The electric rice cooker is one of the hottest home kitchen appliances on the market today. American cooks, accustomed to stove-top cooking, have up to now been slow to take to this method of cooking rice to their hearts, but many cooks around the world find the rice cooker an essential commonplace appliance for everyday meal preparation.
There is a bit of time adjusting to the feel of this appliance when you make that first pot of rice, but after a few times, the sequential process will be automatic. These are wonderful, durable machines and they do an excellent job of cooking rice, and even other whole grains, without any fuss once you get the cooking proportions right (they vary slightly from stove-top proportions).
Rice cookers come in many different echelons, based on price and features.
The rice cooker machine has a round bottomed, removable bowl that sits atop a metal heating element enclosed in a metal housing. The heating element looks like a solid metal spring the size of a quarter. It automatically can “sense” when the water is boiled off and the rice is cooked to perfection, and then automatically stops the cooking process. Today’s models are remarkably similar in style to those first ones made in the early 1950s by Toshiba and Panasonic/National. There are five types of rice cookers available on the market today, from simple to sophisticated, each reflecting a step in the evolution of the rice cooker.
Choose your rice cooker by first analyzing what type of cooking you want to do with it. If you only make rice and steam a few vegetables, go for a simpler machine. If you want a full range of timing and cooking capabilities, from porridge to brown rice, go for a more elaborate model. Models are labeled for what the cooker will do, such as Rice Cooker/Warmer or Rice Cooker/Steamer/Warmer. If you do a lot of steaming, look for a model with the clear plastic steaming baskets with slatted tiers which imitate the Chinese bamboo steamer baskets designed to fit over a wok. Some manufacturers also have a model called the Persian Style Rice Cooker, designed specifically for making the Middle Eastern daily rice that creates its own bottom crust. All models come with a 6-ounce measuring cup (which is slightly smaller than a U.S. cup), a small steaming plate or tray insert, handy heat-resistant plastic rice paddle, and manufacturer’s pamphlet with some recipes, usually printed in Japan. If the model is designed to be portable, there will be a conveniently designed carrying handle.
Each model comes in a variety of sizes, usually from small (a 3 to 4 cup capacity of cooked rice), to medium (5 to 6 cups) and large (10 cups). The Jumbo Rice Cooker has a capacity of 15 to 30 cups; it is a Cook-And-Reduce-Heat type machine that is great for large families, entertaining, and small cottage businesses. Many cooks own more than one size.
The first and most basic type of cooker is a Cook-And-Shut-Off Cooker. These have a simple switch on the front of the machine. This on/off mechanism automatically shuts off when the rice is done (when the water boils off or if the pot is removed). It is used for steaming purposes in addition to making rice. This is the only model that comes in a mini-size of 1 cup. You can find small models starting at $15.00 to $20.00.
Next is the Cook-And-Reduce-Heat Cooker/Warmer, also known as the Keep Warm Rice Cooker, which automatically adjusts the heating element to a lower setting when the thermostat senses that the water has boiled off and the rice is done. The two heat settings are On/Off and Keep Warm, which is basically very low heat, controlled by a switch mechanism on the front of the machine. This type of machine will keep the rice warm for up to 4 hours. To turn the machine off, you need to unplug the unit. The inexpensive models are fitted with plain aluminum cooking pots and metal lid, the more expensive (still comparatively inexpensive) with a Teflon® non-stick rice bowl coating and glass lid. This machine usually comes with a perforated metal steamer tray that fits into the top of the rice bowl, allowing for other foods to be steamed at the same time as rice is cooking. There is an indicator light to let you know if the cooker is on the cooking mode or keep warm mode. A very reasonably price machine, models sell for about $40.00 to $75.00. These are a great deal and a good first machine.
Then comes the Deluxe Electronic Rice Cooker model fitted with an electronic temperature sensor unit. but the same on/off mechanism. Designed in the 1980s, electronic machines come with a Teflon®-coated non-stick rice bowl and keep the rice warm and moist for up to 12 hours after the end of the cooking cycle. The heating elements are not only on the bottom, but on the sides as well, so the rice stays an even consistency and you won’t get a thick crust on the bottom of the pan or dry spots. These machines are great if your family eats lots of rice and they do it at different times all day long, as is done in many Asian households. There is an indicator light to let you know if the cooker is on the cooking mode or keep warm mode. These machines usually cost $100.00 to $150.00.
Fuzzy Logic heating units (Zojirushi calls theirs Neuro Fuzzy®), hit the market in the late 1980s and are the next step up from the electronic models. They are immediately recognizable by their digital face like a microwave or bread machine. While the first machines on the market cooked only Japanese-style medium- and short-grain white rice, the fuzzy logic incorporates multiple menus, choice of what texture you want your rice (soft or hard), and a brown rice setting, expanding the range of cooking possibilities considerably. The technology in the sensor unit can compensate for improper measuring since it automatically adjusts the temperature and judges when the rice is done by weight, detecting moisture proportions more accurately than by just the thermal methos of the simplier, especially important in rices other than white, such as wild and brown rices. The beautiful spherical DuPont SilverStone coated cooker bowl that is made from a combination of stainless steel and high-grade aluminum (the shape is a fantastic heat conductor) is so easy to clean you will wish every pan you own was just like it. There is a pop-open hinged cover rather than a removable one on the simpler models. There are various heat settings that can’t easily be duplicated on a range top, like the quick cooking mode (reduces the cooking time by 20 minutes by eliminating the soak rest at the beginning) and porridge cycle that is great for cereal and risotto. National markets a fuzzy-logic rice cooker complete with a sushi cycle (signaling a machine made for the Japanese market), which is a nice touch though not essential, if you want to make sushi at home. The LDL 24-hour clock with preset timer brings freedom to the cooking process, so you can preset the time when you want the rice to start cooking. After cooking, the unit automatically switches to the “Keep Warm” function, which keeps foods moist, warming it for up to 12 hours. Look for safety features such as thermal fuse protection, double safety mechanism, and the automatic cord reel. The price on these machines range from about $170.00 to $200.00 up.
The latest member of the rice cooker family is the Microm Rice Cooker, with induction heating, the highest wattage of cooking power. This machine is described as “the thinker.” These cookers do everything the earlier model of Fuzzy Logic does plus being able to give a finished product that is the most evenly cooked of any method available because of the sensitivity and accuracy of the microm technology controlled by a microcomputer (think micro-chip). The fuzzy logic and induction models are not usually set up for steaming. The price is coming down on these machines; they start about $200.00, with the top models at about $400.00.
Look for rice cookers at discount stores, kitchen specialty shops and mail order catalogs, such as Sur La Table, department stores, and Asian groceries. The current variety available is downright astonishing, with models being updated on a regular basis.
Text copyright Beth Hensperger 2012. Adapted from the Ultimate Rice Cooker.
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