Who doesn't love rice? Versatile, healthy, cheap and filling, it's no wonder it's a staple on plates the world over.
And so it's not surprising that rice cookers, an appliance that helps you get perfectly fluffy grains every time, are an increasingly popular kitchen appliance. They free up hob space (and saucepans) and take any guesswork out of cooking rice – a process that can confound even capable cooks.
Rice cookers take any guesswork out of cooking rice – a process that can confound even capable cooks
Plus, they help you prepare your rice ahead of time with almost zero effort beyond adding grains and water (a good rice cooker will keep it warm until you're ready to serve, some for up to 12 hours). So no trying to juggle multiple kitchen tasks while you're stir-frying your veg or preparing a curry.
They're also great to help with meal prepping and batch-cooking, meaning you can use it to simply stock up on healthy meal bases for a week of work lunches or dinners that'll stop you resorting to expensive takeaways.
They cook more than just rice
If you're considering whether you have space in the kitchen cupboard for yet another appliance – albeit one that's definitely going to up the convenience factor of your meal prep – bear in mind that a rice cooker is handy for so much more than just cooking plain old rice.
Our experts delve into what you can cook in your rice cooker, from poached fruits to steamed veg and dhal, plus some ways to incorporate a rice cooker into your meal prep, and how to store and use up the leftovers safely.
1. Other grains such as quinoa, pearl barley and lentils
Basic rice cookers will cook all types of rice – brown, long grain, short grain, jasmine or basmati – but they can also be used to cook other grains such as quinoa, pearl barley and lentils.
Alternative grains can make a great substitution for standard rice to serve alongside your chilli con carne or stir-fry, and they're great to keep on hand as a nutritious and satisfying addition to salads, meatballs, stews or soups.
When cooking up a batch in your rice cooker, the key is to make sure the ratio of water to grain is correct. CHOICE kitchen expert Fiona Mair says: "Some rice cooker models will come with pre-set programs for other grains apart from rice, or recipe booklets that will give you the correct water-to-grain ratios to use if you're cooking something like lentils or quinoa.
Always use the supplied measuring cup to measure out the grain and follow the grading in the bowlCHOICE kitchen expert Fiona Mair
"If you have a more basic model that doesn't include these directions, follow the guidelines for cooking brown rice, as other grains usually require longer cooking times than standard white rice. Always use the supplied measuring cup to measure out the grain and follow the grading in the bowl to check how much water you're adding."
Rice cookers are also perfect for cooking alternative grains and pulses such as quinoa, lentils and pearl barley (pictured).
2. Steamed vegetables and fish
Some rice cookers come with a steaming tray or steaming basket that lets you steam everything from dumplings to vegetables, poultry or fish, meaning you could cook an entire meal using just one appliance (no hob or saucepan required!).
Steaming veg is a great way to lock in nutrients and moisture (and therefore flavour), so if you're guilty of over-boiling your greens until they go grey, bland and mushy, this could be your new kitchen hero.
CHOICE experts specify in our rice cooker reviews whether the rice cookers we've tested include a steamer tray or basket (although we don't specifically test their effectiveness).
If you're after a model that incorporates a steamer, Fiona advises: "The steamer basket is the same size as the diameter of the rice cooker bowl, so if you would like to steam large quantities of food while cooking your rice, then you may want to opt for a rice cooker with a larger capacity. Always refer to your manual for instructions on how to use your cooker for steaming."
OK, so it's not going to roll your maki for you, but some rice cookers come with a setting specifically for sushi rice which means you could be dishing up Japanese-style delicacies with even greater ease. With the ability to incorporate all sorts of flavours and textures, sushi is perfect for kids' lunchboxes, toddler snacks or light meals, and it's also fun to make.
The right consistency
One of the most important aspects of cooking sushi rice is getting the right consistency so it sticks together and is easy to shape, so a rice cooker with a sushi setting can ensure you get the best, consistent results.
Although we don't specifically test rice cookers on their sushi rice settings (also called sticky rice on some models), we have reviewed a few rice cookers that have this feature: the Breville Rice Box, the Breville Smart Rice Box and the Panasonic 10-cup rice cooker/warmer.
4. Porridge, congee, risotto or dhal
A multifunctional rice cooker will probably come with pre-programmed settings and perhaps a recipe booklet that can help you cook rice- or grain-based dishes such as congee or risotto (CHOICE's expert rice cooker reviews note whether each rice cooker has a specific program/setting for cooking porridge or congee).
If you have a basic rice cooker, you could also still use it to cook these types of dishes. But CHOICE kitchen expert Fiona advises that you should probably only do so if you don't have access to a cooktop and saucepan.
Using a basic rice cooker to cook dishes such as risotto, porridge, congee, polenta and dhal is possible, but this can take longer than it would be if you just did it on a cooktopCHOICE kitchen expert Fiona Mair
"Using a basic rice cooker to cook dishes such as risotto, porridge, congee, polenta and dhal is possible, but this can take longer than it would be if you just did it on a cooktop," she says.
"With these types of dishes, they must be stirred to allow for the creaminess to develop and so the rice or grains won't stick and burn on the bottom of the bowl. And, remember, you can't adjust the temperature in a basic rice cooker. Therefore, you need to take the lid off the cooker continuously to stir and check on the dish, which will increase the cooking time.
"Multifunctional rice cookers are more expensive, but they have sealed locking lids, timers with audible feedback and a more durable cooking bowl that can handle higher temperatures and vigorous stirring, so can be suitable for cooking a wide range of recipes."
5. Poached fruits and cake
Although we question whether you really need a rice cooker that's going to cook a cake for you (we prefer the good 'ol oven for that), it's definitely one of the more interesting items to include in an article about things you perhaps didn't know rice cookers could do!
Admittedly, your basic $13 Kmart rice cooker isn't going to help you turn out baked treats, but if you have a more sophisticated combination model, it's possible. And models with a steamer basket could definitely let you poach pears or apples for a quick and easy dessert or to add to your morning porridge.
Check the instructions and pre-programmed settings for your rice cooker to find out if your model is the cake-creating kind.
You can use up leftover rice to make things such as arancini or vegetable patties.
How to use your rice cooker for meal planning and prep
Anything that can lighten the load of meal planning or cooking for a busy family is welcome, and a rice cooker can certainly help. Not to mention that cooking extra food for leftovers or planning a few work lunches ahead of time can save you spending money on expensive takeaways, something we could all do with these days with the rising cost of living!
Here are some tips for using a rice cooker in your meal prep, including how to safely store and freeze rice:
- When cooking dinner, pop your rice in the cooker first so you can set and forget it, then get on with whatever you're making, so it's all ready at the same time. Win!
- Cook double the amount of rice, quinoa or lentils you need so you have enough for your evening meal and enough to use in a chilled grain salad the next day (add anything you like – tuna, spinach leaves, chopped chicken, capsicum, corn, herbs, tomato, cucumber, nuts and seeds, with a homemade dressing of lemon and olive oil, for example).
- Rice that has been cooked the previous day and refrigerated is perfect for fried rice, as it retains its texture well. Stir fry with garlic, ginger, soy and onion and add any veg or protein you like.
- Leftover risotto can be turned into arancini: form into balls, then coat with breadcrumbs and deep-fry until golden.
- If you have a steamer tray or basket, cook fish fillets while cooking brown rice or quinoa for a healthy dinner with minimal washing up or cleaning of the hob required! (Check your manual for cooking instructions.)
- Cook batches of quinoa or lentils to bulk out (and add extra nutrition to) meatballs, vegetable patties, soups or bolognese. Quinoa also freezes well if you have leftovers.
- Rice is a great blank canvas for so many dishes that are low-cost yet delicious. Although it's great as a partner for any meat or fish dishes, it's also equally satisfying when paired with some sauteed spinach, mushrooms and garlic, and perhaps a fried egg. A dash of chilli wouldn't go astray here either. A winning budget-friendly dinner!
How to store, freeze and reheat rice – safely
If you've cooked an extra batch of rice to use for meals later, first leave it to cool to room temperature. As soon as the rice is cooled, place into sealed containers in the fridge (it can be spread on a tray to cool more quickly). Cooked rice should be used within one to two days to prevent any bacteria growth. But if you would like to keep it for longer, it can be frozen for up to about a month.
Once it has cooled, portion it into freezer bags or plastic containers. When reheating in the microwave, add a little water (one teaspoon to one cup) to loosen up the grains and cover with plastic wrap or a plate so it steams and plumps up the grains.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.