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Should you buy a budget rice cooker?

We tested rice cookers from Kmart, Target and Big W that all cost less than $35.

big_w_kmart_anko_and_target_budget_rice_cookers
Last updated: 31 August 2021
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Need to know

  • Rice cookers are becoming more popular worldwide – they free up hob space as well as helping you cook perfect rice, as they do so much automatically for you 
  • They range from basic models that just cook rice to fancy multi-program machines you can use to cook different grains and make everything from porridge to congee.
  • In our kitchen labs, we tested 23 rice cookers from brands including Sunbeam, Breville and Kambrook, ranging in price from $13 to $269.

Let's see a show of hands from those of you who find the absorption method of cooking rice elusive and utterly confounding. If you can't seem to find the equilibrium between soggy grains and a burnt saucepan, you may be a prime candidate to buy a rice cooker.

Although they're not the most expensive appliance around, the price of rice cookers still ranges anywhere from about $250 for a premium brand model, right down to a thrifty $13 for a budget option. So this raises the questions: what can the more expensive rice cookers do that the cheaper ones can't? And is it worth an extra couple of hundred dollars?

You don't need to spend big for decent performance

Our recent lab tests of rice cookers by CHOICE experts revealed some well-performing models at both ends of the price scale. When it comes to more frugal options, they found four examples – from Big W, Kmart and Target – that scored relatively well and gave you change from a $50 note. 

If you are aware of the issues and don't feel they are a problem for you, then these models are worth considering, as they're all under $35

Fiona Mair, CHOICE kitchen expert

Although these aren't CHOICE-recommended products (CHOICE members can view the models we recommend here), they do represent value for money and even outperformed some more expensive models in a few of our tests.

There are definitely catches with these budget models, but CHOICE kitchen expert Fiona Mair says, "If you are aware of the issues and don't feel they are a problem for you, then these models are worth considering, as they're all under $35."

How we test rice cookers

We choose popular rice cookers from a variety of brands and put them through their paces in our test kitchen. As rice cookers all share the prime function of cooking rice well, that's exactly what we look for, using both brown and white rice. The grains should be firm (with brown rice having a slightly chewier texture), not mushy, and remain separate. 

We also look at how easy the appliance is to use, store, clean and disassemble. If a rice cooker comes with specific settings for functions such as risotto or congee, we'll take those into account, too.

The 'change from $50' options…

From their tests, our CHOICE experts recommended two budget rice cookers, one costing $80 and the other $50. But they also tested four options for $35 or less:

"Although they are very basic rice cookers and cook small amounts of rice, they are inexpensive and relatively easy to use," says Fiona.

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The Kmart rice cooker costs just $13, which is the cheapest model we tested. It has some shortcomings but may be worth a look. Image credit: Kmart.

Kmart rice cooker

Let's start with the $13 Kmart rice cooker, which demands the lowest investment for well-cooked rice. But, as its price suggests, this small, seven-cup capacity device is a no-frills affair. 

The settings, although easy to use, are basic. It doesn't suction to the bench and can slide easily. The surface of the cooker can also become dangerously hot. And there's no audible beep when your rice is ready. 

Still, for such a small price tag, you may be willing to forgive these issues for rice at the touch of a button.

target_essentials_rice_cooker

The Target rice cooker is just $18 and outperforms some more expensive, big-brand models on cooking jasmine rice.

Target rice cooker

Next up the notch on the price tag is the Target model, which looks almost identical to its Kmart counterpart. It's also small in size (two litres) and doesn't beep when it's finished. But of these cheap machines, it does the best job of cooking jasmine rice, even outperforming more expensive, big brand models for this task.

Big W rice cookers

Next up is Big W, which sells two rice cookers, one for $13 and another, larger 10-cup-capacity model for $35, which is the most expensive of our frugal picks. But, as CHOICE testing so often shows, more expensive doesn't always mean better.

If you really only want to spend $13, our testers point to the Kmart counterpart as the better overall performer. The $13 Kmart rice cooker also has a slightly larger capacity, yielding seven to eight cups of cooked right, as opposed to five to five-and-a-half cups of cooked rice in the Big W version. 

And the larger $35 rice cooker from Big W? "We found that the $35 Big W model wasn't as good because the base browned when cooking brown rice and the water level inside the bowl can be hard to view," says Fiona. 

As CHOICE testing so often shows, more expensive doesn't always mean better

As with the Kmart model, it also became dangerously hot. It is a little larger, though, with a 10-cup capacity.

"With all three models, we found that they can bubble up over the glass lid and starchy water can splatter onto the bench," says Fiona. 

Aside from being irritating, this also makes the glass lid difficult to clean. And although each of these models automatically sets to warm once the rice has finished cooking, that's not always a good thing, as Fiona says this can overcook the rice.

big_w_contempo_rice_cooker_with_steamer_10_cups

Big W sells two different rice cookers with different capacities. They were the least impressive of our budget options. Image credit: Big W.

What they do and don't do

You can expect your budget rice cooker to cook near (but not quite) perfect rice. Other more expensive models in our tests received a 100 per cent success rate in this singular function. If you're OK with good, but not best-ever, then these cookers are great. 

But spending less also means you're likely to be sacrificing multi-functionality, detailed electronic displays, and all-round sturdier construction with better safety.

Things to consider before buying a cheaper model

The temptation to serve up delightfully fluffy rice each time may be enough to send you running to the check-out with your thrifty rice cooker, but before you scan, consider how much you really need it. After all, it's just another appliance on your benchtop and if you're not an avid rice eater or you have a large family, these small machines don't necessarily provide bang for your buck.

Do you really need it?

It may also not be what you need. These simple models cook rice, that's it. If you're looking for something to assist in making risotto, porridge or congee, you'd be better off spending more and choosing a model with pre-programmed settings. Take a look at our rice cooker reviews to find the best fit for you.

Is it realistically repairable?

As with every purchase you make, it's prudent to be a responsible consumer and consider the environment. Cheaper models may be destined for landfill much sooner, rather than lasting for decades. It's likely that any cost to repair or replace parts of a cheap, broken cooker would be more expensive than the initial purchase. 

CHOICE experts don't test for longevity, but common sense dictates that cheaply made appliances will reach the end of their lifespan quicker, especially if you're careless with them. 

Are you willing to look after it?

"If you're overloading the bowl and don't maintain your rice cooker (for example, if it boils over inside the unit) and you don't clean it after each use, it's possible it won't last the year," warns Fiona.

Still, for avid rice eaters, these little units can be a real time saver. 

"For families who cook rice regularly, this is a must," says Fiona. "But if you only occasionally cook rice, try the absorption method on your stove, or if your microwave has a sensor rice function, use it – the results are perfect."

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE