If you know how to boil water, you can cook rice. That's the theory, at least. You still have to watch over it, adjusting the heat and turning it off in time to make sure the pot doesn't boil over or burn.
An automatic rice cooker makes the whole job worry-free. If you can measure, you can make perfect rice -- every time. This is a boon even for good cooks, who after turning on the cooker are free to focus on the parts of the meal where no machine could take over.
At the push of a button or flip of a switch, the rice cooker will monitor itself, noting its temperature and, in some high-tech cases, use fuzzy logic to adjust its own settings.
Many of today's rice cookers are like microcomputers, with smart heating systems, preset options that guarantee hot rice at a certain time, steaming trays that make it possible to cook an entire meal in one appliance and settings for different types of grains, including brown rice.
Most also have an automatic warming feature, which is a nice bonus; even with the lowest of flames, you'd be hard-pressed to keep rice warm on the stove without getting a thick crust at the bottom.
Considering the wide price range in rice cookers, how often you eat rice is a good gauge of how much you should spend on a rice cooker.
We tested several models, from a $30 Oster to a $260 Zojirushi. Each comes with its own measuring cup (slightly smaller than a standard cup), which should be used for the best results. That's because it often corresponds with the water lines marked in the pot. You put two cups of dry rice into the pot, for example, then pour in enough water to the "2" line. The cooking pots are removable and nonstick, so cleanup is a cinch.
At its simplest, a rice cooker works via a thermostat. Inside the center of the heating plate is a small thermal sensing device on a spring. When rice and water are placed in the cooking pot, which goes into the rice cooker, the weight of the pot depresses the thermal sensor.
Switch on the rice cooker and an electric coil warms up the heating plate and brings the water to a boil. Once the rice has absorbed all the water, the temperature will begin to rise past 212 degrees (the boiling point of water). When the thermal sensor senses this, the system turns off the heat and switches to the "keep warm" cycle.
In more advanced models that have computer chips, the rice cooker, instead of simply reacting to the temperature, regulates it depending on what program is selected. And cookers that use fuzzy logic do what a real cook does, adjusting the heat throughout the cooking as it takes into account the volume of rice (which it senses by the weight of the pot) and the type of rice (which the cook has indicated in the setting).
One cooker we tested uses the latest technology, induction heating. Instead of direct heat, electrical currents create electromagnetic waves to heat the pot quickly and evenly.
We followed each manufacturer's instructions, testing each cooker with three types of rice: long-grain jasmine, medium-grain white and medium-grain brown. Some of the cookers had special brown rice settings; others didn't. The brown rice results in those that didn't have a special setting were dismal: The rice was overcooked and gummy, and there was a lot of spattering and overflow from the steam vents, creating a starchy mess.
The best rice came from the two priciest models. Zojirushi's Neuro Fuzzy ($170) and IH ($260) produced equally excellent rice: tender-firm with a hint of sweetness.
But the Sanyo, at $110, offered better value. It performed almost as well and included features found on the more costly Zojirushi models.
For a basic rice cooker, the Oster is a bargain at $30. It performed well, but it doesn't have all the bells and whistles.
With preset timers and fuzzy logic, rice cookers have certainly come a long way since 1956, when the first automatic electric cookers were introduced in Japan. And it's likely to go even further.
One company, LG Electronics, is working on a cooker that will automatically measure, dispense and cook rice. It will have a built-in intelligence system that can be controlled by text-messaging, voice activation or a call from a cellphone, so you'll have hot rice ready when you get home even if you forgot to preset the cooker in the morning.
But we can wait -- we've got plenty of rice technology to play with right now.
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A leading name in rice cookers, Zojirushi has two models that got our attention: the new IH (NH-VBC18), top photo, and the Neuro Fuzzy (NS-ZCC18). Equipped with microchips, both use fuzzy logic, a technology meant to mimic human reasoning. That means these rice cookers monitor the cooking time based on settings you've chosen and regulate temperature accordingly. The primary distinction between them is that the IH uses an induction heating system and the Neuro Fuzzy uses a direct heating method. Both have a 10-cup capacity and a plastic exterior and can cook a minimum of one cup of dry rice.