Two years ago, we bought a rice cooker.
Not just any rice cooker — a fancy one. Multiple settings, pre-programmable. The fuzzy logic kind, because nothing seasons your rice quite like a dollop of fuzzy logic.
Because rice is one of my wife’s favorite foods, we use our Zojirushi all the time. Throw in rice, water, and a little salt, and it all cooks perfectly, then stays warm for hours. It’s not quite as simple as a lever or an inclined plane, but it’s basically a miracle machine.
You might think, if you take the name literally, that the rice cooker is a unitasker. A unitasker is a gadget that does only one thing, and while I’m not as zealous as Alton Brown, I’m a fan of his “no unitaskers” sentiment. If I’m investing a decent chunk of money and counter space in a gizmo, I want it to do more than one thing, no matter how well.
Here’s the thing: The name is deceptive. Your rice cooker is not a unitasker. It’s amazing at cooking rice, but it’s amazing at cooking a bunch of other stuff, too. (Even Brown agrees: “You have to ask, ‘What else cooks like rice?’ Odds are, you can cook that in a rice cooker.“)
With that in mind, here are things that look (more or less) like rice that I have cooked in our rice cooker.
- Black rice, a.k.a. purple rice: Yes, technically this is rice, not something that cooks like rice. But it’s my favorite kind of rice, and I would never, ever make it if it required stirring on the stovetop.
- Oatmeal: Oatmeal? More like oat-meh. Or so I thought before making it with steel cut oats. And I never bothered making steel cut oatmeal until we got our rice cooker. This is the perfect meal for your rice cooker’s timer — set it to be ready just after you wake up and start your day with an easy breakfast that your taste buds can enjoy as much as your arteries do.
- Red lentils: This is exactly the kind of food I did not grow up eating, but now think is fantastic. Throw in your favorite spices — I lean toward South Asian, including turmeric, cumin, and coriander — and make a nearly effortless dal. (Though I’ve only cooked red lentils myself, there’s no reason yellow, green, or other varieties wouldn’t work.)
- Quinoa: The good news: our rice cooker produced perfect quinoa. The bad news: it took twice as long as preparing it on the stovetop. (I’m sure you could make couscous in this thing, but that cooks so quickly even in a measuring cup that it hardly seems worth pushing the buttons.)
- Pearl barley: I was surprised to discover that I liked barley, and delighted to discover that you can substitute leftover barley for rice when you’re making fried rice and it’s just as delicious.
- Polenta: We had a bag of lovely stone-ground cornmeal that was just too tough to use in cornbread or muffins. The meal never cooked through, threatening to chip your teeth. Turned out, though, that it was perfect for making polenta in the rice cooker. I added enough water (read: extra water) and it came out fantastic, completely free of maize pebbles. We went savory, stirring in parmesan cheese after cooking was done.
- Dried beans: I’ve only tried this once, with red beans, and they didn’t finish in the cooker — I moved them to a pot on the stove (and, ironically, added rice) because there was still a lot of water left after two hours. In the rice cooker’s defense, they were really old, dry beans. (“Best by” 12 months earlier, is how old, and yes I soaked them.) I plan to try this again.
And, of course, rice. Brown rice, white rice, wild rice. Mmmmmmmmm rice.
Things I haven’t actually made in our rice cooker, but the internet says they’re possible and I mean to try:
- Cream of Wheat
- Garbanzo beans
- Wheat berries
- Risotto (Breville makes a great rice cooker that explicitly says it cooks risotto, but rumor has it that regular rice cookers can handle risotto just fine, too.)
- Farro (I don’t even really know what this is, though I’m sure I’ve seen it at Whole Foods. But it’s ancient and Roman and I have fuzzy logic working for me, so it’ll be good.)
Are these recipes?
No. You can prepare some elaborate meals in a rice cooker, but cooking dried grains, pulses, and legumes is really just a half step up from making rice. Use the appropriate amount of water with your grain — I just check the grain’s package, or Google for the correct grain-to-water ratio — it should work just like on the stovetop. Except better, because it’s less work.
(You don’t have to stick with water, of course. Stock, wine, broth — they all work, too. Though maybe not for oatmeal.)
The first time you try a new grain, give yourself a time cushion. I recommend starting the cooker two hours before you need the grains done. (If you’re trying something like beans, you may want even longer.) It probably won’t take that long, but if it’s done early the warming function will keep things perfect until you’re ready.
If you want to up your game, Beth Hensperger’s Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook is a fantastic resource. She’ll show you how to make pilafs and chili and custards. People make applesauce and steam humbows in these things. I haven’t done any of that … yet.
Why not use the stove? I like my stove!
I’ve got nothing against stoves. Some of my best meals have been made on stoves, including all the things I’ve cooked in my rice cooker.
But a rice cooker offers you several advantages:
- You free up a burner for other cooking
- You can leave it unattended without fear of scorching
- If your cooker has a timer, you can prep everything when you have time and set it to cook and be done when you actually want to eat
- Plays a merry little tune when your food is ready (if it’s a Zojirushi, anyway)
Unattended cooking and the timer are the biggest factors for us, because we can have fresh rice (or whatever) waiting when we get home from work, rather than waiting 45-90 minutes for it to cook after we get home. (The rendition of Louis XIII’s “Amaryllis” is a twee little bonus.)
Do you need a fancy-pants rice cooker?
No. Any rice cooker should work. Roger Ebert famously cooked most of his meals in a rice cooker — he wrote a whole book about it — and he explicitly recommended “the simplest rice cooker made,” with two settings: cook and keep warm. Zojirushi has you covered there, too, but the upshot is get whatever rice cooker works for you.
Do you need a rice cooker at all?
No, of course not. But our rice cooker has become a cornerstone of our meal preparation because it’s so versatile. I’d give up my stand mixer or even my microwave before I’d give up our rice cooker. Dry things + water + fuzzy logic = tasty, tasty miracles.
Now if someone has ideas for how to turn my waffle iron into a multi-use device, I’m all ears. (Fawaffles, you say? Sounds delish!)
What have you cooked in your rice cooker? Have any good farro or hominy recipes? We want to know more — leave a comment below.