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I think I can best explain the question by using a computer analogy. When buying a laptop there are specific qualities that a person looks for like

  1. Processor speed
  2. Screen size
  3. Amount of memory

What are the qualities to look for with a rice cooker?

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size? a long enough cord to reach where you need to plug it in? –  Joe Mar 2 '11 at 16:50
    
normal size ~4 people –  O.O Mar 2 '11 at 16:56
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2 Answers 2

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Volume

Volume is usually the primarily advertised statistic for rice cookers. This indicates the volume of cooked rice that can be prepared in one cycle. Common sizes include 5.5 cups and 10 cups. 5.5 cups is completely adequate for a family of five people for a single meal.

Bowl quality

Bowls in entry-level models are typically aluminum. Higher end models will be stainless steel. The same heating properties present in pans are relevant here. Aluminum heats quickly, and unevenly. Steel provides a more even heat.

Also of concern is the interior of the bowl. Nearly all bowls have a non-stick coating of varying quality. I've seen the coating start to flake off within a handful of uses on the cheaper rice makers. Higher end bowls can have a durable coating that lasts years or longer.

Cooking logic

The simplest and cheapest rice makers will have basic static logic. You put rice in, push a button, and the logic simply applies X amount of heat for Y minutes.

Higher end models also have additional functions including:

  • Presets for multiple varieties of rice
  • Delayed/scheduled cooking (like a slow cooker)
  • Keep warm functionality
  • Digital displays
  • Elapsed/remaining time displayed
  • Dynamic monitoring and adjustment of temperature/humidity

Cooking/Heating method

Most rice makers use a simple coiled electric heating element located under the bowl. This is a major cause of overcooked/browned/burnt parts where the rice contacts the heated area. This is exacerbated by cheaper aluminum bowls.

Higher end rice makers use induction heating. Induction is a rapidly alternating magnetic field which uses the entire bowl as the heating element. This heats much more evenly and is far less likely (almost impossible) to burn the rice.

The highest end rice makers add pressure cooking capabilities. Pressure cooked rice purportedly is softer, and retains softness longer than regular cooked rice.

Brand & price

This is probably the most important. In my experience, you actually get what you pay for. Without fail every American brand rice maker (presumably made in China) I've used has been atrocious. The most positive thing I can say about one is "it worked great for the first batch".

There is one Japanese manufacturer that stands out from the pack: Zojirushi. I cannot overstate how amazing their product is. It literally just works, every time. I received the Zojirushi NP-HBC10 5-1/2-Cup Rice Cooker and Warmer with Induction Heating System as a gift over two years ago. I have used the hell out of this thing and have never had a less than perfect batch of rice.

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@mgb: Cool, I learned something new. –  hobodave Mar 4 '11 at 3:12
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I was wrong it - uses temperature. When all the water is gone the temperature will rise quickly, it senses this and reduces power to the heater –  Martin Beckett Nov 12 '12 at 2:31
    
That temperature sensor makes my Panasonic DE-102 great for cooking down onions for soup. On 'quick cook' the unit'll stay on just until the onions are lightly carmelized. (add a little oil, cycle 2X..., perfection without constant vigilance) –  Wayfaring Stranger Jan 29 '13 at 3:57
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@MartinBeckett is correct. You know the little springy thing in the bottom? That's the thermostat; it gets pressed against the base of the bowl for better conductivity. The rest is simple physics: boiling water is an endothermic process—it absorbs heat (known as the latent heat of vaporisation)—so the temperature remains at boiling point. Once the water has evaporated, the heat is no longer absorbed and the temperature will spike. –  Jordan Gray Jan 29 '13 at 16:34
    
Aluminium does heat evenly. Thin aluminium can warp causing differences in evenness but rice cookers have water conducting heat between aluminium and rice so this is negligible. –  Sammy Spets Jan 25 at 8:08
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I don't own a rice cooker, but here are the questions I would ask before investing in one. (This is probably a partial list, and I welcome suggestions.)

  1. How much rice will it make?
  2. How long does it take?
  3. How much counter space does it take up?
  4. Can it be used for cooking anything other than rice? (I think some rice cookers have steamer inserts to allow cooking other things, but I'm not sure of that.)
  5. How do I clean it? Can it be put in the dishwasher, or do I have to do it by hand? How much work will it take to clean it?
  6. Can you delay the start of the cooking? (If I'm making something else that takes an hour to cook, I'd like to be able to set the rice up in advance so that it's finished when the other items are.)
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