Steamed up

Why you should get a rice cooker

By
February 23, 2010

Without fail, whenever the conversation turns to rice cookers, somebody always grouses, “Why do you need to waste counter space on one of those? I can make perfectly good rice in a pot on the stove.”

Oh, come now. If you can cook perfectly good rice on the stove, why do they sell $400 rice cookers? Wait, don’t answer that.

I don’t have a $400 rice cooker, but I do have a $100 rice cooker, courtesy of Sanyo, which sent me a loaner and then refused to take it back. This means you should probably disbelieve everything I say about the Sanyo, but hey, I stand by my record of speaking truth to power.

I’ve spent the last several weeks cooking rice in the $100 rice cooker (the Sanyo ECJ-S35 model), my $24 rice cooker (the Panasonic SRG06FG model), and a regular old saucepan.

Instead of learning a lot about rice cookers, however, I became philosophical. In fact, let me begin by asking you a question.

Do you love rice?

Do you love rice the way Shizuo Tsuji, the author of Japanese Cooking, loves rice?

Rice is a beautiful food. It is beautiful when it grows — precision rows of sparkling green stalks shooting up to reach the hot summer sun. It is beautiful when harvested, autumn gold sheaves piled in diked, patchwork paddies. It is beautiful when, once threshed, it enters granary bins like a cataract of tiny seed-pearls. It is beautiful when cooked by a practiced hand, pure white and sweetly fragrant.
A rice cooker treats one of our favorite foods with respect.

Do you love rice the way Shiro Yamaoka, the hero of the Oishinbo manga series, loves rice? Yamaoka challenges his estranged father to a battle for supremacy in onigiri (rice ball) making, and rails against improperly cooked rice.

“This is TERRIBLE!” screams Yamaoka. “You can’t even see the shape of the rice. Rice like this is INEDIBLE!”

(Incidentally, Yamaoka is a newspaper food writer who loves Japanese food, has few ambitions in life, and would rather eat than write. Yes, there is a bestselling manga series ABOUT ME.)

There’s a reason why I chose these two quotes — the serene and the snappish — about Japanese rice: Most rice cookers are made in Japan and are created with Japanese short-grain white rice in mind. That’s not to say they can’t cook other types of rice — I’m getting there — but making a Japanese family’s basic rice is what they’re all about.

Okay, so you love rice. You know the saying, “if you love something, set it free”? That, to me, is what the rice cooker is all about.

Freedom from fear

I don’t know if I have Tsuji’s practiced hand, but I have been cooking a lot of rice lately. (Lucky me — it has resulted in a lot of stir-fried lunches and kimchi fried rice.) The haters are right: it’s not very hard to make good rice on the stovetop.

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However, it’s not going to be any better (and probably worse) than what you make in a rice cooker, and you have to think about it. I find it thrilling to solve kitchen problems and have several things cooking at once, but rice is often a grain too far.

Furthermore, I guarantee the people whining about counter space have more counter space than I do, because nobody has less counter space than I do unless their kitchen is in a boxcar or on a dinghy.

A rice cooker can sit on the dining-room table, or in the bedroom (it makes a good humidifier), or any number of other places where food prep is frowned upon. It doesn’t elbow a skillet off the stove.

That’s the practical defense of the rice cooker. But there’s more to it than that. The rice cooker does its job better than any other appliance in my home. It cooks rice better than the vacuum cleaner vacuums, better than the toaster toasts, better than the oven bakes, better even than the refrigerator refrigerates (my fridge sometimes goes psycho and freezes a dozen eggs).

In an age where so many of our appliances almost work, having a rice cooker in the family is deeply reassuring. It treats one of our favorite foods with the proper respect.

Which cooker?

Expensive rice cookers offer wacky features like induction cooking, pressure cooking, and neuro-fuzzy cooking. I highly doubt this buys you anything over a $100 cooker for making white rice, and adding a bunch of new capabilities to the rice cooker ruins its dependable simplicity. I guarantee it doesn’t pressure-cook as well as a stand-alone pressure cooker. The $100 Sanyo claims to make the Korean crusty-bottomed rice dish known as dolsot bibimbap. It doesn’t.

Cheap, $25 rice cookers are still pretty good. My Panasonic slightly toasts the bottom of the rice (many people consider this a plus), and it doesn’t have a keep-warm function, but these are minor concerns.

Choose a 3-cup-capacity rice cooker for up to three people and a 6-cup model for up to twice that.

Which rice?

What about other types of rice? The other rice I eat most often is Thai jasmine, which also cooks very well in any rice cooker. American-grown long-grain white rice and basmati rice also come out great.

I’m going to sidestep the question of brown rice. I’ve made brown rice in both cookers and thought it came out fine, but since I don’t love brown rice the way I love short-grain white rice, I can’t tell you if it came out great.

And Thai sticky rice will definitely be the kind of disaster that would send Shiro Yamaoka into conniptions.

I started out thinking there would be an easy answer to the question of whether you should get a rice cooker and, if so, which one to buy. I ended up in a philosophical thicket. This happens to me a lot. Sitting in my thicket, eating plain rice, it’s almost spiritual.

Tetsu Kariya, the creator of Oishinbo, can have the last word. If you nod along vigorously, well, you probably already own a rice cooker.

Most kinds of food taste better when they are placed on rice rather than eating them on their own . . . rather than eating elegantly by taking a bite of the accompanying dish and then a bite of the rice, the food tastes much better if you just shovel them into your mouth at the same time.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle.

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1. by jillblevins on Feb 23, 2010 at 3:36 PM PST

I loved this article so much that I posted it everywhere AND I’m on overstock.com already looking for good buys on . . . guess what?

2. by Melissa Wood on Feb 23, 2010 at 8:50 PM PST

While attempting to pare down on kitchen appliances, I gave my rice cooker to my mom a couple of years ago and it wasn’t until I read this post that I realized how much I miss it. I think a rice cooker may have to find its way back into my kitchen soon.

And I can say from someone who eats brown rice almost exclusively, a rice cooker works well with it too.

3. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Feb 24, 2010 at 7:38 AM PST

My recommendation, Melissa? Trade out your blender for a new rice cooker. I got rid of my blender (I still have a stick blender) and never miss it.

Or, if you don’t have a blender, wow, you should be telling me about the voluntary simplicity.

4. by Bavaria on Feb 24, 2010 at 8:26 AM PST

I was dubious of rice cookers since I am a minimalist kitchen type, and then a relative gave me a cooker.....and I’ve never looked back. It cooks more than just white rice, also brown rice, wild rice, barley, lentils, etc. Even veg soup, just throw everything in, turn it on, and go for a run, workout,or whatever, because the cooker takes care of it. Anything that requires bringing to a boil, simmer 20 minutes, and keeping warm works in the cooker.

5. by EvaToad on Feb 24, 2010 at 11:57 AM PST

My $20 Fubonn special cooks everything from white jasmine rice to quinoa perfectly (provided you add the right ratio of water to grain). This piece makes a great accompaniment to the recent Rice & Beans article (http://www.culinate.com/articles/our_table/the_ultimate_budget_meal), no?

Rice cooked perfectly, and thoughtlessly, in a rice cooker is one of life’s great pleasures, I think. Topped with a little kimchi or stir-fried red chard? I guess it’s lunchtime...

6. by judestera on Feb 24, 2010 at 12:10 PM PST

I lived in a private dorm in Austin when I was in graduate school and every Asian woman living there had their own rice cooker so I figure that if they had one then I needed one. I bought mine at a thrift store and it works great and I would never cook rice in a pan ever.

7. by acmeplant on Feb 24, 2010 at 12:19 PM PST

I splurged on a fuzzy logic Zojirushi and consider it $130 well spent. I put the steel cut oats in at night, set the timer and have perfectly cooked oatmeal waiting for me in the morning. Brown rice, timer, and it’s waiting for me when I walk in the door at the end of the day. Works perfectly every time. (And did I mention the tapioca pudding?)

8. by helenrennie on Feb 24, 2010 at 12:27 PM PST

Hi Matthew,

Great post on rice cookers, but I think it’s unfair to compare them to stove top prep (because I honestly think it sucks ;) Have you tried the oven method though? Cook’s illustrated came up with it and it replicates rice cooker beautifully. It works for all types of rice (you just have to change rice to water ratio and cooking time). Here is my description of it for sushi rice:

http://beyondsalmon.blogspot.com/2006/02/technique-of-week-how-to-make-sushi.html

It does take more thought than a rice cooker (you have to boil water first and remember to take the rice out of the oven), so maybe a rice cooker is still worth it.

By the way, most Asians would frown on this recipe because they hate turning on the oven. It’s more of a special occasion thing than an every day tool.

Cheers,
-Helen

9. by RainandSnow on Feb 24, 2010 at 12:49 PM PST

Matthew,Would you pls provide information on which rice cooker brands feature stainless steel bowl inserts -- I hate aluminum!

10. by Eric Bogan on Feb 24, 2010 at 12:54 PM PST

I was given my rice cooker from my friend approx.7-10 yrs. ago, and I have never looked back. I get the occaisional ribbing from my mother, who does exclusively stove top, but I will NEVER be without my rice cooker. As far as the cooker taking up counter space, I just simply put it in my cabinet when done.

11. by oregon foodie on Feb 24, 2010 at 12:54 PM PST

Great article! I grew up in Hawaii and short grain white rice was (and still is) a staple in my diet. We used a rice cooker when I was a kid 40 years ago, though I cooked rice on the stove after graduating from college. I insisted it was fine until my brother gave me a rice cooker one Christmas. What a gift. I hate extraneous kitchen appliances but it really is the best way to make rice. BTW, I sent both my boys off to college with their own rice cookers . . .

12. by apul on Feb 24, 2010 at 3:09 PM PST

I have wanted a rice cooker for a long time but don’t want the Teflon poisons that come with it. Has anybody found a cooker that is stainless steel and does the rice stick?

13. by reneej100 on Feb 24, 2010 at 5:06 PM PST

You really need to try the koshihikari variety of brown rice and then you can decide whether you like brown rice or not. Koshihikari will make a brown rice lover out of anyone. Try it!
Renée

14. by Lissa on Feb 24, 2010 at 6:02 PM PST

I have a 5.5 cup version of the same rice cooker, and I agree - it’s the perfect kitchen appliance. I love everything about it. It’s a true “set it and forget it” cooker.

It’s also a great steamer, and can function as a small slow cooker (probably best for soups). It’s also good for making things like steel cut oats (if you’re into that - not my favorite thing).

It’s so easy to store, too. I love the retractable cord, and the paddle storage on the side. I highly recommend it.

15. by Oren Floyd on Feb 24, 2010 at 6:29 PM PST

I use both a rice cooker and stovetop methods. I have not found a way to keep the rice from sticking in the rice cooker. Any suggestions?

16. by molly on Feb 24, 2010 at 7:43 PM PST

Rice cookers pretty much rock. The perfect rice part is nice, but queuing it up four hours ahead of time is downright outrageous. Not always necessary, but dang, it makes stir-fries come together fast. Plus I can use the extra five minutes to get me a mess of bok choy ready.

17. by eshayward on Feb 26, 2010 at 2:36 PM PST

I too qualify as a member of the “not another single purpose appliance!” club, but can’t imagine cooking without a rice cooker. we’ve had a very simple Hitachi (cook/warm/off) for at least a dozen years and use it often for any kind of rice and some other grains (as noted above, takes a little experimentation to get the ratios right). I’ve been thinking about upgrading to one with fuzzy logic and a timer, and the comment above about steel-cut oats may have thrown me over the edge on that one. Our whole family loves them for breakfast, but getting up an hour earlier on a weekday just doesn’t cut it. Also, I understand you can make congee in the fuzzy logic ones, and that’s also high on my list of favorite foods. Anyone ever made congee with brown rice (since I do prefer it to white rice). And yes, I completely agree with the quote at the end of the article!

18. by anonymous on Feb 27, 2010 at 6:21 AM PST

I have a 30+yr old Sanyo that I wouldn’t trade for a new one if you paid me! The “new” ones are horrible, in my humble opinion. There is nothing like an old fashioned, SIMPLE, rice cooker! However, I can cook equally good rice ( of any variety ) on the stove in a pot. How? I was raised in Hawaii long enough to know how to cook rice. And, even though I’m not living around my Asian friends any longer over there, I still cook rice, but more brown these days because of health concerns. Copious amounts of white rice, folks, is NOT good for the colon! : ) That being said, it’s easy to convert your rice cooker into a brown rice cooker, that- mind you, everyone says “won’t work”. Yes it does! Soak the brown rice like you would dried beans, only not as long; maybe 3 hours. 2 hours is okay, 4 or 5 hours is okay too. I’ve never ruined it because of my soaking time. The important thing is to soak it before you turn the rice cooker on, that’s all. It will come out perfect! So wash your brown rice, rinse it well, measure the correct amount of water, ( 1 cup brown rice to 2 cups filtered water PLUS an extra heaping TBS of water ) 2 cups of rice- 4 cups of water- a scant 1/4 cup extra water. (it’s the “water for the pot” like making tea that makes it work.) Let it soak in the cooker for a few hours, then turn it on. Voila! Perfectly done brown rice that’s as sticky as white rice and will soak up anything you pour over it; chili, thick soups, thanksgiving gravy : ) , curry, stew, you name it. Enjoy your fancy rice cookers that claim to do “all”, but in the long run, a very simple one will the do the trick and you will be very happy with the results!

19. by anonymous on Mar 8, 2010 at 2:17 PM PST

I have Zojirushi rice cooker and it doesn’t cook the rice right even when my mother who is Japanese can’t figure it out. Any suggestion?

20. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Mar 8, 2010 at 3:57 PM PST

What does it do wrong?

21. by anonymous on Mar 13, 2010 at 4:16 PM PST

I love adding bouillon cubes to add extra favor to our rice.

can I make things besides rice in my rice cooker?

22. by anonymous on Mar 30, 2011 at 5:37 AM PDT
23. by anonymous on Mar 30, 2011 at 5:40 AM PDT

my rice cooker tends to form a crusty brown bottom which I don’t like. to avoid this I unplug it as soon as it is finished and give the rice a stir, then recover to keep it warm until ready to use.

24. by norskejan on Sep 23, 2012 at 4:32 PM PDT

First of all, you’re funny! Hey, I gave away my rice cooker some years ago (10?), and have no recollection why...it was probably a spring-cleaning moment-I-can-live-without-this, and it sounds like your kitchen is about the size of mine, so yeah, I probably tossed it for space. It was a wedding present 26 years ago (1986) - along with a zillion other gadgets and appliances. Fact is...it cooked perfect rice, every time! And...why did I get rid of this kitchen appliance? I thought...I have saucepans, I can cook rice on the stove...why do I need yet another item-specific appliance to store in my small kitchen? It was a plain-Jane model,(but it did have a keep-warm setting!)and I have no idea the brand (Hitachi??), but I wish I had it back!! :-/ I since struggle with cooking rice perfectly on the stove-top, for Pete’s sake, how hard can it be?! I love to cook! On the fly after work, no less, but still...I care...so anyway...and I change rices frequently, but lately have settled into Jasmine and Basmati, brown on both (and I think I’ll settle into these for a good while.) So...I searched for information on cooking rice/rice cookers today, and it led to you, and now I’m in the market for another rice cooker...I hope I can find another simple one that just cooks rice, no frills no thrills.....

25. by best rice cooker on Aug 6, 2013 at 9:05 PM PDT

Yes, it is a burning issue “Why you should get a rice cooker? I think, most of the people like to cook by modern best rice cooker rather than traditional cooking. Because, cooking by rice cooker has lots of flexibility and of course it is safe. Thanks author.

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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