The first commercial rice cooker was produced by Mitsubishi Corporation in Japan. It was a very basic aluminum pot fitted with a heating coil located on the bottom inside of the pan. There was no auto on-off feature and required the user to closely watch the rice and turn the unit off when cooking was complete.
A rice cooker can be used to cook rice, hot cereal, desserts and even steam vegetables and cook soups and stews. Not every rice cooker can perform every task so make sure you to select the right cooker for your needs.
The best quality rice cookers are still made in Japan. You can purchase less expensive machines made in other countries but you won't get the same amount of use out of them.
Rice cookers measure capacity by the cup and range from 3 cups to 10 cups. Don't buy a large unit than you need because the rice cooker is designed to operate properly with a specific amount of rice and water. You also want to avoid overfilling your cooker because it will cause it to boil over which is quite messy.
When you buy a rice cooker by Japanese manufactures, be aware that one Japanese cup is 200 ml in compared to one American cup is 240 ml. Save the plastic measure cup that comes with your rice cooker. If you use recipes that don't state if they are referring to "rice cooker cups", then you may need to adjust your recipes.
The average Japanese household uses a 5-cup capacity rice cooker.
Although there seem to be many options out there there are only a few basic types of cookers:
Cook and turn off - The rice cooks and the unit shuts off automatically. This is the least expensive yet highly flexible machine. There is no light that indicates the rice is done. The on/off switch flips to the "off" position when the rice is done. These basic cookers don't normally offer non-stick pans or steamer units but if all you want is "rice" they do a very good job. You can find these cookers for as little as $20.00.
The rice cooks, reduces the heat when the rice is done then maintains it at a "warm" temperature (duration varies). The way you shut these off is to unplug it. We find these cookers to be some of the most flexible at a reasonable price. Shop to find special features like non-stick pan, steamer baskets. Plan to spend $40 to $70.00.
A sensor in the unit keeps rice warm for up to 12 hours. These machines are more expensive but if your household eats a lot of rice all day long it is a worthwhile investment. Priced at $100 and up.
A very sophisticated machine with some great features like settings for soup or porridge, brown rice, rice texture (hard or soft) and even a sushi rice setting. These machines are great but very pricey and way more machine than the average US household would use. If you have a small budget then this is not the machine for you but if money is no object, get one! The least expensive model is about $170.00
If you don't have to pay a lot extra for it get a clear glass or clear plastic lid. Basic models come with a metal lid.
These features continue to advance with each generation of rice cooker. You'll probably find some more useful to you than others. Each feature may make a difference in the price of the unit so its best to familiarize yourself with each feature before choosing your cooker.
This was designed for making a popular Asian breakfast rice. You can use for breakfast cereals and other slow cooking recipes.
The reheat feature warms rice back to proper temperature in about 5 to 10 minutes and then maintains the heat.
The fuse will trip and prevent possible fires. This is important for an appliance you may leave on unattended.