Everyone has a meal that brings them comfort. For me, that dish has always been chicken and rice. In the South, I grew up with a version that features rice plumped by stock and accompanied by juicy, shredded chicken. Keep reading to see how I developed a foolproof method to bring out the simple flavors of this childhood-and-adult favorite of mine.
Ask a professional chef about the foods they crave and 99 percent of the time their answer will be something surprisingly simple and comforting. My favorite meal to make at home is chicken and rice. The version I grew up eating in North Carolina featured white rice that was softened and plumped with chicken stock and then tossed with tender pieces of shredded chicken. I remember it as a supremely savory dish boasting the clear, unambiguous flavor of chicken and little else. It's just the kind of thing I want after spending long hours developing a recipe for a more complex dish.
Yet this kind of simplicity can be difficult, but not impossible, to pull off. To learn how others have mastered it, I made five different versions of chicken and rice, each developed by a Southern cook. After sampling all five, my tasters and I found that some of them fell flat on flavor and others were too much work to produce.
And while none of the five gave me the exact results I wanted (or craved), one recipe pointed me in the right direction. It called for creating an ultraflavorful stock by simmering chicken pieces in chicken broth before removing them from the pot and adding rice to simmer (see bottom left). Once the rice was cooked, I shredded the cooked chicken and stirred it into the rice (see bottom right). Although the result was straightforward and delicious, it was a little wet—somewhere between a hearty stew and a risotto.
Unsurprisingly, this recipe was a hand-me-down from a beloved grandmother. Like many heirloom recipes, it lacked precise ingredients, such as the exact amount of liquid I'd need for the soft, fluffy texture I sought. To bring this recipe up to our detailed test kitchen standards and even out the vagaries, I'd have to be stricter with my ingredients and technique.
I started with bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, a favorite for their juicy texture and deep flavor. Gently simmering them for 30 minutes coaxed out some gorgeous flavor. I then removed them from the pot to cool and turned to the rice.
I tried toasting the rice in butter before adding my easy stock to cook it through, a trick we often use to add flavor and keep the grains separate when making rice pilaf. But this batch didn't feel cohesive. Instead, 2 cups of untoasted long-grain rice added to my stock (made with 4 cups of store-bought broth and 3 cups of water) emerged soft and creamy—just right for this comforting dish.
I conducted a dozen more tests—adding bay leaves, celery, herbs, and more—but found that these ingredients interfered with the clarity of this straightforward dish. Some chopped onion and a few tablespoons of unsalted butter proved to be the only necessary additions, lending just enough savory richness.
I'm not sure I would have found my way to this simple recipe without all the detours. But the journey reminded me that sometimes the best thing you can do in the kitchen is trust that your core ingredients, treated carefully and nudged along lightly, will deliver exactly what you're looking for—in this case, the pure, simple flavors of chicken and rice.
What's your go-to comfort meal? Let us know in the comments. And take a look at our 25 of the Best Regional Dishes Made Across the U.S. collection to get foolproof recipes of other down-home dishes.