For the busy home chef, a rice cooker makes easy work of conjuring up one of the world's most popular side dishes, rice. Whether you're jazzed up about jasmine rice or basmati makes your heart sing or you're a basic white rice fan, a rice cooker is the ingredient you need for perfectly steamed rice every time. A perfect rice cooker epitomizes the "absorption" method of cooking rice, and that means every drop of water works its way into the rice, leaving nothing to strain out. This means you keep all the nutrients in the rice rather than dumping them down the sink.
After soaking your rice, a rice cooker is the ideal "set it and forget it" appliance that lets you get busy with cooking the rest of the meal while the machine makes perfect fluffy rice.
Not All Cookers Are Equal
In the world of rice cookers, there's a wide variety of tools for the job and the price tags have quite the gulf, too. From cheap and cheerful to extravagant and high tech, the rice cooker you choose will dramatically affect the consistency of your rice, so it's worth it to invest in a better-quality machine.
The low-end ones look more like a slow cooker, which have a simple function control and a removable lid. These are easy to use but won't produce as great a finished product as with a high-end machine because the moisture control isn't as good and the lack of seal on the lid means cooking times can be erratic.
The Cadillacs of rice cookers will have a moisture-sealing, locking lid, timers, humidity control, warming abilities, reheating functions, non-stick pots and other functions. Many say Japanese rice cookers are among the best available, but Western brands have caught on to the glory of the automated rice cooker and most of those great features are available on North American models now too. Those who pay for the extra bells and whistles will tell you it's worth every penny when that rice cooker becomes your go-to appliance night after night.
Before You Get Cooking
A rice cooker doesn't negate needing to rinse, or soak, your rice. Depending on what kind of rice you're cooking with, you'll need to run it under clean water. For basic white rice, that's arguably enough. But, for restaurant-quality long-grain rice of any kind, it's best to soak it for a while first. How long, well, that depends. For many, it's fine to soak it for just a half hour. Some professional chefs will soak theirs overnight with a bit of lemon juice or another acidic medium.
For all-purpose soaking, though, a 2:1 ratio of water to rice should do you, whether you're going for an hour or overnight. After you're done soaking the rice, strain the water thoroughly and cook the rice with fresh water.
People soak rice for a couple of reasons. One, it cooks more evenly and will have less starch, so the grains separate better and puff up nicely. Two, it breaks down proteins and neutralizes compounds known as phytates that get in the way of your body's ability to absorb minerals from the rice. In both cases, soaking helps your body digest rice easier and get more out of eating it. Most cultures outside of North America do the long-soak method with rice.
Using a Rice Cooker
As previously mentioned, there are many different kinds of rice cookers, and you'll need to refer to your machine's specific instructions to get the most out of it. If it has a removable lid, it may take longer to cook than an airtight pressure-cooking rice maker, leaving more room for error. Timing features and controls will vary on all models, but there are basic principles to follow.
Step One: Fill the Rice Cooker
There's usually a removable pan or pot inside the cooker. Take this out because it's where you'll add the water and rice. Refer to the rice package for ideal water-to-rice ratio. Ratios vary for every kind of rice. Usually it's between 1 cup water to 1 cup rice, all the way up to 1 and 2/3 cups water per cup of rice. If you choose to skip the soaking proces, you may need more water. Add salt per the instructions as well.
Step Two: Cover and Cook
Put the pan back in the cooker. If the lid is a loose lid, simply put it in place. If it's a seal-and-lock lid, lower the lid and press it firmly until you hear and feel the "click" of the lid's lock engaging.
Most rice cookers today either have a basic timer you set or they'll use a timer in addition to something called "fuzzy logic" in cooking your rice. This fuzzy logic is aided by the machine's ability to tell how much moisture is left inside the vessel. If it still contains moisture, it'll keep cooking. This can be a problem if you don't have the water-rice ratio right, but the reality is that this can be a matter of trial and error depending on the rice brand, your soaking method and the machine you're using. But relax—it takes much longer for rice to burn in a cooker than on the stove.
Set the timer according to the package instructions. This is usually 25 to 35 minutes. When fuzzy logic is employed, the machine will stop cooking when moisture levels indicate that all of the water has evaporated or been absorbed. This is why it's best to buy a rice cooker with digital features so you can have greater control over the product.
If you haven't added enough water and the machine has stopped cooking, don't worry! Just add more water and a few more minutes on the machine. The rice won't have perfect texture, but it's sure to still be edible, maybe even quite good!
Step Three: Warming Mode
When the cooking process is complete, most rice cookers today will switch to warming mode, which will keep the rice at the perfect temperature for meal time. It's best to leave it for 5 to 10 minutes, at least. Many people find it's great to cook the rice ahead of when you'll need it so that it can sit in warming mode for a half hour or more before you eat, yielding a nice, plump rice grain that'll absorb your meal's juices perfectly.
When you're ready to eat, simply stir up the rice, add butter if you like, then serve your delicious rice with whatever else you've prepared, and enjoy!