Puto is Philippine steamed rice cake prepared practically all over the country and eaten alone, with butter or butter substitute and/or grated fresh coconut or as accompaniment to a number of savory dishes for breakfast (most notably, with dinuguan).
The most common shape used for making puto is round, the exact size of the steamer which is actually named after puto itself in Filipino, putuhan, and can range from 30 cm to 60 cm in diameter and between 2 cm to 5 cm in thickness. These puto steamers are actually rings made of either soldered sheet metal built around a perforated pan or thin strips of bent bamboo enclosing a flat basket slats of split bamboo sticks. The cover is almost always conical to trap the condensing steam and allow it to drip along the perimeter instead of on the steaming cake. To steam puto, a muslin cloth (katsa) is stretched out right on the steamer ring and the prepared rice batter poured directly on it. The alternative method uses banana leaf to line the steamer. These large thick cakes are then sold or served sliced into diamond or lozenge shaped individual portions.
Traditional method of preparing puto takes time although most of it involves inactive waiting and resting periods. The process spans three to four days from initial soaking of rice to taking the finished product out of the steamer. A very good and systematic description of this traditional method is set out in Philippine Fermented Foods: Principles and Technology, UPP 2008 by Priscilla C. Sanchez. The book’s author’s laboratory team also developed a starter culture that when employed can streamline puto production, reduce significantly the time required for making it and eliminate the guesswork involved in the trapping and propagation of the naturally occurring beneficial micro-organisms in the rice that gives Philippine puto its character, predominant flavor and principal leavening agent.
Taste and texture
Although there are three common ways to cook puto, the taste and texture of each product should remain the same. Properly prepared puto is fluffy, light, soft, chewy, moist, has fine uniform grains and imparts a slightly yeasty aroma of fermented rice batter overladen with a light whiff of anise seeds. It should be neither sticky nor dry and crumbly.
Puto tastes mostly like rice but slightly sweeter. Recipes that call for vanilla will produce an even sweeter puto, but traditionally it tastes similar to the almost bland southern cornbread and is thus often paired with savory dishes.
Puto’s has a spongy and slightly fluffy texture. It is light and airy and biting into one feels like biting into a much firmer piece of Angel cake.
Variations of Puto
There are many variations to the recipe ranging from the type of rice used to the method in which the rice is prepared. In its traditional form, puto is of a plain white color. Adding certain common Filipino ingredients like ube and pandan (made from pandan leaves or Pandanus amaryllifolius slightly changes the flavor and completely changes the color of the finished product. Likewise, food coloring can be added to change the puto’s color but still keep its original flavor. Most varieties include the addition of coconut milk to enhance the flavor.
Certain towns of the Philippines most notably, Polo (now Valenzuela), Bulacan; Biñan, Laguna; Calasiao, Pangasinan and Manapla, Negros Occidental have excelled in the production and marketing of their particular style of puto that these place-names now modify the word puto to designate particular varieties of puto that originated in these towns. These specialized puto are prepared in various sizes ranging from bite-sized morsels to individual cup-sized cakes portioned and steamed in individual molds which in olden times were porcelain bowls that nowadays have all but completely supplanted by plastic.
- Puto Bumbong - Traditionally made from a special variety of heirloom sticky or glutinous rice called Pirurutong which has a distinctly purple color, soaked in salted water and dried overnight and then poured into bumbong or bamboo tubes and then steamed until done or steam rises out of the bamboo tubes. It is served topped with butter or margarine and shredded coconut mixed with sugar. It is commonly eaten during Christmas season in the Philippines along with bibingka, another type of rice cake.
- Puto Lanson - Puto found in Iloilo which is made of grated cassava, and is foamy when cooked.
- Puto Mamon - A puto mixture that does not include rice but combines egg yolk, salt and sugar. One mixture of milk and water and another of flour are alternately mixed into the yolk mixture. Egg whites are beaten and folded in before the mixture is poured into muffin cups and steamed for 15-20 min.
- Puto Malcohido - A variant of puto that is cooked specifically with plantain leaves underneath for the flavor.
- Puto Mejia - A puto mixture of glutinous rice soaked in water, drained and then poured into a steamer to steam for 30 minutes. This rice mixture is then combined with coconut milk, salt, sugar and ginger juice and placed back into the steamer for another 25 to 30 minutes.
- Puto-Pao - A hybrid of siopao (sweetmeat-filled dumpling) and puto. It uses the traditional puto recipe but incorporates a sweetmeat filling.