How to Make Soft & Fluffy Idlis (Steamed Lentil Rice Cakes)

Pillow-soft idlis? Ummm yes!! Which you can make at home anywhere in the world? Wait, what?! What sorcery is this?!

Soft and fluffy idli garnished with grated carrots

Just when you've accepted that soft, fluffy idlis are just a dream, to be had when you visit South India, you bite into these airy dream-come-true idlis that practically melt. In. Your. Mouth. Magic? Not quite.

The secret, my friends? Cooked, flattened rice (aval/ poha). Yep, game changer, and a few other additions too. Read the tips below, or scroll down to the end for the recipe.

For those who aren't familiar, what's with the fuss over idli?

Idli is steamed fermented lentils and rice. It's one of the most healthiest breakfast options in India and a staple in South India. We usually enjoy it for breakfast along with sambar and coconut chutneys. However, the fermentation process requires a precise science, made more tricky when living overseas in cooler climates which inhibits fermentation. However, we're pleased to let you all know, we've finally cracked the code!!

Below are some of the tips, enjoy your soft, white and fluffy idlis!

Grinder or no grinder, that's the question

Honestly, the key to success to make melt-in-your mouth idlis, is in grinding the ingredients to a perfectly smooth consistency WITHOUT heating, and thereby cooking, any of the ingredients. Cooking the rice or the dal destroys the good bacteria, impeding fermentation and results in idlis that don't rise. We're aiming for fluffy idli clouds; not idli mist (more like idli *missed* amirite...:P) In South India we use a stone grinder that grinds all the ingredients together without heating the mixture.

Herein lies the issue. In India, buying the 7-8kg grinder to bring home isn't much of a struggle - almost everyone navigates everywhere by car. However when the drive is more of a flight to a different country, and said flight has a luggage weight restriction... the struggle is real.

However, this small issue couldn't stop us from finding a way to make soft, fluffy idli clouds, without compromising on flavour and without the need for the grinder. ENTER the good ol' mixer/ blender/ food processor that we already have in our kitchens! So, here's our compilation of our top tips for making idlis without using a blender. Bring on the noms!

Idli Rice Grains

How to make fluffy, soft idlis without a grinder

Our 5 main ingredients:

Idli Rice

Urad Dal

Poha

Fenugreek

Salt

1. Stick to the 4:1 ratio for idli rice to dal i.e. 4 cups of idli rice to 1 cup of urad dal.

It's a tried and tested ratio that we've stuck to for generations for soft and fluffy idlis.

2. Choose the appropriate rice for optimal fluffiness.

In fact, there's a grain specifically called 'idli rice' for just this purpose - for making idlis! It's a parboiled (rice grains are boiled in the husk) small-sized grain. Because of this pre-process, the grain requires less soaking AND cooking time. As the grain is small, it has a higher starch content, specifically, amylopectin.

Substitutes: Risotto rice (e.g. carnaroli or arborio grain), or sushi rice (japonica).

Note: for white idlis, wash the rice 3-4 times to remove any dirt. When soaking, use filtered/ diluted/ spring water, not tap water.

3. Use whole white urad dal.

It's easier and retains most of the good bacteria we need for idli batter fermentation. Before urad dal came pre-husked, idli would traditionally be used with the black urad dal, then the skin manually removed (to get that snow white idli colour). Sure, the whole white urad dal has its skin mechanically removed and the heat during the process could reduce the good bacteria we need for fermentation, but, in the interests of time and getting to eat our fluffy white idlis, it's best to use whole white urad dal. You can buy it in most Indian Stores.

Don't use split white urad dal. The process of splitting the dal involves heat, heat which kills the good bacteria we need for optimal fermentation.

Note: when grinding the dal, grind in ice water to prevent the dal from cooking and inhibiting the fermentation.

4. For fluffy idlis, use aval/ poha. 1 cup of poha for 1 cup of dal.

This almost guarantees fluffy idlis. It ensures any hitches during the idli fermentation process won't affect the idli's fluffiness. Thick or thin aval/ poha can be used.

5. Use fenugreek seeds to help fermentation.

When soaking and grinding all the ingredients, soak and grind the fenugreek separately. This ensures optimal fluffiness.

6. Use salt depending on the weather - salt inhibits the fermentation process.

The best temperature for incubation to enable optimal fermentation is 30 - 32ºC (86-90ºF). If the temperature rises above this temperature, the batter turns sour.

So, to prevent sour batter, in hot climates, add salt to the batter before fermentation.

To enable fermentation, in colder climates, add salt to the batter after fermentation.

7. Fermentation requires at least 8-12 hours

For optimal fermentation, the above mentioned temperatures (30 - 32ºC) need to be maintained.

If you're making the idlis in a colder climate, place the batter in a warm place. We placed our batter in a covered container in our pre-heated oven (10 minutes at 180ºC) and covered in a cloth.

Note: place batter in a container large enough for the batter to rise, it will rise to approximately double it's original volume.

Kitchen Essentials

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Mixer/Food Processor

Idli Mould (for perfectly round idlis)

4*4 Idli Mould

Pressure Cooker (where the magic happens)

Volume: 5L

5L Pressure Cooker

Casserole (for storage, post-cooking)

Casserole - warm storage for later noms

Now that you know the tricks, let's put them to use!

Instructions

250ml = 1 cup

Soaking

1. Wash the urad dal, idli rice and poha/aval 3-4 times to remove dirt. Rinse fenugreek seeds 1 time.

2. Soak