Rice has been consumed by human beings for thousands of years, dating back to the ancient civilizations of China and Africa. A simple food to prepare, the way that rice is cooked remained more or less unchanged until fairly recent times.
Today, most of the rice that we purchase at the supermarket or health food store can be cooked by simply boiling some water in a saucepan, dumping in the appropriate quantity of rice, covering it for 15 or 20 minutes, and stirring it occasionally to make sure it doesn’t stick – which is pretty much the way it was prepared centuries ago. We also have instant and converted rice products that will be ready in a couple of minutes using this same method.
As is the case with so many other things, however, technology has stepped in and provided a number of convenient choices for how we cook rice; these products will also sometimes have an effect on the finished dish’s taste and texture.
A Few Words about Rice
Rice is one of the most consumed grains on the planet and is the third largest commercial agricultural product in the world today. About 750 million tons of it is produced every year – surpassed only by corn and sugarcane.
What is commonly referred to as rice is actually the seed of a few specific types of grass. It was first consumed in Asia and parts of Africa where it grew wild and can be traced back to the earliest civilizations on both continents, where it became the staple of most diets.
The earliest known rice cultivation occurred along what is now the Yangtze River in China over 10,000 years ago. As civilizations progressed and expanded, rice became one of the most widely traded commodities in the ancient world.
Over the centuries, as trade expanded between continents, so did the cultivation of rice. A hardy and very adaptable type of grass, today rice is cultivated on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. China and India account for about half of the world’s rice production, and it remains the food staple for almost 50% of the world’s population.
Rice comes in three basic forms: short grain, medium grain, and long grain, each of which has a different texture after cooking. Rice is also often categorized by its color with white being the most common, followed by brown (also often referred to as ‘wild’ rice); other colors include red and black.
The vast majority of the rice available to consumers today is processed in some way and shipped as a dried product. Most rice needs to be cooked before it is eaten, which brings us to …
Different Types of Rice Cookers
Rice cookers come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials but they all have one thing in common: they cook rice by saturating it with hot liquid, usually water, to soften it and make it easy to consume. Normally, the amount of dry rice you start with will double in size after it is cooked.
Although various types have been used since ancient times, the modern rice cookers you are probably familiar with for personal and home use were not widely available until after the Second World War and didn’t really take off sales-wise until the mid-1960s. Before that, most rice in industrialized and underdeveloped nations alike was cooked using some variation of the old saucepan method.
By some estimates, over 80 million rice cookers of various types and sizes – and for different uses – are produced every year worldwide. Over 70% of rice cookers are manufactured in Asia.
So, let’s look at some of the different types of rice cookers.
Electric Rice Cookers
Today, the vast majority of rice cookers the average person will encounter are electric rice cookers (also often marketed as rice cookers and steamers). A popular household kitchen product for the last few decades, electric rice cookers are available both online and in most brick-and-mortar stores that sell small appliances. Depending on the type, style, and additional functions of the unit the price for different rice cooking machines can vary wildly.
Basically, in most electric rice cookers, measured amounts of rice and water are combined in a container inside the cooker; the lid is closed, and the process of cooking is started. Electric rice cookers usually have plastic or stainless steel exteriors; most interior containers (often called rice pots) are made of aluminum or stainless steel – although other materials are also sometimes used.
Since the 1980s, the rice pots in most rice cookers have come with non-stick surfaces (often coated with Teflon). Most electric rice cookers come with a detachable power cord, and higher-end products will often come with a steam self-cleaning function.
Electric rice cookers can be categorized by the way they generate heat; by their size; or by their various features. Generally speaking, most electric rice cookers manufactured for home use will cook between two and 10 cups of uncooked rice at a time, although larger capacity units are available.
Basic Electric Rice Cookers
The basic (also sometimes referred to as small or standard) electric rice cooker is the least expensive and most popular type of rice cooker on the market today. First introduced in the mid-1950s, they are relatively simple machines, and are typically able to cook one to three cups of rice (dry) in about 20 to 30 minutes. They usually produce the best results when used for cooking white rice.
These units are typically comprised of the cooker body (usually plastic), a lid, an interior aluminum or stainless steel rice pot, and a lighted on/off switch. When the switch is engaged, it triggers a heating element usually located beneath the rice pot which heats the contents of the pot via thermal convection.
A thermometer inside the unit pauses the heating process when the desired temperature is reached, reengages it when the temperature falls below a certain level and shuts it off after a preset amount of time when the water has been absorbed by the rice.
While earlier models were usually single, self-contained units, today most basic rice cookers offer removable, dishwasher safe lids (usually glass or plastic) and rice pots, to make cleaning easier. Most models these days will also feature a warming switch, which will lower the heat to keep the rice warm. Some also come with an auto-off feature that turns the unit off after a certain period of time.
Along with rice, most basic models can be used to heat up canned soups, beans, and vegetables, and can also be used for making oatmeal. Some will come with a steaming basket (usually plastic), for steaming vegetables. A rice measuring cup (which is not the same as a standard measuring cup) and spoon are also often included.
Basic rice cookers are small countertop appliances and will weigh between four and six pounds empty. Because of their relative simplicity, these products tend to be quite durable and will often last for decades with proper care. In terms of cost, they will usually range from about $10 to about $30.
Digital Rice Cookers
One step up the evolutionary product ladder from the basic model is the electric digital rice cooker. First hitting the market in the 1980s and remaining quite popular ever since digital rice cookers are an upgrade from the basic unit in that they allow the user to perform a few more functions.
Digital rice cookers operate in the same way and usually offer the same features (removable top, non-stick bowl, etc.) as basic models. However, in addition to the on/off and warming switches, these machines feature an LCD display showing the time it has been cooking (or how long it has left to cook), as well as four or five settings buttons which allow for expanded cooking functions.
Most digital rice cookers will have a function for cooking rice other than standard white rice; for example, long grain or brown rice, which will generally require longer cooking time. Many offer a sauté function which allows the user to add sauces to rice after it has been cooked, as well as a steam setting for cooking vegetables and helping to keep previously cooked rice fluffy while it is warming.
Generally speaking, digital rice cookers will produce a better quality finished product by allowing the user greater control during the cooking process, thereby helping to eliminate over- and under-cooking and other common mistakes. They are also available in a wider range of sizes, often accommodating over 10 cups of rice.
Even with the added functionality, digital rice cookers are not that much more expensive than the basic version. They start at about $20, and the price will rise from there depending on both the features of the unit and its size.
Programmable Rice Cookers
Also referred to as multifunction or micro-computerized, the next step up in functionality as well as price is the programmable rice cooker. This is often the choice of amateur chefs and food enthusiasts who take their rice seriously but don’t want to pay an arm and a leg for more sophisticated rice cookers.
Utilizing microchip computer technology, programmable rice cookers take the functions found in the digital version and basically multiply them, providing the user with far more control over cooking and warming times, an automatic re-heating function, and a built-in alarm to signal when the rice is done. Most can be programmed to automatically turn on and off at a specific time.
These rice cookers offer enhanced versatility when it comes to the types of rice they will cook. Along with settings for all grains of white rice (short, medium, long), they can usually be programmed to cook brown rice, mixed rice, and some specialty rice including GABA brown (brown rice that is usually sweeter and fluffier than standard brown), and jasmine rice. Many will also have a setting for cooking rice porridge and oatmeal.
Along with easily cooking more varieties of rice, programmable rice cookers also offer the user increased control over the consistency and texture of the finished product, and can produce everything from extra fluffy to sushi-style sticky rice.
Along with significant advances in uses and versatility, programmable rice cookers also present a considerable increase in cost. Depending on size and the number of functions included, these rice cookers will usually run anywhere from $100 to $300, and sometimes higher.
Induction Heat Rice Cookers
Thought by many to be the Rolls-Royce of rice cookers, heat induction (or HI) rice cookers are considered to be top of the line, professional quality machines. These cookers are popular with gourmet cooks and are often used in smaller restaurants.
First introduced in restaurant settings in the late 1980s, induction heat rice cookers look quite similar to the programmable version and will usually offer all of the same functions. The difference is that while most other cookers on the market utilize the thermal convection method of conveying heat to the cooking pot, these utilize an induction heating system which quickly, evenly, and consistently heats the metal cooking container.
While this might not sound like a big deal when it comes to rice cooking technology, it really is. The induction heating coils in the machine create a magnetic heating field which serves to heat the entire cooking pot (bottom, sides, and top) evenly, as opposed to the thermal convection system used in other products which heats the rice pot from the bottom up. This, in effect, makes the cooking container itself the heat source, which means that the heat is distributed evenly throughout the pot, and therefore the rice.
This even distribution of heat, combined with the increased speed of achieving the desired cooking temperature, gives the user far more precise control over the cooking process and provides a more consistent (and tastier) yield. This is particularly true when used to cook more delicate or hardier types of rice (red, jasmine, etc.). It also provides for more consistent results with commonly cooked types of rice, accounting for its popularity in some restaurants.
All of this added control, of course, comes at a price. Usually starting at around $250 for the smaller versions, induction heat rice cookers can often cost $700 and up for the larger capacity models most commonly used in restaurants.
Pressure Rice Cooker
A combination of the standard pressure cooker and the programmable rice cooker, the electric pressure rice cooker is a relatively new innovation which simply adds pressure to the rice cooking process.
Most pressure rice cookers on the market today are, in effect, programmable rice cookers that have a ‘pressure option’ added to them; rice can be cooked in the usual way, or pressure cooked by utilizing the pressure option. When this option is engaged, the steam produced by the cooking process is trapped in the cooking container, building pressure inside. This steam is vented automatically when the desired pressure is achieved. Most will come with two or three pressure settings.
Pressure cooking rice serves to change the density of the starch in each individual rice grain and tends to make the rice softer and more easily digested. Pressure cooked rice will also stay soft for a longer period of time while being heated (often for up to 12 hours), making these cookers quite popular for restaurant use.
Pressure rice cookers can be purchased which utilize either thermal convection or induction heating system. Higher end units will offer pressure settings for white, brown, and a number of specialty rice types, as well as porridge and some other easily pressure-cooked foods.
The price for these cookers will depend on both the capacity and the type of heating it utilizes. They will usually start at around $250, and can go over $1,000 for extra large capacity, restaurant-quality models.
Specialty Pot Rice Cookers
What we are choosing to call specialty pot rice cookers has almost nothing to do with the features of the cooker itself, but rather refers to the type of pot that goes inside the cooker in which the rice is actually cooked.
While the vast majority of electric rice cookers utilize a non-stick (usually Teflon coated) stainless steel or aluminum rice pot, some health-conscious people don’t like cooking in Teflon-coated non-stick pots because the surfaces will sometimes chip off into the rice, as well as other environmental and health concerns. Some rice purists dislike stainless steel and aluminum for taste and texture reasons. To alleviate both of these concerns, some manufacturers offer rice pot alternatives in their electric cookers.
The most common alternative rice pot used in electric cookers is clay or ceramic. Clay rice pots have been used for centuries; they tend to transfer heat quite well and retain this quality in electric cookers. Many are designed to do double duty and can be used as an attractive serving bowl, transfer the rice directly from cooker to table. Normally, electric rice cookers with clay pots will take slightly longer to cook the rice.
Other alternative rice pots (usually found exclusively on very high-end products) include those made with layered ceramic-iron composite, diamond powder coating, copper, and pure carbon.
Talking Rice Cookers
It had to happen; these days, if you are so inclined, you can find rice cookers that will talk to you.
More of a marketing tool than a practical application, the talking function on rice cookers was first introduced to the public by the Cuckoo Electronics Company of South Korea in the last decade and is now included on many of their mid- to high-end cookers. Some other manufacturers have also started to incorporate this technology (albeit slowly) into their products.
Basically, when you push one of the function buttons, the rice cooker tells you (in English, Korean, or Chinese depending on your choice) that you have done so. For example, when you press the warming button, the cooker will say: “Warming has been started.”
Aside from being pretty cool, that’s it. The voice feature doesn’t impact the quality or functionality of the product and, interestingly, doesn’t seem to have much, if any, impact on the price.
Microwave Rice Cookers
Microwave rice cookers, as the name indicates, are used in conjunction with a microwave oven, which provides the heat source. These products are usually quite small, will cook one or two cups (dry) of rice, and are also quite good at re-heating / hydrating last night’s rice to have with your lunch at the office the next day.
Normally very basic products, they are most often made of microwave-safe plastic (although some ceramic versions can be found). They usually come in two styles; a single unit with a perforated lid, or a three-piece unit consisting of a rice pot (usually with rice and water levels provided on the outside), exterior cooking container, and a lid with holes or slits in it to vent the steam. They will also sometimes include measuring cups, and rice spoons or paddles for fluffing.
Almost universally dishwasher safe and very lightweight, microwave rice cookers can be used to cook almost any type of rice but will perform best with white and brown. Cooking time will usually be somewhere between 7 and 15 minutes depending on the type of rice, and the power of the oven.
Though you might not think it, there is a fairly wide range of prices for these products; anywhere from about $6 to over $25. This range has less to do with product features and functions (there are, basically, none to speak of) and everything to do with aesthetics. Essentially, the more you pay, the better the cooker looks.
Gas Rice Cookers
Not normally found outside of the restaurant and industrial applications, gas (or gas-fired) rice cookers are usually large capacity (50 cups or more) machines that use gas-fired burners to produce the cooking heat as opposed to electrical heating elements. Gas rice cookers tend to be quite large and very heavy – usually weighing 50 pounds or more – which make them impractical for use in most homes.
As far as functions are concerned, except for their heating source and size, most gas rice cookers are not unlike the basic electric units; their job is simply to cook large quantities of rice quickly. Most will feature a cook (on/off) switch, electric timer and thermostat, and warming function. They usually have an aluminum or stainless steel rice pot and are equipped with handles.
Gas rice cookers are available in two basic types: natural gas, and propane. Natural gas rice cookers will need to be professionally connected to the gas source (in the same way as a furnace or stove), while propane-fueled cookers have connectors like those found on most gas grills, and operate off of liquid propane tanks.
The majority of gas rice cookers utilize a pressure cooking system due to the durability of pressure cooked rice (discussed above). Most incorporate an automatic pressure relief valve, and will sometimes come equipped with mechanical or digital thermometers and pressure gauges.
In terms of price, gas rice cookers are usually more expensive than their electric counterparts, in large part because they are usually much bigger machines. Starting at around $350, their price will usually increase proportionally based on their uncooked rice capacity, which can run 100 cups and sometimes higher.
Industrial parboilers have been used since the early 20th century for cooking very large quantities of rice. Today, they are often massive machines (sometimes accommodating half a ton of rice at a time), and are commonly used as part of a three-step process to produce ‘instant’ and ‘converted’ rice products (Minute Rice, Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice, etc.).
After soaking the rice kernels, the parboiler partially cooks the rice while it is still in the husk, after which the husk is removed, the product is dried and finally packed for shipment. The cooking process usually takes three to four hours. As the rice has already been partially cooked, the finished product can be prepared in the home in one to three minutes. Some electric rice cookers have a setting for quick or converted rice.
Smaller versions of these machines are often used by small and mid-sized local rice producers in Asia, Africa, and South America as the parboiling process makes the rice more resistant to deterioration, rot, and insects such as weevils.
Traditional Rice Cookers and Steamers
Bamboo Rice Steamer
Still widely used in Asia and by rice purists elsewhere, bamboo rice steamers have been around for centuries in both China and Japan. A very basic cooking utensil, bamboo rice steamers will often come with as many as four levels (or baskets) to allow for cooking multiple dishes at one time.
After the water has been boiled in a separate pot, the bamboo rice steamer is placed over the pot. As the steam from the water rises, it travels up through slits in the bottom of the steamer cooking the rice (and other dishes) above.
Both in the past and the present, the vast majority of bamboo rice steamers are circular, although a rectangular version called a seiro was once widely used in Japan.
Ceramic and Stoneware Rice Cookers
The earliest predecessor of the current saucepan on the stove method of cooking rice, ceramic and stoneware rice pots and steamers (also called hearth rice pots) is probably the oldest dedicated rice cooking utensils on the planet. A ceramic rice steamer believed to date back to the 13th Century B.C. (and possibly even earlier) can be seen at the British Museum in London. These types of rice cookers are still manufactured today, albeit with some improvements.
Due to the durability of the materials, these rice cookers were used over open flames such as communal or campfires and later in fireplaces (hence the name hearth rice pots). The cookers themselves were sometimes fairly big to accommodate feeding larger extended families, or to act as communal rice pots.
Today’s versions will usually accommodate 2 to 6 cups of rice, although larger versions are still used in some third-world nations. Some are designed to be used with gas or electric stoves and ranges, or over open fires. These will usually have some type of interior and exterior glazing, and have a lid with one or more holes for venting steam.
Other versions are designed to cook with steam, and are placed over a pot of boiling water. These either have slits in the bottom similar to those found in bamboo steamers, or an internal ‘chimney’ located in the center which conducts the steam to the top of the cooker, where it is pushed down by the lid to cook the rice.