Off-Script With Sohla

Chicken & Rice, However the Heck You Want, a la Sohla El-Waylly

Welcome to Off-Script With Sohla. You’ll get a crash course on an endlessly riffable dish—and learn how to put your own spin on it.

October 12, 2020

Every month, in Off-Script With Sohla, pro chef and flavor whisperer Sohla El-Waylly will introduce you to a must-know cooking technique—and then teach you how to detour it toward new adventures.

Chicken and rice is the easiest way to get me all fuzzy and nostalgic. Steamed jasmine rice with saucy chicken korma was my amu’s go-to weeknight dinner. When I was sick she’d simmer chicken, rice, and turmeric until it melted into a silky porridge. And for blow-out celebrations, she busted out her biggest pot to layer basmati with yogurt-marinated chicken for saffron-stained chicken biryani.

Nothing feels more wholesome or welcoming than chicken and rice, which is probably why everyone’s mom in nearly every corner of the earth has their own take—from Hainanese chicken rice, to Spanish and Latin American arroz con pollo, to Japanese oyakodon, to West African jollof rice with chicken.

This one-skillet chicken and rice is so versatile, it can take you wherever you want to go. Once you learn the basic steps and techniques, you can play with the spices, aromatics, and mix-ins. Take inspiration from your favorite chicken and rice recipes, or invent something totally new.

One-Skillet Paprika Chicken Thighs & Pepper Rice, all ready for an olive oil drizzle and lemon squeeze. Photo by TY MECHAM. PROP STYLIST: BROOKE DEONARINE. FOOD STYLIST: SAMANTHA SENEVIRATNE.

Think of these two recipes as a template—a place to learn the chicken and rice ground rules before you venture off on your own:

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“It was quite easy to see (and hear) when the water had run out, but the rice still needed more cooking. I just added some more as we went along, and it worked great!”
— Katiebee

One-Skillet Paprika Chicken Thighs & Pepper Rice is inspired by Spanish paella, with smoked paprika and an aromatic sofrito (a flavorful base of bell pepper, onion, garlic, and tomatoes, and the traditional starting point for many Spanish dishes). One-Skillet Garam Masala Chicken Thighs & Saffron Rice has everything that reminds me of my amu’s big-party biryani crammed into one skillet—yogurt, prunes, and potatoes, but in a small-enough portion that I can make it without the party.

How to Go Off-Script With Chicken & Rice

First Things First

To start, give the chicken and rice some time to work for you. This means dry-brining the chicken and soaking the rice.

Dry-brining is as simple as seasoning something in advance, and it works wonders for chicken, fish, tough cuts of meat, and even certain vegetables. Evenly coat chicken thighs in a mixture of kosher salt, black pepper, and spices, and let them hang out for as little as the few moments it takes to prep the rest of the dish (at room temperature) or as long as a day in advance (in the fridge). Not only does this simple step season the meat to the bone, but it also dries the exterior, so all the fat renders out and the skin gets super crispy.

Soaking rinsed rice in cool water for 15 minutes to 2 hours helps it cook more evenly—especially important in this method, in which the rice steams uncovered, so those chicken thighs stay crispy. For basmati rice in particular, a quick soak ensures that the grains grow long, tender, and stay intact while cooking.

Let’s Get Cooking

The next step is searing the chicken. Even though the word “sear” makes me (and maybe you) think of ultra high heat, a good sear is more about direct, versus intense, heat. Start the chicken thighs skin-side down in a cool pan. As the skillet heats up, the fat will leisurely melt out of the skin, then become deeply golden and crisp. And yes, you can have a brown chicken thigh that’s still covered in flabby skin, so avoid super high heat and take your time with this step.

One-Skillet Garam Masala Chicken Thighs & Saffron Rice. Team up with even more yogurt, plus crunchy radishes and cucumbers. Photo by TY MECHAM. PROP STYLIST: BROOKE DEONARINE. FOOD STYLIST: SAMANTHA SENEVIRATNE.

Pick a Flavor, Any Flavor

Now it’s time to make a powerful flavor base. First, blend an assortment of aromatics, which are the vegetables and herbs that provide the dish with a foundation of flavor. This usually includes onion, carrot, garlic, and other fragrant things like ginger, fennel, and tender herbs like parsley or cilantro. By pureeing these aromatics instead of chopping them, you can pack a lot of flavor into the rice, without adding any chunky bits.

Next, cook down this blended mixture until it’s caramelized and concentrated. This adds so much richness, we don’t need any stock. I like to cook down the aromatics until there’s so little moisture left that the fat is forced to separate and pool on the surface. This visual indicator lets me know that the aromatics have switched from steaming in their own juices to sizzling in fat, developing new complex flavors and allowing the spices to bloom to their full potential.

In the Paprika Chicken, our aromatics are: red bell pepper, onion, and garlic. In the Garam Masala Chicken, you’ve got: onion, garlic, and ginger. Play around with these examples—swapping the garlic for ginger, blending in whole bunches of herbs, and adding fresh or dried chilies. This is where the skillet rice gets all its personality.

We’re Almost There!

After adding water and bringing the mixture to a simmer, it’s time to season well with salt and adjust the heat so it’s just right. You want to see lots of little bubbles—not big ones, which means that your heat is too high, the water could simmer off too quickly, and leave you with undercooked rice. But you don’t want to see slow, lazy bubbles either—this means that the heat is too low, leaving the top layer of rice undercooked while the rest gets mushy and soft. It takes a little practice to figure out just what this looks like on your burner and in your pan, but once you nail it, you’ll know it for life.

Listen Up

How do you know when the rice has absorbed the water and the chicken is cooked through? Just listen: The gurgling, crackling sounds of simmering and sizzling will quiet down. When I’m lucky, I end up with a golden brown crust on the bottom of the skillet. And even when I’m not, I’ve still got a full skillet of comfy chicken and rice to crawl into.

Now that you know these steps, feel free to go off-script and create your own unique dish. Or at least confidently use up whatever’s in your pantry, knowing that you’ll end up with something delicious.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • M
  • jazznichole
  • frizz
  • Katiebee
  • LisaA
Sohla El-Waylly

Written by: Sohla El-Waylly

Sohla El-Waylly is a Food52 Resident, sharing new riffable recipes every month that'll help you get creative in the kitchen. Watch her cook on YouTube in her new series, Off-Script With Sohla. Before she started developing fun recipes for home cooks, she worked as a chef in N.Y.C. and L.A., briefly owning a restaurant in Brooklyn with her husband and fellow chef, Ham El-Waylly. She lives in the East Village with Ham, their two dogs, and cat. Find out what else she's up to on Instagram @sohlae.


M October 22, 2020
Love the theme! Hope in the future there is more of the off-script aspects. I got a great sense of the base recipe, but not so much the various ways to go off-script.
jazznichole October 19, 2020
An open question for anyone who sees this: I used a really big pan to make this (I had to in order to fit all the chicken!), and as a result, I couldn't get it to cook evenly on my stove! I'm thinking cooking it in the oven for the last step would help it cook more evenly -- would that work? What temp should I set my oven to?
frizz October 19, 2020
Off-script ideas: chili, curry, sheet pan dinners, grain + veg + sauce, pot pies.
Katiebee October 18, 2020
I will support Queen Sohla wherever she goes! So happy to see her doing videos again with companies that BETTER BE PAYING HER WHAT SHE’S WORTH!

Notes on this recipe:
1. I doubled it for food prep reasons and had to do one half in a nonstick pan. Still works, no need to fret about the cast iron.
2. I only had sticky Japanese rice on hand, which is still really delicious with this recipe, but required quite a bit more water! It was quite easy to see (and hear) when the water had run out, but the rice still needed more cooking. I just added some more as we went along, and it worked great!
LisaA October 17, 2020
Sohla, I am so so happy to see you here. My husband and I never missed an episode with you in it. We love your humor and recipes. Thank you so much and this will be our evening meal here in Fargo, ND. We had our first snow so I can't think of anything better than this. Keep posting/videoing wonderful recipes for our table. Thank you!!!
Edyta October 16, 2020
Yaaay, Sohla! I'm so excited to learn more from you and that you've found a place that values you as much as we do! I can't wait to try all the endless variations on this dish. Perfect time of year to dig into juicy chicken and rice dishes.
ErinC October 16, 2020
Really excited to see Sohla here! Welcome, and so excited to try your wonderful recipes!! :)
Carolina C. October 16, 2020
I look forward to this series Off-Script With Sohla, the month will drag!
Andrew W. October 16, 2020
I love the "However the heck you want" philosophy and "Riff on it" cards! It reminds me of my first (and still favorite) cookbook: Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. Even if it didn't have Shola I would look forward to more!
Andrew W. October 16, 2020
ARG. Stupid autocorrect! Sohla! What the heck is a Shola?!
Azi October 15, 2020
Sohla! 😍 Love this...helpful (and clever) tips, instructions, and ideas while inspiring confidence and creativity! My family has been following you for some time and are thrilled to see you here. Love your knowledge, ideas, personality and sense of humor! Yay!
Katie W. October 15, 2020
Can't wait to try this. Is it possible to do this with Brown Rice instead? How does that change the timing and listening for when it is done? Would it sound different?
Andrew W. October 16, 2020
There's two ways to handle this: You can give the rice a nice long soak - two hours, up to overnight. That extra hydration time should bring the cook time roughly in line with the white rice.

If you don't have time in advance you'll need an extra 20-25 minutes cook time, and over that period you'll probably lose water to steam faster than you want, so I'd suggest keeping an electric kettle or saucepan with several extra cups of hot water handy to replenish the pan with a cup or two if you start to hear the sizzle before the rice should be done. Once you hit 40 minutes or so you'll want to taste the rice when you hear the sizzle and add more water if it's not done, repeating this as often as you need to until the rice is cooked through.
MLHE October 15, 2020
Please allow me to go "off-script" by addressing the issue of unequal pay with this video showing monkeys, cucumbers, and grapes: Once you watch the two+ minute video, your chicken and rice will be even better because you will have made it with deep understanding.
Alek M. October 14, 2020
I would love it if she would do rice and beans at some point! It's so versatile and inexpensive, I'd love to see her take on how to dress it up. (Although I might try to adapt one of these to beans rather than chicken...)
[email protected] October 14, 2020
kohlrabi October 14, 2020
So looking forward to this series. If you haven’t read the recent Vulture article on Sohla yet, please do! What an amazing woman.
Megan M. October 14, 2020
Excited to see you here Sohla!
Kelsey F. October 14, 2020
love sohla!! great addition, can't wait to see what she comes up with.
Emily M. October 13, 2020
This is such a great template for delicious weeknight dinners (and lunches and leftovers). I'm gonna try this with onion, garlic and peppers and harissa for dinner tonight! Can't wait to mix and match this throughout the cold months.
bethastjohn October 13, 2020
Sohla is such a wonderful teacher! Besides giving great recipe inspiration, I learned several new things from a post about humble chicken and rice (listening to the rice and knowing when the sofrito is cooked down enough!). So happy to get more Sohla content on Food52!
Lucien October 13, 2020
The fact that I'm a vegan is neither here nor there. When I see a Sohla video—no matter what she's cooking—I drop everything and watch, because.....SOHLA. This wonderful human being, and tremendous chef!