Rice cookers make it easy to prepare consistently good rice.
To get the best-tasting rice, experts and consumers say a rice cooker is an essential upgrade from the stovetop. Some rice cookers are so simple all you have to do is pour rice and water into the cooker's pan, shut the lid and push a button. Other rice cookers use microprocessors or induction heating to cook a variety of rice types; still other rice cookers do double duty as steamers and slow cookers.
Rice cooker capacity can be expressed as uncooked or cooked measures. In general, one cup of dry rice yields two cups of cooked rice. A large rice cooker can have an upper yield of 20 or more cups of cooked rice; a small rice cooker may yield only three cups, meaning you start with 1.5 cups of uncooked rice. Also, keep in mind that when it comes to rice cookers, cups are smaller than standard U.S. measuring cups. They follow traditional Japanese rice-measuring conventions and hold about 6 ounces -- that's about three-fourths the size of a typical U.S. measuring cup.
Rice cookers have one of the widest price ranges of any countertop appliance, including pressure cookers and slow cookers, which we cover in separate reports. You can pick up a basic unit for white rice for around $30, or spend $400 or more for a high-end induction rice cooker.
Types of rice cookers
The best rice cookers can be simple or complex, but most of the top picks have a microprocessor, usually abbreviated as "micom," that allows for more precise heating and a variety of cooking options that take the guesswork out of preparing a wide variety of rice types. These units may also be referred to as "fuzzy logic" rice cookers, because the processor can adjust as it cooks to turn out the best rice possible. Micom rice cookers typically have a variety of settings so you can cook different types of rice, such as brown rice or rice for sushi.
However, if you do just want to stick to white rice, or don't see yourself using a rice cooker more than occasionally, a cheap rice cooker might be all you need. Cheap rice cookers are simple appliances: Add rice and water and push a button to start the heating process.
Induction rice cookers use an electrical current to warm the entire cooking bowl rather than a traditional heating element that warms only the bottom of the bowl. They cook much more evenly and can be fine-tuned to prepare even the most delicate rice types, experts say. They also cook faster than micom rice cookers, a plus for impatient cooks.
Rice cookers/steamers can do double duty: cook your rice in the pot below while meat, fish, or veggies steam in a tray above. These appliances are a convenient way to make a complete meal without dirtying multiple pots and pans. The more basic models might not give you as much control over your rice, however, since they may lack more specialized cooking modes.
Microwave rice cookers are microwaveable plastic bowls with vented lids that harness the power of your microwave -- no special appliance required. These are among the cheapest rice cookers you can buy, and they won't require a lot of storage space if you're in tight quarters. However, getting consistently good rice can take some experimenting.
How we chose the best rice cookers
Rice cookers haven't changed much in the past several years, and the same companies such as Zojirushi, Aroma, and Panasonic have remained dominant in the market. However, we found some good professional tests and roundups at TheSweethome.com, Techlicious.com, and Cook's Illustrated. Just as helpful for choosing the best rice cookers are the thousands of owner reviews at retail sites, such as Amazon.com. This owner input offers a fuller picture of how the rice cookers perform over time and fit into the users' busy lives. While evaluating these reviews we focus on ease of use, durability, features, and performance to choose the top rice cookers for your kitchen.
The best rice cookers
Experts and owners agree, the Zojirushi NS-ZCC10 Neuro Fuzzy Rice Cooker & Warmer (Est. $160) consistently cooks perfect rice at a friendlier price point than other fully featured rice cookers. It also earns raves for being easy to use and clean. Editors at one well-respected test kitchen praise its wide variety of menu settings, which include white (regular/sushi, softer or harder), mixed, porridge, sweet, semi-brown, brown, rinse-free and quick cooking.
Having rice ready to eat when you get home is simple with the use of the Zojirushi NS-ZCC10's programmable timer, then, if you're delayed, it will keep the rice warm for you without overcooking. Fine Cooking's Maryellen Driscoll is a fan of the Neuro's memory feature, which helps the cooker automatically cook your favorite type of rice to your taste. The ZCC10 measures 14 by 8 by 9 inches and accommodates 5½ cups of uncooked rice; yielding 10 to 11 cups cooked. There is also a 1.8-liter (10 cup) version that yields 20 cups of cooked rice.
If you want something a little sleeker than basic white, the Zojirushi NS-TSC10 Micom Rice Cooker (Est. $155) shares many of the pros of the Neuro, and is jazzed up with a brown stainless-steel finish. It also adds a steaming basket. The NS-TSC10 uses the same fuzzy logic technology to cook rice, and reviewers say it is equally easy to use. TheSweetHome.com's Tim Barribeau praises this rice cookers easy-to-read measurement markings and a particularly impressive keep-warm mode that will keep rice toasty for up to 24 hours. Added features such as a rice-paddle clip and retractable cord are also noted. The 1-liter NS-TSC10 is 14 by 10 by 8½ inches and has an uncooked capacity of 5½ cups. There is also a 1.8-liter (10 cup) version.
The NS-TSC10 also has a wide range of settings: white/sushi, mixed, porridge, sweet, brown, cake, steam, and quick cooking. Cake? Yes, that's not a typo -- you can bake cake inside this rice cooker. If you're very picky about your rice, however, note that it lacks a few of the more specialized settings of the Neuro, including softer or harder white rice and semi-brown rice. As for rice quality, owners say it delivers consistently soft, tasty grains. TheSweetHome.com testers offered more muted praise, noting a slightly burnt taste from brown rice cooked in the NS-TSC10.
Small rice cookers a good choice for simplicity, smaller portions
If you want to stick to the basics, the Oster CKSTRCMS65 6-Cup Rice Cooker (Est. $30) is a reliable, low-cost performer that makes enough for a typical family -- six cups is its total yield. It also comes with a steaming basket, which isn't always the case among cheap rice cookers.
Using the Oster is a simple affair, since it has one-button operation. When rice is done, a keep-warm setting automatically kicks in -- also a bonus at this price point. There are two lights to indicate which mode the rice cooker is in, and you'll hear a click when it switches over.
Despite its lack of fancy settings, experts say the Oster quickly produced tasty white and sushi rice. Owners echo that sentiment, with most saying it delivers impressively consistent results. However, a few say you're better off sticking to white rice, and others say they had problems with burnt or overly browned rice if they left the warm setting on for too long.
The Panasonic SR-3NA Automatic Rice Cooker (Est. $35) is even simpler to use than the Oster, with a smaller capacity and slightly smaller footprint -- perfect for a dorm room or small apartment. This unit has a 1½ cup (uncooked) capacity, turning out portions that are just the right size for one or two people.
There isn't much of a learning curve for the Panasonic SR-3NA, which features one-touch operation. After adding rice and water, press the lone button. Owners say cooking times vary, but anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes is standard for white rice. A red light indicates that the cooker is on; when it shuts off, the rice is ready. There is no keep-warm function or modes for different kinds of rice. A glass lid lets you keep tabs on your meal, and a nonstick aluminum insert removes for easy cleanup.
Reviewers say the Panasonic SR-3NA makes consistently good rice without unnecessarily fussy settings. They also like the small size, saying it cuts down on waste. However, a few complain that this rice cooker is too small and simple for the price, while others miss having an automatic warming option.
If you think the price tag on Panasonic's little rice cooker is still too big, the Black & Decker RC3303 (Est. $15) is another small-capacity workhorse at a very budget-friendly price. It shares the Panasonic's capacity (1½ cups uncooked, 3 cups cooked) and has an even smaller footprint.
The Black & Decker operates much the same as the Panasonic: Add your rice, add water, and press a button. Most rice takes 20 to 30 minutes to cook, though brown and wild rice can take up to an hour. A red "cook" light indicates that the unit is in use. After rice is done, a keep-warm mode automatically kicks in until you're ready to eat. Like the Panasonic, the Black & Decker has a glass lid and removable nonstick insert.
Reviewers say the Black & Decker is a good value for small families who want something that's very simple to use. Wired.com's Erin Biba says the Black & Decker is fine for occasional use and those who prefer white rice, but says "there was a lot of boil-over" when cooking less-absorbent brown rice. There are also a fair amount of durability complaints, with several users saying the unit stopped working after just a few uses.