If you know how to boil water, you can cook rice. That's the theory, at least. You still have to watch over it, adjusting the heat and turning it off in time to make sure the pot doesn't boil over or burn.
An automatic rice cooker makes the whole job worry-free. If you can measure, you can make perfect rice -- every time. This is a boon even for good cooks, who after turning on the cooker are free to focus on the parts of the meal where no machine could take over.
At the push of a button or flip of a switch, the rice cooker will monitor itself, noting its temperature and, in some high-tech cases, use fuzzy logic to adjust its own settings.
Many of today's rice cookers are like microcomputers, with smart heating systems, preset options that guarantee hot rice at a certain time, steaming trays that make it possible to cook an entire meal in one appliance and settings for different types of grains, including brown rice.
Most also have an automatic warming feature, which is a nice bonus; even with the lowest of flames, you'd be hard-pressed to keep rice warm on the stove without getting a thick crust at the bottom.
Considering the wide price range in rice cookers, how often you eat rice is a good gauge of how much you should spend on a rice cooker.
We tested several models, from a $30 Oster to a $260 Zojirushi. Each comes with its own measuring cup (slightly smaller than a standard cup), which should be used for the best results. That's because it often corresponds with the water lines marked in the pot. You put two cups of dry rice into the pot, for example, then pour in enough water to the "2" line. The cooking pots are removable and nonstick, so cleanup is a cinch.
At its simplest, a rice cooker works via a thermostat. Inside the center of the heating plate is a small thermal sensing device on a spring. When rice and water are placed in the cooking pot, which goes into the rice cooker, the weight of the pot depresses the thermal sensor.
Switch on the rice cooker and an electric coil warms up the heating plate and brings the water to a boil. Once the rice has absorbed all the water, the temperature will begin to rise past 212 degrees (the boiling point of water). When the thermal sensor senses this, the system turns off the heat and switches to the "keep warm" cycle.
In more advanced models that have computer chips, the rice cooker, instead of simply reacting to the temperature, regulates it depending on what program is selected. And cookers that use fuzzy logic do what a real cook does, adjusting the heat throughout the cooking as it takes into account the volume of rice (which it senses by the weight of the pot) and the type of rice (which the cook has indicated in the setting).
One cooker we tested uses the latest technology, induction heating. Instead of direct heat, electrical currents create electromagnetic waves to heat the pot quickly and evenly.
We followed each manufacturer's instructions, testing each cooker with three types of rice: long-grain jasmine, medium-grain white and medium-grain brown. Some of the cookers had special brown rice settings; others didn't. The brown rice results in those that didn't have a special setting were dismal: The rice was overcooked and gummy, and there was a lot of spattering and overflow from the steam vents, creating a starchy mess.
The best rice came from the two priciest models. Zojirushi's Neuro Fuzzy ($170) and IH ($260) produced equally excellent rice: tender-firm with a hint of sweetness.
But the Sanyo, at $110, offered better value. It performed almost as well and included features found on the more costly Zojirushi models.
For a basic rice cooker, the Oster is a bargain at $30. It performed well, but it doesn't have all the bells and whistles.
With preset timers and fuzzy logic, rice cookers have certainly come a long way since 1956, when the first automatic electric cookers were introduced in Japan. And it's likely to go even further.
One company, LG Electronics, is working on a cooker that will automatically measure, dispense and cook rice. It will have a built-in intelligence system that can be controlled by text-messaging, voice activation or a call from a cellphone, so you'll have hot rice ready when you get home even if you forgot to preset the cooker in the morning.
But we can wait -- we've got plenty of rice technology to play with right now.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A leading name in rice cookers, Zojirushi has two models that got our attention: the new IH (NH-VBC18), top photo, and the Neuro Fuzzy (NS-ZCC18). Equipped with microchips, both use fuzzy logic, a technology meant to mimic human reasoning. That means these rice cookers monitor the cooking time based on settings you've chosen and regulate temperature accordingly. The primary distinction between them is that the IH uses an induction heating system and the Neuro Fuzzy uses a direct heating method. Both have a 10-cup capacity and a plastic exterior and can cook a minimum of one cup of dry rice.
What's the difference: The IH and the Neuro Fuzzy both have a 24-hour programmable preset timer; five rice settings, including one for brown rice; an LCD clock; and a melody chime at the start and end of a cooking cycle. Both incorporate precooking and "sitting" time in the cooking cycle, so making white rice takes about 45 minutes. (A quick-cook feature cuts the time by nearly half, but the rice won't be as tender.) The brown rice took about 1 hour and 20 minutes.
The IH's induction heating uses electric currents to create a magnetic field that instantly heats the entire pot. The Neuro Fuzzy's direct heating system heats a round-bottomed pot from underneath. (Zojirushi warns that the IH's electromagnetic signal may affect pacemakers and erase the data on credit cards and audiotapes nearby.) After the rice is cooked, a fan cools the rice to a suitable eating temperature. Even so, the pot stays very hot and you'll need mitts for the "stay-cool" handles.
What we thought: For such complicated machines, these cookers are very user-friendly. They both produced the best white and brown rice among all the models we tested -- perfectly tender and moist with a hint of sweetness. There was no discernible difference between the batches produced by each model. But even the less expensive Neuro Fuzzy, at $170, is relatively expensive. Either of these models would be worth it only to someone who's very particular about rice and eats it frequently.
How much: IH (NH-VBC18), $260 at Mitsuwa Marketplace stores (for locations, go to www.mitsuwa.com). Neuro Fuzzy (NS-ZCC18), $170 at Marukai stores (for locations, go to www.marukai.qpg.com).
Sanyo's ECJ-D100S, which also operates on fuzzy logic, has many of the same features as the Zojirushi models we tested, plus some useful extras. It has a 10-cup capacity, a 24-hour preset timer, a brown-rice mode and an LCD clock. Its exterior is made of plastic and chrome.
What's the difference: The Sanyo offers a slow-cook setting of up to eight hours for soups and stews. It also has a removable plastic tray for steaming vegetables. The nonstick pot has an extra-thick layer of titanium, which helps to reduce the likelihood of a crusty bottom.
What we thought: The white rice was fluffy, tender and moist, the best among the non-Zojirushi brands. However, cooking jasmine rice took a full hour, and medium-grain rice took 42 minutes. The brown rice (1 1/2 hours) was tender but did have some crusting on the bottom and some crunchy grains.
The vegetable steamer worked fine, but it's not much different from steaming in a pot on the stove -- you must check the vegetables for doneness.
How much: $110 at Marukai.
Squarest of them all
Cuisinart CRC-800, which has a stainless-steel exterior, has an eight-cup capacity and comes with a metal steaming tray.
What's the difference: The Cuisinart offers the best warranty of the rice cookers we tested: three years instead of the standard one-year warranty. Its retro-looking square, compact design makes it easy to store. Like the other models, the Cuisinart provides a cup to measure the rice, but unlike the others it requires a standard measuring cup for the water.
What we thought: We expected better from Cuisinart. The white rice (which cooked in 15 to 20 minutes) crusted in spots and had some hard grains. The brown rice (1 1/2 hours) was underdone and chewy, and there was a lot of spattering from the steam vent. It was just as tedious to clean up after making steel-cut oatmeal, which came out stick-to-the-ribs thick.
How much: $80 at Linens 'n Things stores.
The 10-cup capacity Oster Multi-Use Deluxe Rice Cooker, with a plastic exterior, has a brown-rice setting and a steaming tray. It's the least costly of the models we tested.
What's the difference: A condensation collector on the side of the cooker catches those beads of water that form under the lid during cooking. Just lift the lid and tip it to let the water drop into the collector -- and not on the cooked rice or the table.
What we thought: This cooker was a pleasant surprise. The white rice, which cooked in 15 to 20 minutes, had a slight crust at the bottom but was otherwise fluffy and moist. It made brown rice in an hour -- the quickest of the bunch. It was tender with a good nutty flavor, though a slight crust formed at the bottom. At this price, though, the Oster is a very good value.
How much: $30 at Target.
Haste makes waste
The Breville Gourmet Rice Duo is a 10-cup cooker with a stainless-steel exterior and glass lid.
What's the difference: The Breville has an automatic warming feature that keeps the rice warm up to five hours. It also comes with two metal steaming trays and a detachable cord so you can bring it right to the table if you wish.
What we thought: It was the quickest to cook white rice -- 13 1/2 minutes for white rice -- but the grains were dry and a bit underdone. This can be corrected by adding more water than the manual calls for, but it will also lengthen the cooking time. The brown rice took 1 1/2 hours, like most of the other models, but the grains were still a bit chewy.
How much: $60 at Macy's.