Rice Cookers are a necessity if you love Japanese food. The Japanese have a deep and abiding respect for rice. It is not just a food to them, but an important symbol of the culture as well as their history.
In fact, it’s said that rice isn’t a side to fish, meat, and vegetables – instead, for the Japanese, fish, meat, and vegetables are a side to the main dish – rice.
But cooking rice every day takes a lot of time and effort. That’s why it’s almost impossible to find a Japanese household without a rice cooker in their kitchen. This amazing appliance makes preparing the Japanese staple food a breeze.
Thinking of getting one of these for yourself? Read on to learn everything you need to know about a rice cooker before you invest your money in one!
What is a Rice Cooker and How Does it Work?
The Suihanki (炊飯器), or the rice cooker, is a system of nested pots that are designed to heat your rice evenly, cook it and keep it warm from all sides.
Most Japanese homes have one – and living without one is almost unimaginable once you get used to it. In fact, if you need to take yours to a shop for a repair, you’ll get a loaner rice cooker – like you would for a car or a phone in the west.
- The pioneering Toshiba models from the 50s and some of today’s best-selling rice cookers share the same principle of work. Many rice cookers today use the traditional heating system – electrical resistance heating. These rice cookers work great – though resistive heating isn’t the most power efficient option out there.
- In recent years, a new technology came to the forefront as the more energy-efficient alternative. Induction heating (IH) rice cookers became the new standard. The traditional aluminum pot was replaced with a stainless steel one that makes the magnetic energy production of the induction heating technology possible.
Are Japanese Rice Cookers Worth the Price?
The image you may have of a rice cooker as a one trick pony that costs like $50 is only accurate on the Western market. Japan, the homeland of the rice cooker, is something else.
Unless you’re very lucky, cheap rice cookers give you unevenly cooked rice with crunchy middles. Later, you’re left with the task of cleaning the rice that stuck to the angles and bottom of the pot. The higher priced models overcame these issues. The pots are rounded and easy to clean, and your rice is evenly cooked and perfect every single time.
Japanese brands create top-notch rice cookers with a variety of advanced options and supreme durability. In fact, Japanese rice cookers are favored across Asia. Many Chinese and Korean visitors flock to Japan with the sole intention of buying a high-quality Japanese rice cooker for their homes.
Some of the most expensive Japanese rice cookers cost upwards of $300. These are not the same as one-button machines found in dorm rooms across the US. The rice cooker is the best friend of anybody who prepares food in Japan, so the market offers state-of-the-art machines at a variety of price points.
Basic Rice Cooker Features
Back in the 60s, rice cookers were in their infancy and could basically cook and not much else. However, the technology has evolved, rapidly. Today, even basic rice cookers automatically shut off and keep your rice warm long after it’s done cooking.
When picking out your rice cooker, one of the first things you’ll need to decide is what size you should get. For that, you first need to figure out how much rice you need to prepare each time. In general, half a cup of rice per person suffices as a side dish, and one cup is a good amount per person for a main dish.
If you’ll mostly be cooking just for yourself, a 3-cup capacity might suit you. It allows you to prepare a single cup of rice with good results, yet gives you the opportunity to cook for up to 4 persons once in a while.
Families might find a larger rice cooker worthwhile. For example, this Zojirushi Neuro Fuzzy is a popular 5.5-cup choice. For extra-large gatherings, a 10-cup version of the rice cooker is also available.
You know the rule – 1.5 cups of water per 1 cup of rice. But calculating and measuring, let alone searching for the right cup, can be a drag. That’s why most rice cookers come with measuring lines etched on the inner side of the cooking pot. These are generally created for white rice, but your cooker may feature multiple measuring lines for different types of rice.
Rice cookers make rice – simple as that, right? Well, it might be so for the cheap, one-button models. Those are the ones that are only fit for regular white rice cooking.
However, most rice cookers on the Japanese market are way more advanced. At the least, they’ll give you two cooking options – regular and quick. Most offer much more: a brown rice mode, porridge mode, and firm/soft/medium options for your white rice (which, weirdly enough, all require the same amount of water!)
You don’t have to eat right away to get a taste of freshly boiled rice. Most modern rice cookers can help you delay eating without sacrificing the quality or freshness of your rice.
A “keep warm” function will keep your rice at a temperature around 60°C (140°F), discouraging bacterial growth and keeping your rice steaming hot for when you’re ready to eat!
Extra Features to Look For in Rice Cookers
With time and the rapid development of technology, rice cookers became more complex too. Today, they come in many varieties and with plenty extra functions.
Of course, all extra functions cost money, but if you use your rice cooker regularly, the investment will definitely pay off quickly. This is great to know, especially if you’re purchasing your cooker from a Japanese store – since western shops typically only hold basic models. Here are some of the extra features you should consider.
Are messy cords all over the kitchen your pet peeve? A new appliance doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have cables all over your kitchen counters. Get a rice cooker with a retractable power cord to save space and keep your kitchen looking neat!
Cooking Japanese rice takes approximately 20 minutes since the point water boils. What if you want your rice ready to eat in, say, 2 hours? With a delayed start function, you can set the timer to kickstart rice cooking and have it ready the moment you step back home!
A steaming tray transforms your rice cooker into a multi-purpose cooking device. Since rice-cooking water boils off and evaporates inside the machine anyway, why not put a tray loaded with veggies above water level and get a healthy side of steamed vegetables with your rice with no extra effort.
If you want your rice cooked evenly (both the center and outside of the grain), don’t lift the lid when cooking! Same goes for cooking rice in a rice cooker – you should leave it unopened for at least 5 minutes after your rice is done cooking.
In general, you’re supposed to just trust your rice cooker to do an amazing job without you monitoring it. But not everybody can just sit tight while the cooker does its job.
If you’re really impatient and want to monitor how your rice is progressing, get a rice cooker with a see-through lid. Sure, you won’t be able to see all that much with all the steam fogging the lid, but you’ll catch a glance of how much your rice has grown.
Other Grain Cooking
Rice is not the only ingredient you can cook in a rice cooker – not even close. You can make plenty of recipes in your rice cooker even if it only has the basic functions. However, some rice cookers have programs specially designed for oatmeal, quinoa, or porridge made of various grains. If these ingredients are common in your kitchen, why not get yourself a way to prepare them quicker?
Which brand is best for rice cookers?
There are plenty of brands that make amazing rice cookers for the Japanese market. However, they’re not always easily available in other countries, especially outside of Asia.
The tested and tried rice cooker brands that the Japanese absolutely love are Zojirushi, Toshiba, Mitsubishi Electric, Hitachi, Panasonic, Tiger, Recolte, Koizumi, Haier, Iris Ohyama, Sharp, and others.
If you get a chance, get yourself a rice cooker made by one of these brands – you won’t regret it. Out of these, Zojirushi seems to be the brand that’s sold the most outside Japan.
Western brands like Black+Decker, Hamilton Beach, and Aroma also make decent rice cookers easily available online and in stores in the US.
Long story short—rice cookers are great and all Japanese families have one for a good reason.
A rice cooker can really make your life easier. It makes meal prep so much simpler, and takes away the guesswork of cooking rice. With some models, you can even put in your ingredients before work or school and come home from a long day to an already cooked or a still warm meal waiting for you.
If you’re interested but not sure whether you really need a rice cooker in your home, perhaps all you need is a little inspiration. Click here to see my favorite Japanese recipes using rice as their base ingredient, and get cooking!