Move over Instant Pot: The rice cooker is having a renaissance

Sales of rice cookers are surging — here's why you need one in your kitchen too

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 17, 2024 12:00PM (EST)

Mother and daughter preparing food in the kitchen with rice cooker (Getty Images/Edwin Tan)
Mother and daughter preparing food in the kitchen with rice cooker (Getty Images/Edwin Tan)

I have in my lifetime in the kitchen regifted not one but two Instant Pots. I have let go of a salad spinner, a bread maker and an oversized ice cream maker. Because I have a kitchen that is short on a space and a lifestyle that is short on time, my appliances either prove themselves indispensable or they're gone. So I stand by the Vitamix, the Crock Pot, the KitchenAid stand mixer, the Lodge cast iron skillets. And then there's my rice cooker. It has one button. It does not sync to any app. It cost $25, and it's easily the best investment of my cooking life.

I got my first rice cooker thirty years ago, after a dinner at the home of a Japanese friend. The way she calmly bustled about her kitchen while the rice just... took care of itself was revelatory to me, a person who'd never met a pot of grains she couldn't burn. I wanted that level of effortless finesse in my own life, and as a broke young person, I was further incentivized by the low price tag. And when, decades later, my cheap Aroma rice cooker finally expired after serving me through literally thousands of meals, I immediately purchased the exact same small model for roughly the exact same price. It too has never let me down. My only nitpick is that phrase "rice cooker" doesn't begin to do this thing justice. This is far from some Alton Brown repelling unitasker.

Like my colleague Michael La Corte, I use my rice cooker to cook my morning oatmeal, preparing a stick-to-the-ribs breakfast for me while I shower or do yoga. I use it to cook lentils, quinoa, barley, farro and more. For dinner, I'll throw tender or finely sliced vegetables and some herbs or saffron threads on top, push a button, and then just sauté or roast a protein with some onions and garlic for a fast and simple meal. And when it's ready, the cooker switches to warming mode so I can get everything on the table with perfect timing. Sarah Johnson, an appliance expert at Big Air Fryers, likes that function about it too. "You can prep and make the rice, then set the rice cooker to keep it warm until it’s time to serve," she says. "And that time could be as long as 12 hours. You can make rice for lunch, leave it in the rice cooker on warm, then enjoy it for dinner too."

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For years, I regarded my rice cooker as something of a secret weapon, a clever tool that had remained largely unknown in the U.S. But all that's changed recently. In 2023, market research company NPD reported that rice cooker sales had spiked a surprising 34% in just one year. Calling it the "hot new kitchen appliance," thanks not just to their verstaibilty or changing demographics but to our collective "diminishing interest in low carbohydrate diets." Today, nearly 70 years after its invention in Japan, roughly 28% of American households have a rice cooker. What are the other 72% of you waiting for?

"I have to admit, it all started because I got myself a rice cooker."

"I got into rice cookers when I started living on my own," says Tim Lee, a restaurant owner and founder of Tim’s Coffee. "It's a no-brainer. As a cooking newbie, I began hunting for fancy, easy recipes for my rice cooker. That's when I saw its creative side. I began with simple dishes, like tuna rice. Soon, I was creating my own recipes. After mastering basic rice, experimenting becomes easy. That's how I turned into a recipe developer." Now, he says, "I rely on my rice cooker for all my meals. I have to admit, it all started because I got myself a rice cooker."

There are high end rice cookers that have a multitude of functions and play pretty songs, and  the possibilities with them are even more expansive. "Many rice cookers have a steaming tray or basket that allows you to steam vegetables, dumplings, fish, or other foods while the rice is cooking. This eliminates the need for a separate steamer and makes it convenient to prepare a complete meal in one appliance," says Robert Smith, a private chef with Culinary Collective Atl. "And he, notes, "Some have a slow cooking function, which allows you to slow cook stews, soups, or other dishes. A few high-end rice cookers have a baking function that allows you to bake cakes, bread, or other baked goods. This feature expands the versatility of the rice cooker beyond just cooking rice." 

In contrast, my rice cooker has no special settings — which is precisely a big part of why I love it. But it still intuitively cooks different grains perfectly, and with different liquids like water, broth and wine. (I haven't fully cracked the code for polenta or risotto, but have have achieved reasonable results with both.) I've never attempted to make bread or cake in my Aroma — though it can be done — because a) sticking something in the oven feels just as hands off and b) the Maillard reaction. For anything that can be boiled or steamed, however, my Aroma is my go-to.

"They taught us how to nail rice on a stovetop, but it's just not as good as the fluffy version that comes out of a rice cooker."

Of course, this includes rice. "For most people with busy schedules, it can be difficult to cook rice because it typically requires constant oversight," says Gene Kato, a James Beard Award nominated chef with the Boka Restaurant Group in Chicago. "A delicate blend of a crockpot and pressure cooker, the rice cooker is a great tool to use both professionally and as a home cook that results in consistently delicious, worry-free rice. With the rice cooker however, you can set it to cook for the length you want and then walk away. Also, it can keep it on a warm setting after cooking, so that stays nice and hot when you are ready to serve. Better yet, if your rice cooker has a timer, you can stew beef, pork belly, cook a whole chicken, etc. The possibilities are endless."

And Amy Hand, a contributing writer at The Skillful Cook, assures that the convenience doesn't come at the cost of flavor. "It's so easy to end up with under or overcooked rice when you're working on the stovetop, but with a ricecooker, all you need to do is wash your rice, add the rice, salt, and water to the cooker, and let it do its thing. At cooking school," she recalls, "they taught us how to nail rice on a stovetop, but it's just not as good as the fluffy version that comes out of a rice cooker."

After breaking my ankle recently, I've come to appreciate what a lifesaver a rice cooker (like my equally treasured slow cooker) can be for someone with limited mobility. And as I start the planning for a home renovation this year that will likely put our kitchen out commission for several weeks, there's a huge relief in knowing that I can get by without my oven for a little while. It's a classic for a reason, one that leaves all trendy gadgets and doodads in the dust. "Finally," says Amy Hand, "America is catching up to the possibilities of rice cookers that the whole continent of Asia has been talking about for decades." 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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