Full Steam Ahead: Picking the Right Rice Cooker

One of my best friends is from Manila. She says westerners are constantly asking her opinion on the best way to cook rice. Her answer is always the same: “Pour in the rice, add water, push the button.”

If you’re still struggling with rice on the stove, you’re creating a lot of unnecessary trouble for yourself. There are few things in the kitchen simpler than a rice cooker. Also, because of the time they save, few kitchen appliances are as essential. Operation is strictly set-it-and-forget-it, freeing you up to prep all the other things you’re cooking instead of worrying over a pot of rice.

Arguing the benefits is easy, but picking which rice cooker to get is more complicated. Practically every small countertop appliance manufacturer also makes a rice cooker, but some are better—and far more expensive—than others. The cheapest models do their single, expected task of cooking plain white rice very well, but are capable of little else. The more expensive models are more versatile, with settings for cooking different kinds of rices, grains, or even porridges. The most expensive models also have niceties like better heating elements, locking lids, digital timers, and special modes for the more exotic grains.

In the end, they all cook rice well enough. But you pay more for the extras, and I wanted to find out where the line between functionality and luxury falls. Also, I was truly curious to see if there was any major difference in the rice cooking ability of the appliances at each price point. So I tested out a super-inexpensive cooker from Black & Decker, a mid-range unit from Hamilton Beach, and an uber-expensive high-end model from the king of rice appliances, Zojirushi. In the end, the decision of how much to spend will really depend on what type of rice eater you are.

The Hamilton Beach has options for white rice, “whole grain” (which means any non-white rice), simmer, and a “quick rice” function (which eliminates the soak that happens during the standard cooking time). These are all nice options, and they all work well. If you’re somebody who makes rice regularly, or needs to feed a hungry family every night, this guy is the way to go. At $50, it’s the rice cooker I’d recommend to anyone regardless of their cooking aptitude or rice-consumption goals. And despite its cavernous bowl, it was surprisingly easy to find someplace to store it—even in my tiny kitchen.

On the high end of the spectrum, I tested Zojirushi’s newest model: the Induction Heating Pressure Rice Cooker. This Ferrari of rice makers costs a shocking $500, though that price can vary depending on the size you select and where you buy it. The company claims that pressurizing the rice and cooking it for longer makes it easier to digest and, thus, healthier for you in the long run. I have no idea if that’s true, but it sure sounds good. They also put platinum in the non-stick coating, which they say causes the cooking water to become alkaline, breaking down proteins on the rice’s surface and allowing the water to penetrate more easily. And the whole thing uses induction heating, which lets the unit control the cooking temperature more precisely.

The Zojirushi is, by far, the most complicated rice cooker I have ever used. I’ve been playing with it for months and I haven’t yet fully mastered it. But I will say that it makes the best brown rice I’ve ever had outside of a professional kitchen. As for whether or not the pressure makes the rice better, it’s hard to say. White rice tastes basically the same in all of these machines.

There’s one thing for sure, though: pressurizing does make everything take longer. Even simple white rice on the quick cook setting takes almost an hour—more than twice as long as the cheaper ones. Depending on which setting you chose, it can take two hours to make a few cups of rice. It’s hard to recommend this to anybody who isn’t either rich or completely obsessed with mastering rice. If you eat tons of rice and have deep pockets, then it’s certainly worthy of a splurge. Once you use it, you’ll never look at a bowl of cooked rice in the same way.

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