find this method to be the most consistent for me.
Soak the rice
First, the rice is covered in hot water and allowed to soak for about 15 minutes. It is then rinsed under cold water until the water runs clear. I let the rice dry a bit in a fine-meshed colander.
Fry the rice in hot oil
The next step is important and I would say critical to getting the texture of this rice correct. Fry the rice in hot oil or lard at medium-high heat until it begins to turn golden. I typically use safflower oil. I spread the rice in a thin layer in the hot oil and scrape from the bottom, turning the rice once or twice during this step. You don’t want to overwork the rice. My mother-in-law insists that the rice should not be moved too often, otherwise it will become mushy.
Add liquid gradually
Once the rice has started to turn golden, reduce the heat to medium. Add the tomato sauce to the pan and gently stir to incorporate. Once most of this liquid has been absorbed, add the broth, salt, and vegetables (if using). Again, gently stir to incorporate. In the US, most rice I have cooked uses a liquid to rice ratio of 2:1. This recipe uses 3 parts liquid to 1 part rice. Because of this ratio, I cook the rice uncovered and only allow it to steam covered for the last few minutes.
You can gently scrape the rice from the bottom of the pan and turn it as the rice cooks. You don’t want to stir vigorously or move the rice too much. Scraping from the bottom of the pan ensures that the rice isn’t burning and allows the grains to cook evenly. Once little holes start to appear in the surface of the rice, I remove the rice from the heat, cover with a clean kitchen towel and a lid (or aluminum foil). I let the rice rest for about 5 minutes and then check it for doneness. The cooked rice should be soft, but each grain should be separated and not clumped together. If the rice is still hard, you can sprinkle a bit of broth over the top, cover and allow to rest a bit more until softened.
This rice is a favorite with the whole family and I hope it becomes one of your favorites too!
Source: Graciela Martinez Jurado, Morelos Mexico and Diana Kennedy, Arte de la Cocina Mexicana
Authentic Mexican Red Rice
- 1 cup medium or long grain white rice
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 2 medium roma tomaotes (~5oz or 140g)
- 1/4 medium white onion (~2oz or 60g)
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 1 cup mixed, diced vegetables (carrots, peas, corn, Mexican squash, etc.) Optional
- salt to taste
- Place rice in bowl and cover with hot water for at least 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, blend tomatoes, onion and garlic in a blender until smooth. This should yield about 1 cup of sauce.
- Drain rice and rinse with cold water until the water runs clear. Drain thoroughly and set aside.
- Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large heavy bottomed skillet until shimmering. I use a stainless steel skillet, about 12 inches in diameter with side walls about 3 inches high.
- Add rice and fry until rice starts to turn golden, scraping rice from the bottom of the skillet and turning gently once or twice, about 5-7 minutes.
- Reduce heat to medium, add tomato sauce mixture to rice, stir to incorporate and simmer gently until sauce is almost absorbed. Ensure rice on bottom of pan is not burning by gently scraping the bottom of the pan and turning the rice. Take care to not over work the rice, about 3-4 minutes.
- Add the chicken broth, vegetables and salt and continue allowing the rice to simmer until the liquid is almost absorbed and small holes appear in the rice mixture, 15-20 minutes.
- Remove from heat, cover with a clean kitchen towel and lid. Allow to steam another 5 minutes or until liquid is completely absorbed.
- To check doneness, gently scrape the bottom of the pan and taste rice from the bottom. If the rice is soft, it is ready. If not, cover for a couple of additional minutes until rice is soft.