Rice Cookers

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You need the simplest rice cooker made. It comes with two speeds: Cook, and Warm. Not expensive. Now you're all set to cook meals for the rest of your life on two square feet of counter space, plus a chopping block.

- Roger Ebert

Among the founding principles of Priceonomics are 1) help people do more more with less, and 2) Roger Ebert is an epic badass worthy of adulation. It’s not surprising then that we’re mildly obsessed with rice cookers. If you think rice cookers are just for making rice, then we have some very surprising news for you - rice cookers are not just for making rice.

Image credit: RogerEbert.com.

Rice cookers can be used to make delicious, complete, wholesome meals. Sure, you can make rice, but you can also make chicken, eggs, vegetables, cakes and just about anything else. Yep, in a rice cooker.

What’s so great about that? With a rice cooker, you can make great food without a kitchen. All you need is the cooker, a cutting board and a knife. For someone with few resources or wanting to live a more minimalist existence, the rice cooker is an intriguing proposition. Can the inexpensive rice cooker obviate the need for a kitchen that costs tens of thousands of dollars?

Rice Cooker as Minimalist Device?

To be sure, health problems now prevent me from eating. That has not discouraged my cooking. Now cooking is an exercise more pure, freed of biological compulsion.

- Roger Ebert

For most of his life, this author thought a rice cooker was perhaps the most boring of all kitchen appliances. Afterall, it’s a device that makes rice - that’s not interesting! Not only that, but it appears at first glance to be a single purpose device. Filling your kitchen with lots single purpose cooking devices is in violation of the minimalist existence the Priceonomics team finds attractive. Instead of getting a rice cooker, why not cook rice in a pot which can be used for many different things?

But after stumbling upon a blog post by Roger Ebert extolling the many virtues of a rice cooker, this author's belief that a rice cooker is boring and excessive was challenged. A rice cooker isn’t just a single purpose device, but actually, you can use it instead a pot, stove, oven, steamer and most of the expensive tools typically needed to produce a great hot meal.

Roger Ebert, movie critic and astoundingly good writer, has been cooking using the same rice cooker for 21 years. To him, single pot cooking using a rice cooker was a revelation of sorts, not too different from the first time you use an iPhone - it just works! Throw all the ingredients in a pot, add some spices and water and it cooks an awesome meal. Use it to make breakfast foods, soups, rice, chili, stews, desserts and even bread. The rice cooker - it has great apps!

How a Rice Cooker Works

How does the Pot know how long to cook the rice? It is a mystery of the Orient. Don't ask questions you don't need the answers to.

- Roger Ebert

A rice cooker makes it more difficult to mess up making rice properly. When making rice in a saucepan, you need the right amount of rice, water, heat and time. With a rice cooker, you just need the right amount of rice and water. Fewer things to mess up!

At its core, the rice cooker consists of a removable metal bowl, an electric heater and a thermostat. Add rice and water to the bowl, put the cover on and turn the device to “cook”. The rice cooker bring the water to its boiling point (100 degrees Celsius).

Only after all the water is either absorbed into the rice or evaporated, the temperature in the pot rises above 100 degrees Celsius and the thermostat signals that the rice is cooked. The rice cooker then switches from “Cook” mode to “Warm” mode and you can attend to it at your leisure. This is one of the biggest advantages of making rice in a cooker versus saucepan - you don’t have to monitor its progress to turn it off when it’s done.

So Can You Actually Make Good Food Using a Rice Cooker?

I am thinking of you, student in your dorm room. You, solitary writer, artist, musician, potter, plumber, builder, hermit. You, parents with kids. You, night watchman. You, obsessed computer programmer or weary web-worker.

- Roger Ebert

As it turns out, yes!

None of us "obsessed computer programmers" and "weary web workers" at Priceonomics had ever used a rice cooker before, let alone used it to cook a complete meal. We were, however, intrigued by the idea of throwing a bunch of raw food in a pot, pressing a button, and having it magically converted into delicious food.

We took a stroll over to the local Bed Bath & Beyond and picked up the cheapest rice cooker they had - the $20 Imusa 5-Cup Cooker. The online reviews of this thing were pretty terrible, but we could pick it up locally and it was cheap.

We scoured the web for some rice cooker recipes. To be honest, the rice cooker enthusiast community is a bit of a disorganized group and their recipes are very haphazardly written (typical recipe - take a bunch of stuff, throw it in the pot, trust us). Even Roger Ebert’s book on single pot meals were basically just his blog post plus some reader comments turned into a book (we, like this Amazon reviewer, don’t recommend you buy our idol's book).

We finally settled on adapting this recipe for Chicken and Fragrant Rice that was adapted from Ebert’s book (which was “adapted” from a comment on his blog). We picked it because it seemed like a filling, nutritious warm meal, and all the equipment you needed was a rice cooker, knife and cutting board. Since at Priceonomics we don’t have a knife or cutting board, the chicken and vegetables were chopped at this author’s home and then brought to work.

To feed our team, we added 3 “cups” of rice to the cooker (the “cup” that comes with the cooker is about 75% the size of a normal cup), 5 “cups” of water, 2 bouillon cubes, a dash of sesame oil and olive oil, and salt, pepper and some Indian achar (spicy relish) for seasoning. Then, we added one (of each, chopped up) carrot, green onion and tomato. Finally, one pound of chopped up chicken breast.

Raw chicken, veggies, and rice in the pot before turning it on. Hope this works!

Then, we flipped the switch to cook and went back to work. 45 minutes later it was done! We stirred the dish a bit, made sure the chicken was cooked, and added a bit more salt and achar for flavor and served it to the team.

Raw ingredients converted into food. Magic!

Here’s what we learned:

1. It was really good! The team generally had very positive things to say about the meal. It was filling and tasted good. In the particular, the rice was very pleasantly infused with flavor. This experiment went a lot better than our last team experiment of making homemade Diet Coke.

2. It was really cheap. The cost of ingredients for the whole meal feeding 4 people was about $12. The ingredients were bought at a pretty expensive corner grocery store and most of that cost was the chicken breast. One easily could get that cost 50% lower. Even the cost of the ingredients ($12) plus the rice cooker ($20) was less than the average daily cost of lunch for our team.

3. It was pretty easy. It still took some time to chop all the ingredients and make sure the right spices were on hand, but the cooking really was “set it and forget it”. Also, if the meal you made came out a little bland, just add more of your favorite sauce at the end and all of a sudden it tastes good. It’s an antifragile way of cooking! And cleaning was a breeze. Just wash the nonstick metal bowl (and your knife and cutting board).

So, what else can you make using a rice cooker?

The rice cooker was awesome for making a single pot grain, protein, and vegetable meal. As delicious as it was, we'd get pretty bored (and perhaps fat) eating variants of this meal all the time. If you commit to rice cooker cooking, are you stuck eating lots of heavy single pot rice-based meals? Actually, the good people of the internet have already figure out how to make almost anything using the rice cooker:

Rice Cooker Fritata for Breakfast

Image credit: Just Bento.

Rice Cooker Spaghetti and Meatballs for Lunch

Image credit: Food.com.

Rice Cooker Bread (we think?) for a Snack

Image credit: Just Bento.

Fancy Salmon & Eggs for a Dinner Date

Image credit: The New York Times.

And Rice Cooker Banana Bread for Dessert

Image credit: A Modern Girl.

Conclusion

You can make delicious full meals using just a rice cooker. Even the team at Priceonomics could do it and we’re crap cooks and have no cooking supplies in the office. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you don't have access to a kitchen, need to provide lunch for your entire startup for less than $12 a day, or want to do less work in the kitchen, a rice cooker is absolutely awesome for you.

The downside is that cooking in a rice cooker is a low fidelity way of cooking. By throwing everything into one pot, you lose the ability to cook the individual components in their most appropriate fashion. For example in our meal, the chicken would have tasted much better if it were cooked separately in a skillet. But that would have taken more work, so it’s a trade-off. And we don't have a skillet or stove in our office.

At Priceonomics, we’re always in search of what is the optimal food - what food gives you the maximum combination of taste and nutrition for the least amount of cost and time? If Soylent Green existed, we’d probably eat it. Until then, making nutritious, inexpensive meals in a dead simple way is an attractive option. The rice cooker is now a permanent addition to the Priceonomics office.

This post was written by Rohin Dhar. Follow him on Twitter here or on Google Plus. He's grateful he didn't give the team food poisoning. Get the latest from Priceonomics on Facebook or Twitter.