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Rice is one of the most widely consumed grains in the world and a staple food in many cultures. There's a good reason: It’s extremely versatile, with the capability of acting simply as a side dish or as the main element of many different meals.
But preparing the ideal fluffy rice can be tricky, especially when considering the precise cooking time, measurements and ratios it takes to actually get decent consistency and texture. That’s where the rice cooker can come in handy — it allows for consistency in making the perfect rice every time at the touch of a button.
Rice cookers can vary from basic one-button types that can cook simple white rice to more high-tech options that feature multiple buttons with different functions, including cooking grains like quinoa and oatmeal or steaming vegetables. They can also vary in price point, ranging from as low as $20 to upwards of $250, according to the experts we spoke to.
To learn more about how rice cookers work and determine which one is right for you, we talked to professional chefs, cooking teachers and food bloggers about the difference between different types of rice cookers, who should use them and how to shop for them. We also highlight their recommendations for the best rice cookers to buy.
What exactly is a rice cooker and what are the benefits?
Mitsubishi developed the first consumer-oriented rice cooker in Japan in 1945. The first automated electric rice cooker came about about a decade later, thanks to Toshiba, followed by the creation of the electric cooker we typically see today — introduced by Zojirushi in 1965 — that included a "stay warm" function.
After the introduction of rice cookers in Japan, these devices branched out to several countries, including South Korea, which makes several popular rice cooker models, and the U.S., which produces some of the more basic and inexpensive ones. And the popularity of rice cookers worldwide comes as no surprise: They offer consistency, time-saving and multifunctional benefits.
Today, rice cookers are a kitchen staple in many households. Sonoko Sakai, a cooking teacher and author of “Japanese Home Cooking: Simple Meals, Authentic Flavors,” noted that a rice cooker “is as common as a toaster oven or toaster in Japan,” mostly because rice is “typically the centerpiece of our table.”
Using a rice cooker lets the device take control, meaning it can give you some flexibility to leave the room without having to constantly monitor a pot on your stove, said Yuki Gomi, owner of Yuki's Kitchen cooking classes and author of “Sushi at Home.” She added that unlike the pot method, you’re more likely to get the same ideal result every time.
Conventional versus smart rice cookers
The experts we spoke to separated rice cookers into two main categories: conventional and smart, computerized rice cookers. Conventional rice cookers tend to be very easy to use — you just add your ingredients and press a button to start. These are inexpensive and tend to cook the rice very quickly, with some having additional features like a warming function.
Smart rice cookers, on the other hand, use fuzzy logic to determine the best way to cook the rice and make small adjustments on their own to achieve that, even if you mess up the ratio of ingredients or leave the rice in for too long. While smart rice cookers usually provide the best cooking results, they’re typically more expensive than conventional rice cookers, sometimes costing more than $500 or $600.
While many low-end conventional rice cookers have simple features to cook rice that anyone can use, smart rice cookers provide a multifunctional aspect that “eliminates the guessing work” of cooking different variations of rice, according to Yoko Lamn, a certified fermentation expert and founder of Hakko.
Lamn noted that rice cookers with more high-tech functions like those found in Japanese rice cookers can provide modes to cook various types of rice like brown rice, sushi rice and porridge, along with timer functions that let you determine when exactly the rice should be cooked or how long it should stay warm.
You’ll also find rice cooker options in popular kitchen appliances like pressure cookers, including the Instant Pot, and slow cookers like the Crock Pot. Looking for appliances that include a rice cooker function can save you money and counterspace in the long run, but experts told us to keep in mind that even rice cookers themselves can serve multiple purposes — some have steamer functions for vegetables and dumplings or a slow cooker function for meats.
Best rice cookers to consider
We talked to our experts about the difference between types of rice cookers, who should use them and how to shop for them. We also highlight their recommendations for the best rice cookers to buy.
All the experts we spoke to recommended the Japanese brand Zojirushi for rice cookers, and both Gomi and Lamn suggested this specific 5.5-cup model that they’ve been using for years. “It isn’t too expensive and has all the functions I need” including fast cooking, an option for brown rice and a steaming function, Lamn said.
This rice cooker uses the aforementioned fuzzy logic, in which the device itself makes small adjustments to cook the ideal rice. It also features an extended warming function that keeps rice warm for several hours, along with a reheating option, according to Zojirushi.
Lamn recommended this rice cooker from Tiger, a brand that Sakai also said is reliable and one she’s used for years. It features induction heating, which uses alternating electric current to heat up the entire inner pot. “The heat efficiency is very high and the whole kiln heats up evenly, so the rice cooks evenly,” said Lamn, adding that she notices the rice is “cooked soft and fluffy.”
This model features a 5.5-cup capacity, a large inner pot with a nonstick ceramic coating and a warming function that keeps rice hot for up to 24 hours, according to the brand. You’ll also find settings to cook different types of rice and grains, including porridge, brown rice and multigrain rice, along with a slow cooking option.
Gomi described this rice cooker from Panasonic as “stylish with great function” — it lets you properly cook quinoa, porridge, sticky rice, brown rice, frozen rice and more. The warm setting automatically activates when cooking is done and keeps the contents warm for up to 12 hours, according to Panasonic. This model also features induction heating to cook rice evenly, and the durable seven-layer inner pot is both nonstick and heat-efficient, according to the brand.
Aroma makes rice cookers that are typically “less expensive and [more] basic” than other high-tech brands, but they are still capable of making good rice, according to Makiko Itoh, the creator of Japanese cooking site Just Hungry and author of “The Just Bento Cookbook.” This 8-cup model includes a user-friendly display with eight presets, including brown rice, quinoa, slow cook and oatmeal. It comes with a steam tray that fits toward the top of the device that lets you steam food and vegetables while simultaneously cooking below inside the pot. The sauté-then-simmer function also lets you cook food at a high heat then automatically switches to simmer mode once you add liquid.
Gomi said that she is a fan of Toshiba’s high-quality rice cookers. She specifically recommended this 6-cup rice cooker from the brand, which includes seven pre-programmed settings to cook multiple kinds of rice, including white, long grain and brown rice, as well as quinoa, oatmeal and porridge. It features two programmable delay functions that let you set a timer for whenever you want your ingredients to be cooked and ready, according to the brand. It also includes a quick-cook function that Toshiba says can ready rice in 30 minutes.
The Black & Decker RC3406 Rice Cooker and Steamer, which Itoh noted is “basic but capable,” can hold up to 3 cups of dry rice and equips just one button to cook it. Included with this rice cooker is a measuring cup, a rice paddle (a large flat spoon to stir and serve rice) and a plastic steamer basket. The indicator lights let you know when the rice is cooking and when it’s warm, while the tempered glass lid features a steam vent and handles on the top and the sides.
While the original Instant Pot already has a basic rice cooker option, the Instant Pot Zest — recommended by Gomi — is specifically designed to function as a rice cooker, complete with four smart programs that let you cook white and brown rice, quinoa and oatmeal. It also features a steam option for conveniently steaming vegetables, fish and more using the included dishwasher-safe steamer tray. It can make up to 8 cups of rice (or 4 cups uncooked).
How to shop for a rice cooker
Experts told us that the best rice cooker for you will depend on how you’re planning to use it and how often. Below are some of the main features that experts recommended considering when looking into which rice cooker to purchase.
The ideal capacity of your rice cooker depends on your planned meals, how often you eat rice and how many people you’re hoping to feed. According to the experts we consulted, rice cooker capacities can range from 3 cups up to 10 cups. Both Sakai and Gomi recommended a 5-cup model for families of four. The 3-cup option can work well if you’re a single student or a family that “only occasionally eats rice,” said Sakai. Larger families, as well as those who typically use rice as the main element of their meals, can likely benefit from a 7- or 10-cup rice cooker.
Like we previously mentioned, a rice cooker can have multiple functions to cook various types of rice, grains and other foods.
One especially useful feature to look for is a timer function, which can be great for people who want to start their meal prep early, according to Itoh. This function lets you place rice and water in the pot in advance and set a timer for when you want the rice to be done. Itoh noted some people also like the "keep warm" function, which will keep cooked rice hot until it's ready to eat.
Ease of use
While rice cookers with multiple functions can be great on the cooking front, more buttons and functions can be tricky to figure out at first. If you’re someone who occasionally eats rice and you aren’t looking for the bells and whistles of a smart rice cooker, the simple design of a conventional cooker — which typically just features a few labeled buttons — can really be all you need.
Cleaning a rice cooker is much easier than cleaning after cooking rice on a stovetop pot, since the rice doesn’t usually stick to the bottom. However, some affordable models can be tougher to clean, according to Gomi. Sakai said it's important to be gentle when cleaning a rice cooker pot with soap and water so as to not scratch the inner pot of the rice cooker. Similarly, she recommended rinsing the rice outside of the rice cooker — preferably using a colander — to avoid unsightly scratches. (If you do scratch the pot or if it has wear and tear after years of use, rice cooker inner pots are easy to replace and can cost less than $100, Sakai said.)
Another useful feature is the time it takes for a rice cooker to actually cook the rice. The experts we spoke to noted that different models will vary in terms of cooking time — some will cook rice in as little as 20 minutes, while others (typically the more high-tech options) may take 10 to 25 minutes longer to cook rice to a perfect consistency. Different types of rice will also vary in the time they'll take to cook. You should always refer to the device’s user manual to determine how long your ingredients will take to cook.