Rice is one of the most widely consumed grains in the world and a staple food in many cultures. And 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.
“Rice is a staple in Asian cuisine and a common denominator in all Asian cultures,” said Sherman Yeung, the executive chef and owner of Tobiuo Sushi & Bar in Katy, Texas, and Money Cat in Houston. “It’s nice to see others taking a greater interest in properly cooking [it].”
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 helps you make 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 to cook grains like quinoa and oatmeal or even steam 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 highlighted some of their favorite rice cookers.
What 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, and the electric cooker we typically see today followed shortly after — it was introduced by Zojirushi in 1965 and 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, versatility and efficiency.
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.” Here in the U.S., she said rice cookers are starting to become just as popular. “[I’ve noticed that] the American palate is evolving and accepting more Asian cooking,” she noted.
A rice cooker completely controls the cooking process, meaning it can give you some flexibility to leave the room while your rice cooks. “You program it, press the button and walk away,” Sakai noted. She added that unlike cooking rice in a pot, you’re more likely to get the same ideal result every time with a rice cooker.
“When I was in college, I had a rice cooker that had only one button and it did a pretty good job. Now they have all the bells and whistles. They want to pressure cook the rice in … the traditional way” she said.
Conventional versus smart rice cookers
The experts we spoke to separated rice cookers into two main categories: conventional cookers and smart, computerized 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 — some have 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. Although 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.
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 counter space 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
Below, we highlighted both expert-recommended rice cookers as well as highly rated options aligned with expert guidance. All of the rice cookers we recommend have a Keep Warm function, per expert guidance.
All the experts we spoke to recommended the Japanese brand Zojirushi for rice cookers, and Yeung suggested this specific 5 1/2-cup model that he’s been using for years. “Zojirushi — or ‘little elephant’ — is unanimously the most popular rice cooker among all the Asians I know,” he said. This model features an extended warming function that keeps rice warm for several hours along with a reheating option. It also uses its own “logic” to make small adjustments to cook the ideal rice, according to the brand.
Yeung and Sakai agreed that Tiger makes reliable products. This rice cooker features induction heating, which uses alternating electric current to heat up the entire inner pot for even cooking, according to the brand. It has a 5 1/2-cup capacity, a large inner pot with a nonstick ceramic coating and a warming function that keeps rice hot for up to 24 hours, Tiger says. 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.
This rice cooker from Panasonic 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 the brand. This model also features induction heating to cook rice evenly, and the durable seven-layer inner pot is both nonstick and heat-efficient.
At less than $50, this Aroma rice cooker is more affordable than other high-tech brands but still capable of making good rice. 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 to steam food and vegetables while simultaneously cooking 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. When you’re done cooking, it automatically switches to Keep Warm mode, the brand says.
This 6-cup rice cooker from Toshiba includes seven pre-programmed settings to cook multiple kinds of 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 deliver hot steaming rice in 30 minutes.
Although not as robust, our experts say the simple, easy-to-use Black & Decker Rice Cooker and Steamer is more than capable of delivering a great batch of rice. It cooks up to 6 cups of rice and equips just one button to cook it. Included 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 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, according to the brand.
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. Sakai recommended a 5-cup model for families of four and said a 3-cup option can work well if you’re a single student or a family that “only occasionally eats rice.” 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.
According to Yeung, one of the most important features of any rice cooker is the Keep Warm function. “This is particularly handy if you are cooking for a large group and need to safely maintain your rice at a consistent, warm temperature for a long period of time,” he said. If your rice ever becomes dry, Yeung said you can “place a damp paper towel over [it] and reheat it.”
Another especially useful feature to look for is a timer function, which can be great for people who want to start their meal prep early, Sakai said. 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.
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. 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.