The Washington Post

Chat Leftovers: Risky rice?

¡Hola! In today’s Food section, we’ve got a good read for you with Tim Carman’s story about Patricia Jinich, the chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, whose first TV show launches this Saturday. Andreas Viestad writes about an eccentric Italian’s failed attempt to launch a gastronomic revolution during the last century. And it’s a big week for editor Joe Yonan, whose new book, an offshoot of his monthly Cooking for One column, has just gone on sale. Today we run an excerpt from the book, which is titled “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One.”

As usual, you can find out more about any of those stories by showing up at noon for today’s Free Range chat, your chance to ask questions, share information and, of course, win a book — who knows, maybe even Joe’s book. If you can’t be there, you can still leave a question in advance, then read the chat transcript later on to see if we answered it.

The questions have been coming in thick and fast lately. Here’s one from last week’s chat that we just couldn’t get to:

My husband I have a very nice electric rice cooker. Once it’s done cooking, it keeps the rice warm for as long as you keep it plugged in. My husband loves to make a big batch of rice and keep it in the cooker for at least a day or two, rather than put it into the fridge, so that it’s ready to eat whenever he wants it. It stays fresh for about 24 hours but then eventually starts to dry out. I don’t like keeping the rice in there for very long because it’s a waste of electricity, seems like a potential fire hazard (though we’ve never had problems), and it dries out faster than if we refrigerated it. What is the impact, from a nutrition or food safety perspective, of keeping it in the cooker for 24-48 hours? Does it start to lose nutritional value? Are we risking bacterial growth? It’s a fairly high temp, and we’ve never gotten sick in the 15 years of doing this.

Wow. Of all the food that can be cooked in a home kitchen, I’d count rice as one of the simplest. Rinse, add water, cover, heat, voila: It’s done.

And so I gotta say that the idea of keeping a rice cooker plugged in and heated up, sucking on electricity for one or more days at a time, seems sooooo unnecessary.

But you know that. What you don’t know is whether it’s safe.

I called the U.S. headquarters of two rice-cooker manufacturers to see what they’d say. Predictably, neither one was crazy about the idea, but neither one said it’s likely to kill you, either.

We’ll start with Mai (“I don’t give out my last name”), a consumer service rep at Zojirushi. “We don’t recommend that,” she said. “There are customers who do keep it on for days, and they’re fine with it, but there’s no guarantee on that.” If the rice looks and smells okay but is starting to go bad and you eat it, what might happen is “probably a stomach ache,” Mai said.

Another drawback, she said: If the rice in your cooker started to smell bad, you’d probably find that the cooker’s plastic seals, gaskets and other components would pick up the odor, and it’d be hard to get rid of.

She thinks 12 hours is a reasonable limit for holding warm rice.

On to Sanyo, where they also advocate not exceeding a 12-hour hold. “Maybe it can be done and they won’t die, but Sanyo does not recommend it,” said Beverly Steinberg, a Sanyo publicist.

The makers of Tiger rice cookers seem to be a little more lenient, at least according to their Web site. Some of their models have a two-level warming system — high and low — and the low level is “for maintaining temperature up to 24 hours,” according to the product information. (After 24 hours, a light starts flashing.) Even so, Tiger recommends a maximum 12-hour hold in winter and a 10-hour hold in summer.

So what exactly could go wrong with warm rice? The Internet abounds with warnings about a rice bacterium called Bacillus cereus. There are breathless admonitions about how boiling doesn’t necessarily destroy it; how the warm, wet environs of a rice cooker can be a breeding ground; how the bacteria can multiply at lightning speed and make you sick; how even reheating cooked rice can be dicey. Eh. A lot of rice is eaten in this country, much of it leftovers, and you don’t hear much about it making people sick. You do need to use your head, and be on the lookout for off flavors and smells, and avoid risky conditions, such as keeping rice in the cooker for days and days.

As far as nutritional effects go, Sanyo’s Beverly Steinberg says the company doesn’t speak to nutrition, and can’t, because “it really would depend on the type of rice.” So your best bet might be to call the consumer information number on your box or bag of rice and pose the question to them.

I sympathize with your husband’s desire to have rice ready and waiting on demand. But even if he doesn’t want to make it more than once or twice a week, it would be easy to portion cooked rice into containers, freeze or refrigerate them, then reheat them as needed. The USDA recommends cooling rice for storage to 70 degrees within two hours and then down to 40 degrees or below within another four hours. The USA Rice Federation says you can then store the rice in the fridge for three to five days or in the freezer for up to six months.

How you want to reheat is up to you. Some people use the stove, some the oven, some the microwave. What not to do: Don’t reheat cold rice in a rice cooker, Steinberg says.


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