Idli batter and idlis

Though idlis are a standard, everyday fare in most South Indian homes, making idlis has still baffled many a seasoned and amateur cook. Idlis have been identified as the most nutritious of breakfasts and it is really catching on as a breakfast of choice, even among the non South Indians. It is said that your first meal of the day should consist of 30-40% protein and the balance, carbohydrates. This is exactly the proportion of urad dal and rice that we use to make the idli batter. Going by the number of queries and doubts I receive about idlis, it is obvious that making idli batter and idlis is a challenge to many and so it warranted a separate post. Idli batter is readily available in the market, but I have read too many articles about the way they are made and what is found in them, to be comfortable using the store bought batter. I hope this write up will clear all the doubts people have and I am also specifically addressing all the queries directed to me.
Ingredients
Urad dal – 1 cup
Idli rice – 3 cups
Salt – to taste
Water
Of all the cooking processes, fermentation is probably one of the oldest and the idli is a perfect example of a fermented food. It is even mentioned in our literature as early as the 9th century. Long before any other South Indian food became known to outsiders, idli and dosa became known. Let us look at each ingredient separately

Urad dal
Whole urad (black)
Whole urad (white, polished)
Split urad (white)
Of these, the whole urad (black) is not used as your idlis will not look appetising. Split urad (white) and whole urad (polished) are not suitable as the fermentation process will be hampered. Also, the polished dals lose a lot of nutrients and fibre too in the process of getting polished. The split urad (black) is used in the traditional way of making idlis, but is cumbersome as you have to manually remove the black husk after soaking the urad. The soaked dal has to be gently massaged in water so that the black husk is separated from the dal and can be discarded. This is the way my mother made idlis. These days the most popular way is to use the whole urad (white, unpolished).

Rice
Idli rice, which is a parboiled variety of rice is ideally suited for idlis. There is a rice called IR20 which is a variety used for idlis. Raw rice or பச்சரிசி is not suitable for idlis, though some people add half a cup of raw rice along with the parboiled rice when making idlis. Idly rice is easily available in the markets and will make the softest of idlis.
Salt
Rock salt is ideal as the highly processed salts may have additives that prevent proper fermenting. Also, salt in general hampers fermentation. This is not a problem in hot places like Chennai and can be added to the batter as soon as you grind it. But when I lived in Toronto, especially in the winter time, I used to add salt after the fermentation process was over. I would also keep the batter inside the oven with the pilot light on to facilitate fermenting as the atmospheric temperatures were not favourable to fermenting.
Additional ingredients
Some people add sabudana or ஜவ்வரிசி, flat rice or அவல் in order to make soft idlis. Many people also use இட்லி ரவை or finely broken rice that does not have to be ground but just mixed with the urad batter. Others also add half a teaspoon of fenugreek seeds to the rice before soaking to facilitate fermentation. These are entirely optional. I personally do not use any of these additional ingredients as using just the dal and rice alone is sufficient to give you soft, white and fluffy idlis.
Grinding
The most important thing to remember is that the urad dal should not get heated up during the grinding process. To prevent this, I soak the urad dal and keep it in the fridge overnight. I also use ice cold water for grinding the dal. So the dal and the water I use for grinding are both cold. Using the idli grinder ensures that the batter doesn’t get heated while grinding. Use of mixi for grinding could heat up the batter and you may not get well fermented idlis, though the use of cold water during grinding in the mixi would mitigate this to some extent. The urad dal should be ground till it is light and fluffy with a soft, butter like texture. The rice needs to be ground till it is smooth but not necessarily a super fine paste.
Idli batter
After grinding, mix well after adding salt and keep it in a large container to ferment (covered with a lid) for about 8 hours (shorter duration in hot weather). The batter will ferment and rise (and can overflow too). You may find a yellow colouring on the top if you leave the batter out for too long. This is perfectly normal. Mix well and store in the fridge. When making idlis, the dough should have a thick flowing pancake consistency. Store in the fridge till needed.
ground batter
fermented batter
consistency of fermented batter

 

Making the idlis
Make sure the batter is at room temperature and flows easily from the ladle to the idli plate. Should neither be too thick or too watery, otherwise you will end up with hard or flat idlis respectively. Always oil the idli plates before making idlis. If using the traditional cloth method, make sure the cloth is damp (not wet) before pouring the idli batter. Steam for 7-8 mins and you will know from the smell of the ensuing steam whether the idlis are cooked or it. If in doubt, use a toothpick to check. It should come out clean. Over steaming the idlis will also make them hard. Leave the idlis to rest for a few minutes before attempting to take them out with a sharp edged spatula or spoon. Pouring water on the back of the idli plate carefully will also facilitate removing the idlis in a clean way. Thoroughly clean the idli plate or cloth before making a second round of idlis.
Some other tips
Always use fresh clean water to grind so you get white idlis. If you use the water in which the dal or rice has been soaking your idlis may be of a dull white colour.
Leave the batter to ferment in a large enough vessel with enough space for the batter to rise so that it doesn’t overflow and spill. I also keep a deep plate under the vessel to catch any spills. Sometimes, the batter will continue to rise even while it is in the fridge, so it is better to keep a plate underneath the container in the fridge also.
Add a teaspoon of sesame oil to your batter, before making idlis for a long trip. This will keep it soft for a long time.
Always mix your idli batter before pouring on to the idli plate. It is the urad that gives the fluffiness to the idlis and being light it usually stays on top, while the rice being heavier stays on the bottom.
When adding water to thin down the batter, always add by the spoonful as it can quickly become very thin and your idlis will be flat.
Allow the water in the steamer to come to a boil before keeping the idli plates for steaming.
I normally make idlis on the first couple of days with the batter and then use the remaining batter for making dosais or oothappam as the dough will have a higher proportion of rice flour remaining and so is more suitable for dosa. Also, the dough will tend to sour and is better suited for dosais.
I also dab a little bit of sesame oil on the idlis as soon as I remove them from the idli plate. This ensures that they don’t dry out.
 
Hope all your queries have been answered. Do reach out if you have any more doubts.

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