When rice and water are placed in a basic rice cooker -- usually just an aluminum pot with a glass lid -- a thermostat turns on an electric coil, which heats the water to boiling. Once the rice has absorbed all the water, the temperature in the pot rises. A sensor detects this change and does one of two things: turns the heat off or lowers it to keep rice warm. More expensive rice cookers also have the ability to adjust the temperature via a computer chip, adjusting controls for various types of rice. These machines offer more precise cooking, but rice takes longer to cook. Many Americans prefer quicker cookers, and tests show these simpler, less expensive machines do a fine job. They make white rice in as few as 30 minutes and brown rice in 50 minutes, while fancier rice cookers average about 50 minutes for white rice and 1¾ hours for brown.
As a whole, we found fewer reviews of basic rice cookers than more expensive models. The 3.3-cup Panasonic SR-G06FG (*Est. $30) is an exception. It is the most basic of recommended models at MetaEfficient.com, a product review website. Editors say that it's a good choice for people who just want a simple, no-frills model for cooking white rice. It isn't recommended for brown rice, though. That's because editors say the machine can only handle brown rice that has been soaked for several hours prior to cooking.
The Panasonic rice cooker receives an above average rating of 4 out of 5 stars overall in more than 200 reviews posted to Amazon.com. This rice cooker yields enough rice to serve two or three adults. Owners say that it does a good job of making rice in about 35 minutes and is perfect for occasional use. It lacks a steamer basket and a warming function, and it isn't programmable, but owners who purchased this unit appreciate the simplicity. The Panasonic SR-G06FG has a glass lid, a nonstick pan and stay-cool handles. It also has a sleek, compact appearance, measuring just 8 inches in diameter.
Users say it provides good bang for the buck, though we did find some complaints. If it's completely filled, owners say, this rice cooker has a tendency to bubble over, and rice occasionally comes out crusty. This cooker has auto shut-off. Panasonic also makes a larger 10-cup model that functions in the same manner. The Panasonic SR-G18FG (*Est. $500) makes up to 20 cups of cooked rice and includes a steaming basket and a keep-warm function.
The Zojirushi NHS-10 Rice Cooker/Steamer (*Est. $55) is also a standout, though it's more expensive. It has a 6-serving capacity (its measuring cup equals about ¾ cup, so the yield is closer to 4½ cups), a warming function and a steaming basket for vegetables. As with other inexpensive glass-lid rice cookers, user reviews provide the best context for the Zojirushi NHS-10 rice cooker. It scores above average marks on both Amazon.com and Cooking.com, where it receives overall scores of 4 and 4.5 out of 5 stars, respectively, from nearly 200 users combined. Reviewers say this cooker does a better job with white rice than brown; we found several users complaining brown rice can clump on the bottom. Reviewers also note that with this cooker, rice should be rinsed first, and a minimum of 2 cups should be used per batch. But they say it's a great basic machine that offers easy cleanup, although the instruction manual is tricky to follow.
Zojirushi also makes two similar models -- the larger 10-cup Zojirushi NHS-18 (*Est. $65) and the smaller 3-cup Zojirushi NHS-06 (*Est. $45) . Reviewers' comments are similar for each, but neither model is reviewed as often as the Zojirushi NHS-10.
If you like to cook more than just white rice, reviewers say that the Sanyo ECJ-N55W (*Est. $50) cooks up tender and fluffy brown, white and sushi rice. Furthermore, the Sanyo has a steamer basket and an easy-to-understand instruction manual. The Sanyo ECJ-N55W can cook up to 5½ cups of raw rice. Professional reviewers give it high ratings, saying that it does an excellent job for the price, especially with brown rice. Experts warn, however, that while it does have a keep-warm function, it can dry out the rice if it's left on for more than a few hours. The Sanyo ECJ-N55W has also amassed dozens of reviews from users on Amazon.com, who give it an above average overall rating of 4 out of 5 stars. They say its performance in making rice is similar to much more expensive Sanyo models. However, Amazon.com users also add that this rice cooker can be messy to use and hard to clean.