Published October 22, 2007. Web Exclusive.
Rice cookers promise great rice—every type of rice, every time—and they’ll keep it warm until needed. But with prices ranging from $15 to over $800, how much do you need to pay to achieve rice nirvana?
Achieving perfect rice is surprisingly challenging even for an accomplished cook. The same cooking technique that delivers excellent long-grain white rice needs adjusting to produce perfect brown or sushi rice. Enter rice cookers, promising to produce well-cooked rice every time and to keep it warm until ready to serve. But with rice cookers of all different prices available, we wondered: Just what features do you really need, and how much do you need to pay?
All rice cookers work on the same principle. The cooker brings water to a boil (212 degrees). When the rice has absorbed all the water, the temperature inside the cooker begins to rise. A built-in thermostat detects this temperature rise and turns the machine off or down to a keep-warm setting for four to 13 hours. Rice cookers vary, however, by programming ability and machine structure.
While all rice cookers call for different water amounts for different basic rice types (long-grain, brown, and sushi), programmable models have a computer chip that further tweaks the machine's temperature and finish time to allow for preferences such as softer texture or moister grains, or to adjust to highly specialized rice types. These more expensive machines also have an ability to program a cooking start time. Regardless of whether they are programmable, though, all of the rice cookers from the big three manufacturers are constructed as one-piece models, with tightly closing lids and steam caps and dew collectors to trap excess water. Nonprogrammable models from other manufacturers are often two-piece models, a simple pot with a glass lid that has a hole through which steam escapes.
We chose both programmable and nonprogrammable versions, as well as two-piece models. All of the rice cookers came with nonstick pots and keep-warm functions (in our opinion, mandatory features).
One other word about purchasing: in the rice cooker world, a cup is not a full measuring cup. Rice cookers use plastic cups that hold about 3/4 cup of raw rice, and these are the cups referred to on the packages and in the instruction manual. A "6-cup rice cooker" cooks up to 4 1/2 standard cups of raw rice, making about 10 cups of cooked rice (a rice-cooker “cup” of rice makes about 2 1/4 standard cups of cooked rice). Cookers labeled as within the 5-6 cup range are the biggest sellers, since they can handle a small amount for 2-3 people, but still make 5 ample servings. Buyers beware, though; some manufacturers do not follow this naming protocol. We ordered one "6-cup rice cooker" expecting the same size machine as the others, but the "6 cups" referred to cooked rice, so the cooker was half the size of the others.
Six models produced at least acceptable rice, and their keep-warm functions performed well. All earned a recommended rating. The higher-end models did have nice special features (especially programmable timers and water measurement lines for different rice types), but they all proved to have one significant drawback: cooking time. In Japan, cooks often fill and set their rice cookers before leaving the house in the morning. But for people who don’t eat rice frequently enough to make it part of their regular morning routine, a shorter cooking time may be more useful than the ability to preprogram. Because of the continuous temperature and time adjusting, the higher-end models took longer to finish. White rice required an average of 50 minutes to cook and brown rice an average of 1 and 3/4 hours—too long for a quick side dish, especially if you add the suggested 15-minute rest period after cooking. By contrast, the less-expensive models cooked white and brown rice in averages of just under 30 minutes and 50 minutes, respectively. We felt this difference was important enough to rank each of the less-expensive cookers higher than its more expensive sibling.
In the basic model category, we gave one model a slightly higher rating, as it had a steaming basket (giving the machine a second function) and comprehensive, clear instructions, whereas another model had an incomplete instruction manual (it did not include any discussion of how to make adjustments to cook brown rice). The higher-rated models are also cheaper.
The higher-end models are a good choice if you're very particular about rice texture, value the ability of a machine to differentiate among rice types (including sweet rice and specialized browns rice), and are organized enough to use the preprogramming function.
The models with glass lids did not perform as well as the one-piece units. The one-piece design keeps a tighter seal, retaining heat more effectively and keeping moisture evenly distributed, which allows the entire batch to cook to the same consistency. Without this tighter seal, both glass lid models had the same four problems:
Overall Best Choice
Unless you’re very particular about your rice texture, cook highly specialized rice types, or want to preset your rice cooker in the morning, we’d recommend our two top-rated brands—for a reasonable price, they delivered consistently good white, brown, and sushi rice, and the keep-warm option delivered well-cooked rice even after more than two hours.
One Final Recommendation—the Paddle
Each rice cooker came with a small plastic rice paddle for stirring and serving the rice. The paddles for the two top-rated models have a textured surface (with small bumps) that proved to be very effective in dislodging the rice—especially sticky sushi rice—and were very easy to wash. We recommend these paddles even if you prefer to cook rice in a saucepot. You can buy a textured paddle online at Fantes.com.