Idli, also known as idly is a soft and pillowy steamed cake that is made by grinding rice, urad dal (skinned black lentils), along with water. Follow this authentic recipe to make those melt-in-your-mouth, soft idlis just like the ones made in south Indian homes.
The alarm goes off noisily and in one quick motion, I hit snooze, slide off my covers and sprint downstairs to check on something in the kitchen.
In less than a minute, I am back in my bed with a big smile on my face. My husband who knows this Sunday morning routine well by now takes one look at my face states “Looks like the idli batter has fermented”. I nod and go back to sleep peacefully dreaming about the pillow soft idlis we are going to have for breakfast.
What is idli and what is it made of?
Idli is a savory dish that hails from the southern part of India and is made by grinding rice, urad dal (skinned black lentils), along with water. This mixture is then left to ferment overnight before being steamed in an idli steamer.
While they were traditionally eaten as a breakfast item along with chutney and sambar, during the last couple of decades it has become popular as a snack food throughout India.
How to make soft idlis?
For those who have experienced the whimsical nature of the idli dosa batter probably know that making soft idlis can be compared to predicting the weather. The uncertainty that is involved with the fermentation process can drive anyone up the wall especially after having taken the time to soak the rice and urad dal and grinding them to the perfect texture and the consistency that these idlis demand.
And the cleanup that is required afterward if you have used the wet stone grinder – don’t even get me started on that.
But having experimented for 10 years with different ingredients and temperatures, I am very excited to state that I have a winner recipe that has been giving me consistent results. Drum roll, please 🙂
The softness of the idlis depends on four factors – ingredients and their ratio, equipment used to grind, batter consistency and fermentation.
- Ingredients and the ratio – Idli requires 2 main ingredients – Rice and Urad dal. The ratio in which it is used changes depending on the weather. For instance, in winter, use 1:3 ratio and summer 1:4 i.e for every 1 cup urad dal use 3 cups of rice (in winter) or 4 cups of rice (in summer).
- Rice – Idli rice or parboiled rice or ponni boiled rice.
- Whole urad dal – Always use whole urad dal for best results. An even better option would be the unprocessed black split urad dal but it is a pain to separate the skin out – needs to be rinsed at least 10-12 times.
- Methi or fenugreek seeds – The methi seeds aid with fermentation but are optional if you live in a warm place.
- Thick poha (flattened rice) – Soak a fistful of thick poha (flattened rice) (approximately 1/2 cup) in water for 5 minutes before grinding rice. Grind it alongside rice. Note – I don’t use this because while it makes the idli soft, the leftover batter tends to go sour quickly.
- Equipment – Originally a big stone mortar/pestle was used to grind but not many people use it anymore. The options that are available now are
- Electric Wet stone grinder – The next best thing to using stone mortar/ pestle. There are 2 popular models. I have this one from Premier wonder (1.5L capacity) and my friend has this one from Ultra-Dura (1.25L). Both do a great job of grinding the batter though it takes approximately 20-30 minutes.
- Indian Mixer and Grinder – Most Indian homes have a mixie like this one and this was the go-to machine in my house for idli/dosa batter. The only problem is that it has a tendency to overheat quickly and shuts down. Also, when overloaded it heats up the batter destroying the good bacteria in the process. To get around this issue – grind in small batches and use ice-cold water while grinding.
- High-performance blenders like Blendtec – Ever since we brought Blendtec home, I have started using them to grind my idlis. Takes only 2 minutes. I run the smoothie cycle to grind urad dal as well as the rice. Use cold water to prevent overheating and killing the good bacteria.
- Batter consistency – The batter should not be runny or too thick. Think more like a free-flowing pancake batter.
- Fermentation – Leave the batter to ferment in a warm place. Fermentation can take anywhere between 8 – 12 hours (and sometimes up to 15 hours in cold winters). For most people in India, that would mean leaving it on your kitchen counter. But for those living abroad in much colder climates, you have the following options
- Oven – Leave it in your oven with the light on or Preheat your oven to 170 degrees F or the lowest temperature it can be preheated to. Turn off the oven. Wait for 10 minutes and then place the batter inside the oven.
- Close to your heat vent – Always place your vessel on a cookie sheet – don’t want the overflowing batter seeping in the vent.
- The proof setting in your oven – If your oven has a proof setting, go ahead and use it. Set it for 12 hours and your batter is nice and ready.
- Use an Instant Pot (my preferred choice) – Pour the batter into the steel insert. Place the steel insert inside the Instant Pot. Press the yogurt function – the display should read “YOGT”. Adjust the time to 12 hours and the selection should be “less”. Cover the lid and lock it. The vent can be either at sealing or venting position – doesn’t matter. This is my preferred method because it yields consistent results every time. [Note – When I use Blendtec to grind, I add a few ice cubes to the idli batter and mix well AFTER it is ground. The melting ice cubes ensure that the batter does not overheat]. For a detailed post on fermenting idli batter in Instant Pot check out this Instant Pot idli recipe post.
Serving suggestions for idli
Frequently asked questions about fermenting idli batter
What is idli rice? Is it parboiled rice?
Yes, they are the same.
Is idli batter same as dosa batter?
Yes, it is. The typical practice in our household has been to make idlis from the freshly fermented batter and store the remaining batter in the refrigerator for dosas. Idlis made from refrigerated batter tend to be less soft than the ones made the same day the batter has fermented.
How long does it take to steam idli?
Approximately 8-10 minutes depending on the steamer you use.
How long to soak the rice?
4 -6 hours. You can soak them overnight as well.
How long to soak urad dal?
4 -6 hours. You can soak them overnight as well.
What if the batter doesn’t ferment?
Does the batter appear too thick? Add spoonfuls of water and whisk it well. If it doesn’t ferment after 18 hours, refrigerate the batter and make dosas.
Let’s recap, so here’s how to make soft idlis consistently
- Choose the right variety of rice (idli rice/parboiled rice/ponni boiled rice)
- Use whole urad dal
- In winter go with 1:3 ratio and summer 1:4 i.e for every 1 cup urad dal use 3 cups of rice (in winter) or 4 cups of rice (in summer)
- Batter consistency should be free-flowing – neither too thick or watery
- Find a warm place to ferment (oven/heat vent/Instant pot)
- Add salt and whisk the batter well once fermented.
- Grease the idli molds. Do not steam for more than 10 minutes.
I never want you to be disappointed that your idli batter didn’t ferment. Do you have more questions? I would love to answer them. Leave a comment and I will be happy to help.
Idli recipe - How to make soft idlis every time
- Wash the rice and urad dal separately until the water runs clean.
- Add the methi/fenugreek seeds to the rice and soak it in water for 4-6 hours. Soak the urad dal too for the same amount of time.
- Soak a fistful of thick poha (flattened rice) (if using) in water for 5 minutes before grinding rice.
- Drain all the water from the urad dal and grind it to a fine paste using spoonfuls of water at a time (approximately 3/4 cup in total).
- Grind the rice to a coarse paste with approximately 1 cup of water and then mix both the pastes together in a large bowl and whisk them well.
- Add water as needed (approximately another 1/2 cup) to get the batter to a consistency that is neither too thick or thin. If using Blendtec, run the smoothie cycle (approximately 60 seconds) for both idli and urad dal batter.
- Fermentation - Keep the batter in a warm place to ferment (see notes). Once the batter has risen, add salt to the batter and whisk the batter to mix it well.
- Grease the idli stand with oil and take a ladleful of batter and fill the idli mold.
- Add 1/2 cup of water in the idli steamer and let it boil.
- Put the idli stand inside and close the lid. Let the steam build for 8-10 minutes before switching off the gas.
- If you are using a cooker, use it without a vent and steam it for 10 minutes and then switch the gas off. In both cases, wait until the steam is released (another 5-10 minutes) before you take the idli stand out.
- Wait for another 5 minutes and then use a sharp knife to scoop the idlis out.
- Serve warm with coconut chutney or red coconut chutney.
- Oven - Leave it in your oven with the light on or Preheat your oven to 170 degrees F or the lowest temperature it can be preheated to. Turn off the oven. Wait for 10 minutes and then place the batter in the oven.
- Close to your heat vent - Always place your vessel on a cookie sheet - don't want the overflowing batter seeping inside the vent.
- The proof setting in your oven - Set it for 12 hours and your batter is nice and ready.
- Use an Instant Pot (my preferred choice) - Try this Instant Pot Idli recipe - this is my goto method to ferment idli batter.
Disclaimer: Approximate Nutritional information is provided as a courtesy and can vary depending on the exact ingredients/brands used. If you have health issues, please work with a registered dietician or nutritionist.