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Tool Test

Who Needs A Rice Cooker?

The rice cooker mantra: Fill it, set it, forget it.
The rice cooker mantra: Fill it, set it, forget it. (By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
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By Bonnie S. Benwick and Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writers and Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Millions of people around the world reach for a rice cooker every day. Neither of us owns one, however, which is a bit of a head scratcher for two enthusiastic home cooks. Is it because we eat rice no more than once or twice a week? Because we have limited storage space, or because we've heard "Good Eats" guru Alton Brown criticize the appliance as a "uni-tasker"?

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People who own rice cookers swear by them. Electric ones have been around for more than half a century. "I don't know how I ever got along without it" is a comment we've heard more than once.

The rice cooker's allure is a rice cooker owner's mantra: Add rice and water, set it and forget it. And the things keep on ticking: Decades-old machines are still bubbling all over Washington, including the one we tested alongside the rest of the pack (see sidebar).

Basic models usually involve a heating element; a removable inner bowl with clear capacity markings and some type of vent; and two modes: cook and keep warm. They can cost less than $20 or as much as $80.

Some whiz-bang models are programmable, with timers and specific rice-variety settings. You can get them for $100 or as much as $1,000 (which reminds us of another reason we haven't taken the plunge). The new ones often have "cool-touch" housing, which is a nice safety feature if young hands are reaching across kitchen counters. Most come with steamer baskets that allow vegetables and quick-cooking proteins to be heated simultaneously.

As far as we're concerned, the uni-tasker rap falls away when a rice cooker can produce a whole meal or have oatmeal ready for you in the morning.

Market research shows that owners of rice cookers tend to use them more than the pressure cooker or slow cooker they might also have. Egged on by the growing number of users in the United States -- and the realization that cooking more rice-based meals might lower a family's food costs -- we tested some of the top-selling rice cookers in the United States and a few of the less-expensive ones.

We cooked oatmeal, brown rice and three kinds of white rice over several weeks, allowing the units to be cleaned and thoroughly cooled. Surprisingly, all of the models except the Zojirushi Neuro Fuzzy Rice Cooker and Warmer, which at about $200 was the most expensive of the lot, logged their best performance in the brown-rice trials. That alone had us leaning toward the we-want-a-rice-cooker camp, because brown rice is a good whole grain that can be difficult to cook consistently well.

Basmati, medium-grain and long-grain rices yielded understandable differences, as did the varying amounts we tested. Some larger-capacity cookers with nonstick bowls still managed to scorch or "mat" the bottom of a sample using one cup of uncooked rice. (That mat, if it gets crisp enough, is a prized byproduct in some cuisines: It's called soccarat in a Spanish paella and noo roong ji in a Korean bibimbap.) We washed imported rices but not the grains grown in the States, following expert advice from the USA Rice Federation and cookbook author Beth Hensperger (see "Wash It?").

There were greater, and more confusing, disparities among user manuals. We think the printed materials ought to be attached to the outside of the carton for previewing. What consumers need are clear, accessible directions and a short table of ingredient proportions. We didn't find those, although information on the manufacturers' Web sites did a better job of answering our questions.

We found that smaller or less-expensive models have less-sophisticated ways of dealing with vacuum dynamics and steam. Glass lids afford a view but not a tight seal. On some units, a tiny hole serves as a vent, or a lid is meant to dance a bit under pressure; the opportunity for boil-overs made those models less than carefree. Cool-touch models with attached lids, vent and condensation systems and a five-cup capacity fared best in our testing.

We admired rice cookers that belched an audible click when they moved from cook to keep-warm mode, that included retractable cords and that had accoutrements stamped with the company name. Paddles for stirring and the all-important plastic measuring cups ought to be properly emblazoned; none of the cups was. The shape and volume of each cup depends on the manufacturer, and none of them holds as much as a standard American cup. That makes adapting regular recipes more difficult, but there are plenty of rice cooker cookbooks and blogs on the Web for inspiration.

In the Wish Department, we would put in for an English-speaking subcontractor to compose manuals for all the rice cookers made in China, Japan and elsewhere. We'd like a well-marked backup cup to be included with each rice cooker. And, while we're at it, we'd like a space genie to find the room for our impending purchases.

Are you curious about a new kitchen utensil or appliance? Send an e-mail to food@washpost.com with TOOL TEST in the subject line.


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