While you may initially look at buying a rice cooker as a scary confirmation of your addiction to Thai food, you will quickly find that using one increases your efficiency and repertoire so much that you will wonder how you ever lived without it.
From jasmine to sticky, sushi to congee, basmati to Japanese short grain, different rice is cooked different ways. Mastering the cooking technique for each variety on the stovetop can be elusive, challenging and time consuming. Cooking rice on the stove takes patience and attention. Furthermore, unlike most other dishes, rice is the soldier, not the star; few people equate cooked rice with artistic culinary self-expression. It's a great activity to delegate to an electronic device. In countries like Thailand, rice cookers are as common an appliance as toaster ovens are in the US.
It's important to educate yourself so you purchase the correct rice cooker. Most all models will cook mainstream rice well enough. With more expensive models come life-improving features.
Types of Rice Cookers
There are 4 levels of sophistication across all rice cooker lines: Basic, Refined, Computer Controlled and Ultra
Basic Rice Cookers
The basic model rice cookers look very utilitarian and normally have a glass or metal lid that lifts off completely. The cooking part of the lid may not separate from the body for easy cleaning. The pot is likely uncoated or thinly coated aluminum and can be a challenge to wash. These rice cookers work fine for most meals and infrequent use, but a number of manufacturers limit the size of them to 2-5 cups. The basic models normally cost under $30 USD.
Refined Rice Cookers
The mid-tier models have similar electronics to the basic ones, but add a number of usability improvements. Like with the low end model, cooking is simple: there's one button to push. The lid is normally hinged and has a water catcher so that the condensed steam doesn't get all over the counter. There's a carrying handle and a more attractive exterior if you want to put it directly on the table. Normally, both the lid and the pot can be removed for easy cleaning. The pot is normally coated with a more durable non-stick surface than the basic models so it lasts longer. The cord is spring-loaded and retracts into the cooker for easy storage.
These rice cookers are built with a small computer that controls the cooking. There are three primary benefits:
- selective cooking for different kinds of rice to various levels of doneness, hardness or wetness
- faster cooking times
- scheduled cooking
The computer offers little songs that play at the start or end of cooking. There are also clocks and timers. These rice cookers generally look somewhat more attractive, with cleaner lines and more stylish colors, like stainless steel, cobalt blue or fire-engine red.
Does the rice taste better from these more expensive, computer controlled rice cookers? Are they worth the extra cost? The answer is that it depends on how you like your rice, how discriminating you are and what your life style is. If you want different kinds of rice perfectly cooked or want rice to be done when you get home from work, then this is the rice cooker for you. While we haven't tried either model, examples with a computer are this Panasonic and this Aroma. This Zojirushi is the rice cooker we currently use.
Recently there have been some beautiful rice cookers released that bring in new technologies, such as instant, magnetic induction heating, pressure cooking and specialty pot coatings or designs for faster cooking. These rice cookers also promote that they can "activate" brown and GABA brown rice for increased nutritional benefit. Reviewers have described that they cook not only the standard asian varieties of rice well, but also both white and brown basmati and wild rice. This Zojirushi and this Lihom are a couple examples.
So what should I get?
With the breadth of models, choosing a rice cooker can range from a splurge to a major investment. If you have any sense that you'll depend on the rice cooker regularly, you will appreciate the benefits of the middle or highest tier models. Your rice cooker should last for many years, with problems normally stemming from either scratching the non-stick pot or the eventual demise of the electronics. The only other care recommendation we can give is don't let rice sit in the pot for more than a couple days when the weather is cool, or a day when it's warm. If mold invades a rice cooker, you'll need to carefully clean it to make sure it doesn't spoil future batches. Take care of the pot, enjoy the consistency of fool-proof results and you'll not need to ever worry about cooking rice again.