How the French Make Rice

Raw longgrain rice.
France consumes much less rice than other European countries. Lyon, however, is a curiously baffling exception.Photograph from Shutterstock

The starches that you might find on a plate of food in France are many and varied, and include potatoes (there are a hundred ways of preparing them), turnips (an ancient accompaniment to duck), and beans (essential to wintry dishes like a cassoulet). But you rarely see rice. France grows it (in the Camargue, in the south), and has done so since the sixteenth century. But today almost every country in Europe eats not only more rice than the French but much more. Lyon, however, is a curiously baffling exception. There, rice—imported rice—is at the heart of many of the city’s otherwise very local dishes.

Why Lyon? Rice—a grain indigenous to China, and among humankind’s first domesticated crops—reached different parts of Europe at different moments. It came to Spain around the tenth century (brought by the Moors), and by the fourteenth century it had turned up in Italy, where an early published rice recipe appears in the anonymous Venetian cookbook “Libro per Cuoco.” Subsequently, rice arrived in France via the country’s international trade fairs, which in Lyon were called the foires. These started in the fifteenth century, and became the portals through which the world’s silk, spices, food, and so on were brought to the Gauls. Many foods were introduced through the foires. Rice happened to be the one that the Lyonnais decided to make their own.

Their preparation is often called a “pilaf,” and is made with onions, butter, and chicken stock. Many cultures have their own variations on pilaf (whose name is derived from a Persian word describing the grain cooked in broth). In Lyon, it is something like a version of Italian risotto, except that it involves a long-grain rice (basmati or jasmine, for example), instead of sticky, short-grain arborio. Also, unlike risotto, a pilaf is neither stirred nor simmered on the stove top; it is cooked in the oven, covered by a circle of parchment paper, and achieves a surprisingly delicate puffy texture, as if it has been gently but moistly roasted.

“It is perfect with a sauce,” the chef Daniel Boulud told me recently. “Lyonnais dishes always have a sauce.”

Like potatoes and gravy, I thought. Long rice is good with sauces because of its texture. The grains are firm and have body, and a sauce seems to cling to them more effectively than it does to, say, a risotto preparation, which can easily tend toward mush. In Lyon, the most iconic local dish is chicken, especially the famous breed from the nearby town of Bresse, and, however it might be made (and the Lyonnais have many preparations), it is always served with some kind of sauce. I lived in Lyon for five years and never once saw a plate of chicken that was just, well, chicken.

Boulud was born just outside the city. “There were many Italian foods in Lyon,” he told me. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Italians were so numerous there that Florence declared them to be members of an official colony, governed by the laws of the northern-Italian city. The Lyonnais even briefly fell in love with Parmigiano—they called it “fromage de Milan”—as if the approximately two thousand cheeses made in France were insufficient. But fromage de Milan would turn out to be a sixteenth-century fad. Not so for rice. Boulud recalled cooking a meal recently for the chef Jacques Pépin, another native of Lyon. “I wanted to make something that said ‘home,’ ” Boulud said. “So I made a poulet au vinaigre”—chicken with a vinegar sauce, a bouchon and bistro favorite—“with plenty of rice. It took us both right back to our childhoods.”

Boulud’s pilaf is, I was pleased to discover, a little different from the orthodox preparation. When asked, he admitted that he uses shallots, not onions. “So do I!” I declared. Shallots, to my mind, seem more French than Italian, and they have a bright, sharp complexity that you don’t get from an onion, which can be sweet almost to the point of seeming fruity. Boulud also admitted (whispering, as if someone nearby might overhear) to adding a glass of white wine.

“So do I!” I said, feeling delightfully conspiratorial. (French cooking can be so rule-governed. There is one way, and no other, and you learn it, and you don’t deviate from it.) Sometimes, I volunteered, I also add a splash of vinegar!

“Really?” Boulud asked.

“Is that bad?” I said.

“No, no, of course not.”

But was it? I made the rice the other night, and my son George, ever the table’s food critic, observed that it was “different.” He then made a face. “Vinegar, probably,” I offered. “Yes, that’s it. I don’t like it,” he said. But, for me, the dish’s abundant fat—some Americans call it “stick-of-butter rice”—seems to call out for some biting acidity.

The rice is initially prepared in a pot with a lid, but when it goes into the oven the lid is replaced by the circular piece of parchment paper. This floats floppily on the brothy rice as it cooks, and is essential to achieving that wonderful puffiness. If you keep the lid on, it creates a mini oven inside the pot and dries out the rice, whereas the paper condenses the evaporating liquid and has the effect of rehydrating the dehydrating grain. The rice then swells with the flavors of the cooking liquid.

Boulud revealed a couple of his tricks. First, he pokes a small hole in the paper. (“It releases some of the steam.”) Second, he butters the parchment’s underside. The butter then slowly melts during the cooking. The rice is not just rehydrated; it is enriched unctuously.

“Genius,” I said. Who else butters their paper?

When the preparation is almost ready, you remove the parchment, fluff the kernels gently with a fork (you want to separate, not break, them), and add a little more butter, which not only melts instantly in the still-hot rice but also seems to diffuse throughout it. You don’t need to stir.

Lyonnais Rice Pilaf

Serves 4–6


  • 1 ½ cups long-grain rice, such as basmati or jasmine
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 2 shallots, or 1 medium onion finely diced
  • 2–4 Tbsp. white-wine vinegar (optional, and according to taste)
  • 3–4 oz. white wine
  • 3 oz. butter
  • Salt


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Bring chicken stock to a boil and keep warm.

3. Prepare parchment paper: trace a circle around the rim of the lid of a medium-sized pot, then cut. (Or you can try the arts-and-crafts folding trick beloved by show-offy pastry chefs.) Butter one side.

4. Heat a medium-sized pot over a medium flame. Add an ounce of the butter. Once it melts, add shallot, reduce heat to low, and cook for a minute or two, stirring continuously. The objective is to soften the shallots, never to brown them. They should look creamy.

5. Add rice to the pot and stir. If there is not enough butter to coat the rice (even if only just), add a little more. Add white vinegar, if using, and slowly reduce, until almost all of the liquid has evaporated. Then add the white wine and reduce again.

6. Add chicken stock, and salt according to taste. Turn up the heat to high. When stock starts to boil, stir once, then cover pot with lid and reduce heat to its lowest setting. Cook for 2 minutes.

7. Remove pot from heat. Replace the lid with circle of parchment paper and put pot into oven.

8. After 15 minutes, taste a kernel of rice to insure that it is cooked through—it should be tender but with a little resistance in the bite. If needed, cook for another 3 to 5 minutes.

9. Remove pot from oven, and fluff up rice gently with a fork, to insure that it is not too compressed. Add butter. Leave to cool with parchment paper on top.

Serve with chicken.

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