There exists a device that can cook delicious oatmeal or pasta or quinoa, steam carrots or dumplings to perfection, whip up a stew or a stir-fry or scrambled eggs, keep chocolate fondue hot and delicious, and even pop a batch of old-fashioned popcorn.
This device is cheap, often costing under $20. It’s lightweight and portable, easy to clean, low on energy use, approved for use in most dorm rooms, and requires only about a square foot of counter or floor space and a standard electric outlet to be used anytime, anywhere. It’s no recent invention, and I can almost guarantee you’ve heard of it.
If you’ve ever seen a television advertisement for a set of “magic knives” or a fit-in-your-lunchbox blender, you’ll probably agree that the versatility of most kitchen items is exaggerated and overrated. That’s why it astonishes me that this device is normally sold as a one-use contraption – the humble Rice Cooker.
If you had no idea what rice cookers were capable of, you’re hardly alone. I myself made the discovery out of a spirit of desperation – I was a freshman at the University of Missouri, sick of dorm food and microwave meals alike and craving a good stew. I’d received a rice cooker from my parents when I left home, mostly because it was one of the few items on the list of dorm approved appliances, and now I turned towards it suspiciously.
How did it work, exactly? Was there any magical property about it that made it rice-specific? What was a rice cooker, really, other than a sturdy little hot pot? What harm would it do to try to heat up a little stew in it?
None, as I found out. The stew turned out hot and delicious, bubbling away in the corner of my dorm room, and I was hooked. I haven’t stopped experimenting since, and the rice cooker has rarely failed me.
During the next few weeks, I’ll be posting how-to’s to help you make all sorts of delicious recipes in your rice cooker – all the way from ordinary rice to exotic fondues and honey-popcorn. I’ll end the series with a Footprint Magazine study of the energy efficiency of what I hope will have become your new favorite kitchen appliance.
But the first step, naturally, is…
Picking a Rice Cooker
Keep in mind that just about any rice cooker will serve your needs just fine. Prices for rice cookers range from $10 for a small, no-frills device up to $500 for top-of-the-line Japanese appliances – and all of them will make delicious food. That said, here are four main considerations to have in mind when shopping for your first rice cooker:
1.) Size – This is pretty straightforward. How much food do you see yourself preparing in your cooker? Stated volumes for rice cookers can be somewhat confusing because they are measured in number of cups of rice – and because 3 cups of dry rice is equivalent to 6-9 cups of cooked rice, you’ll need to keep reading to make sure they’re talking about the former. Generally, the two most common sizes are 3-cup and 10-cup cookers. A 3-cup (dry rice) cooker is likely all you need as a college student, unless you plan to cook party-sized portions of anything in it.
2.) Material – Within your budget, get the sturdiest feeling rice cooker you can find. Most rice cookers have a non-stick inner pot, and I recommend this type. I also like having a clear lid so I can see what the cooker is up to without opening it up and letting the heat out.
3.) Features – The simplest rice cookers have a single switch with two options – Cook and Warm. “Cook” will take water to a boil, and most rice cookers will maintain a boil until they sense that the rice is cooked and the water has been absorbed, at which point they switch to the much lower “Warm” setting. Fancier (and more expensive) cookers have all sorts of buttons for brown rice or sushi rice, oatmeal or Chinese porridge or even a ‘sauté’ feature that lets you temporarily heat the rice cooker above the boiling point of water. There are even some very high end rice cookers that have special options for making bread, or which can be used as deep-fryers – these rice cookers are beyond the scope of this blog series. With some creativity, all of the recipes I will mention can be cooked with the cheapest, simplest sort of rice cooker.
4.) Accessories – Most rice cookers come with a little rice-measuring cup and a rice scooper, which is a sort of spoon/spatula. Another very useful item that is sometimes included is a steamer tray, which you can attach to the top of the cooker to hold vegetables or whatever else you want to steam along with the rice. If your rice cooker doesn’t have a steamer tray, however, there are plenty of ways around it. Two un-included items that you may find it useful to buy are a wooden spoon (better for stirring, especially hot oil, than the included scooper), and a ladle (for scooping out liquids like soups).
Most importantly, don’t let all the different options slow you down. After several years of cooking with my first rice cooker – a very cheap model which I chose because it was on sale at Walgreens – I upgraded and now own a much larger and fancier second model. However, as often as not I still use my older cooker. I don’t usually need to cook enough food to fill the bigger one, and there’s something very relaxing about having only one button.
Happy shopping and come back next week for How to Use a Rice Cooker – Level One!