A friend of mine I'm getting an apartment with next year said that we should invest in a rice cooker. I'm fairly adept in the kitchen and don't come from a family that uses a rice cooker so I would default to cooking rice in a pot. He seemed to think that he would buy a rice cooker only for the convenience of cooking rice without worrying about it. Is convenience the only reason? Is it worth it to buy one for the other things (not rice) you can cook in it?
I come from a culture where rice is our staple and I have a rice cooker. Here are some of the advantages from my perspective:
- Rice is perfect everytime – not stuck to the bottom, not watery, not mushy and stuck together, etc.
- If you make rice in a pot, and the heat is too high, it will boil and spill over creating a mess.
- You can switch the rice cooker on and go do other things, whereas it is dangerous to walk away from a stove.
- The rice cooker can be used for other things such as cooking lentils and steaming vegetables.
- Rice cookers are cheap.
We have recently bought one. I would not buy one again, even if they are cheap.
- They take up room, especially in a small kitchen.
- They cannot do anything a normal pot of water and some heat can't.
- Rice is easy to cook, it might be easier to cook in a rice-cooker, but not that much that you really need an entire machine dedicated to it.
Is it worth it for things besides rice? Really depends on what you cook. It definitely can be worth it for the steaming. If you're inclined to cook rice with a bit of steamed something frequently, it's much easier than cooking rice in a pot and separately steaming things.
As for rice, I don't think it's just convenience for rice. While you can certainly make good rice in a pot, I think it takes a bit of care to get it as good as a rice cooker will, especially short/medium-grain rice, to the point that often it'll be a bit off - a bit stuck on the bottom, or not quite the right moisture level left. And as Jolenealaska mentioned, it can keep the rice warm for you; good luck with that on the stove.
In the end I think it really comes down to what kind of food you cook, and how often. If you're eating every meal with rice, the convenience alone is worth it. (Of course, if you eat every meal with rice, there's a good chance you already have a rice cooker and have never known any other way to cook rice.) If you just cook rice occasionally, you're not too excited about steamed vegetables, and your kitchen space is limited, maybe not.
Years ago, one of my roommates had a rice cooker.
Even if you only use it for rice and not as a multi-tasker, it's very convenient. If you regularly cook rice (once a week or more), a low-end rice-cooker is a good investment. If you're cooking rice almost every night, then a high-end one may be a good investment.
If you have difficulty cooking rice (it's too gummy, always stays hard, occassionally burns to the bottom of the pot), then a low-end one may still be a good investment, as it makes cooking rice near idiot proof. (it was a good buy for Billy, because he was half blind, so he could just dump things in and forget about it)
All that being said, I don't own one ... but I've thought about it. I'm really waiting 'til someone makes the smart crock-pot that has a rice / steamer insert. (you can't use the crock as it retains too much heat so the 'smart' logic wouldn't work ... but the rice cooker smarts might help reduce the odds of a slow cooker boiling dry)
I view a rice cooker as a sort of high powered crock pot, though not as powerful as a pressure cooker. If you don't mind spending a little more money and want to cook more things easily, I would recommend a pressure cooker over a rice cooker. That said, you can still cook MANY things in a rice cooker with little effort (including pasta) by following pre-existing recipes (available online or in specialized cook books) or simply with a little ingenuity/creativity. People have tried just about anything, even cakes and cobblers made in a rice cooker, and some of the best chilis and casseroles I have ever had was actually made very quickly in a rice cooker. If you have room for one, and $20-$40, I would highly recommend getting a rice cooker for easy cooking of almost anything that you wouldn't want to dry out during cooking.
To add to what has already been said by other posters, an advantage to using a rice cooker for cooking rice is that during the warm cycle the appliance also keeps the moisture level of the rice balanced.
If you have ever tried keeping rice warm on a stove before when guests were running late for dinner, and within about 15 minutes, it started to dry out - you may also know that adding water to a pan cooked rice and stirring it also risks making it mushy.
However, a rice cooker will keep it warm AND evenly hydrated for a long period, though you will usually want to open the rice cooker about every half hour after it is down cooking to gently stir the rice (use a wide flat plastic spatula - many cookers come with one designed for this) - the stirring prevents the rice from burning on the bottom. This not just less effort to maintain cooked rice before it is eaten, but also is more effective.
Some people will find a rice cooker to be essential, others won't.
If you get one, get a programmable one. This feature allows you to set the rice to cook at a later time. The cheaper ones cook the rice and then keep warm. The more expensive ones wait to start cooking until you tell it to, and then keep the rice warm.
If you arrive home shortly before dinner, it allows you to have rice ready and waiting (to pair with something in the slow cooker or with something that cooks quickly). Or if you are home with young kids, you can "cook dinner" during their afternoon naps and you won't have to juggle 20 things right before dinner.
If you have very young children, it gives you reliability without babysitting the stove. For example, if your potty training child suddenly has to go and then spends 17 minutes of your time in the bathroom, you won't have to leave the pot or have burned rice.
You can try setting the pot at night and eating rice with furikake for breakfast, making extra rice for a lunchtime bento box or onigiri.
Or you can make rice overnight to take in your bento lunchbox, and eat whatever for breakfast. Bulk rice is cheap, and bringing a lunch is often cheaper than buying. Cold cuts now are known to up cancer rates.
If you have a small stove or a big party, it frees up a burner.
It allows you to leave the kitchen to jog, do yard work, play with kids, help with homework, do your own homework, etc.
It increases your chances of getting good results if you make 2-3 times more rice as usual.
If you need your rice to have a particular consistency (sticky for sushi) your chances are higher.
My girlfriend is of chinese descent and she brought a rice cooker to the mix when we moved in. At the time it would never cross my mind that i needed yet another one-use cooking contraption but I have to say now that i'd probably by one if we spit up! It makes perfect no hassle rice each time and I can go off jogging while it does it's thing and it doesn't matter if I'm a bit later than planned. I can put double the amount in to make enough for lunch and it makes perfect sushi rice. You can certainly do without it, and in reality you are unlikely to cook much beside rice in it but if you make rice once a week or more then i'd say you might find it useful. If you do get one, don't clean the bowl with detergent or abrasive - just warm water will do. This will keep the non-stick coating going for years.
I find that when using a rice cooker, it can also be used to steam vegetables, to be eaten as complements to the meal. For example, we would steam some carrots on a small, plastic-type "pan" of sorts that goes on top of the rice.
You may also find that eating rice can broaden up your food palate. It acts as a more easily "digestible" form of bread (controversial, I know, but somewhat true - rice doesn't feel as heavy in your stomach), and allows for the consumption of more "dishes", rather than set "meals" or frozen dinners, so to speak.
Perhaps a slightly unusual usage, but as well as rice, lentils and other veg you can also make rice cooker pancakes!
I've never actually done this but apparently they turn out quite well and are super easy to make.
We lived in Japan and bought a rice cooker. Used it weekly in the US and it lasted 25 years of use. Fast forward to today and WOW have rice cookers changed. I bought the Zojirushi NS-WAC10-WD on eBay for $50 including shipping, and love the timer feature to have rice ready when you want it. Although I've only used it for rice, there are plenty of cookbooks out there to use your cooker for other things. They come with handles to take with you. Happy to have it!
My wife is a stay-at-home mom. She uses the rice cooker to cook rice as well as other grains such as barley, quinoa, wheat berries, and amaranth. It is nice for her because she can add the grain and water, then push the button and go play with the kids. Once it's done cooking, it keeps it warm until lunch time, without burning it.
I cook rice every day using the pot-in-pot method in my pressure cooker. It turns out fluffy perfect rice every time. Because my pressure cooker is small (I should have purchased a larger one), I can only do relatively small batches - say, two cups of uncooked rice in a pot that fits inside the pressure cooker. If I were only ever to make rice in that quantity or less, I would get a pressure cooker instead and use that to cook rice. The pressure cooker can be used for a ton of other things, like cooking up tough, cheap meat fast.
I also have a rice cooker that I bought because I sometimes have to cook much larger quantities of rice. Not all rice cookers are the same. Mine is programmable for cooking up rice, congee/porridge, soup, cake, steaming vegetables, and a bunch of other things. You can make cake in it, steam bread, make stews or curries, basically use it like a slow-cooker. I use it a lot for making soup - toss the ingredients in and walk away for 45 minutes to an hour - it requires absolutely no attention from me at all. It also has a ceramic-coated pot, so it cleans up very nicely.
I would suggest evaluating what you need. It might be that a pressure cooker would work far better.
I agree with many of the other answers given here. There's a lot of good reasons to get a rice cooker. Here's one more: If you add a temperature controller to an old style (not digital) rice cooker, you have a great way to get started with sous vide cooking! If you search the Internet for "sous vide rice cooker," you'll find a lot of information on how to buy or build the temperature controller.
If you go this route, try to get one of the larger rice cookers. I've been using mine for sous vide for close to three years now, and it's working great! Plus, it still makes excellent rice.