How to make Idlis from scratch

Idlis - with homemade Idli batter

Idlis are soft and fluffy steamed rice cakes, made from a fermented batter. Serve them hot with a nourishing sambhar and a tangy chutney.

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Idlis - with homemade Idli batter

If you’ve never heard about idlis before, you are in for an absolute treat. They are little steamed savoury rice cakes that are made from a fermented batter and are relished with a piping hot sambhar (lentil and vegetable stew) and a tangy coconut chutney.

Back when I lived it Mumbai, these idlis, like a lot of other South Indian snacks were readily available in local South Indian restaurants as well as little street food stands that dot the city. It was really easy to pop in to one of these joints for a piping hot plate of them. So needless to say, while we really enjoyed South Indian food, back then, I never even thought of making them at home. Ofcourse if you’re ever overcome with a feeling of adventure and feel the urge to try making them at home, you could buy the batter from a lot of little local shops. I did buy the batter a few times, but only ever to make Dosa – another South Indian treat that I’ll share with you very soon.

That being said, most South Indian homes, make their batter from scratch. I somehow never got around to trying that out. Until I moved to Sydney, that is. Here, you can still go visit an Indian restaurant and most of them serve up some South Indian food. Some Indian grocery stores stock the fermented batter too. The only catch is, you may have to travel a bit to get to one such restaurant or store. Also, if you do find one, it can be quite pricey. I mean, I always knew what went into the batter. There was nothing stopping me from trying it out at home. So, a few years ago, that’s exactly what we did.

Making good Idlis from scratch is a fairly simple process. It is a little lengthy, but it’s mostly hands-off time to let the batter ferment and such. There is very little hands-on time involved.

There are three basic elements that make a great Idli plate –

  1. The Idlis – Today I’m going to share with you my tried and tested process for making the batter from scratch and how I make soft and fluffy Idlis using this batter.
  2. Sambhar – A Sambhar is a lentil and vegetable stew that’s really easy to make. I’ve shared my recipe in the past. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can check it out here – Vegetable Sambhar
  3. Tangy Coconut Chutney – This no cook recipe uses just a few ingredients and can be served alongside a variety of South Indian meals and snacks like Dosas, Vadas and so on. You can check out my go-to chutney recipe here.

The Idli batter –

Making the batter is a fairly simple process. However, there are a few tips to keep in mind to make sure you get the best results.

What type of rice can be used?

For best results, use Idli rice. Idli rice will be labelled as such and is quite easy to find in most Indian grocery stores. Idli rice is a short grain variety of rice that is par-boiled. Being par-boiled doesnt mean it will look soft or semi cooked. It will still look and feel like uncooked rice and you will find it stocked with other varieties of rice.

If you can’t find Idli rice, use another short or medium grain rice. I would not recommend Basmati rice for this.

The rice to lentil ratio –

I personally find that a 1:4 ratio works best. I’ve tried a few other variations but this gives me the best results. So for every 1 part of urad dal (hulled and split black lentils), I use 4 parts of rice.

Grinding the batter –

Ideally a wet grinder is used to grind the grains into a batter. I currently use my Vitamix blender to grind the grains and it works beautifully. You can also use any other high-speed blender.

If you don’t have a high-speed blender, you will still be able to make the batter in a regular blender. You will just need to grind it in smaller batches. I have successfully used my old Phillips blender in the past.

Fermenting the batter –

The fermentation process can be a little fickle from time to time. Also, depending on weather conditions, the time taken to ferment your batter can also differ. I’ve had to experiment with the process quite a few times to figure out what works best. These tips should give you an idea of what to expect.

The batter needs a warm environment to ferment. If it’s warm where you are, the batter can simply be left on your kitchen counter to ferment. But if it is cooler, leave the batter in a warm spot in your house.

For me, unless it’s a hot day here in Sydney, I usually place the batter in my unheated oven and leave it there to ferment for about 8 hours. During winter, I warm up my oven for a couple of minutes at 100ºC, just till the oven is at room temperature (or what a summertime room temperature would feel like), turn the oven off and leave the batter to ferment in there.

How to tell if you’re batter is fermented?

The batter will have increased in volume. This increase is fairly significant, so make sure you use a large vessel for this. You will also notice that the top layer of the batter is slightly frothy. Your batter will also have developed a slightly fermented aroma.

If you don’t notice these changes to your batter, leave it to ferment for another couple of hours or so. There are times where it has taken me upto 10-11 hours for the batter to ferment.

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