(Updated January 30th, 2014.)
This might condemn me forever in the eyes of some, but honesty is important, so here goes: I can’t cook rice without a rice cooker. I’ve tried it, and done it — as recently as last summer! when a slow-cooker biryani recipe called for parboiled rice to be added part-way through the cook time. It never turns out badly when I make rice in a pot but it never becomes a background thought either. I need to remind myself not to forget about that lone pot on the back burner (yes, even if I have a timer set for it), lest the rice burn. I also find that the result tends to be soggier than I’m used to, and frankly I have no desire to experiment with minor water:rice ratio tweaks to figure it out. Why should I, when rice cooker manufacturers have done all of that for me, and with far more rigour and discipline than I ever would?
I still remember back in my university days when a friend, who was staying a block away from me in my hometown, called me around dinnertime and asked slightly frantically “Hey, how do you make rice??” I just stood there blankly for a minute before answering “You wash the rice, put in the same amount of water and hit go?” (Then it was his turn to go blank before he explained to me that he meant cook rice in a pot.) Needless to say, he gave up on my input and just asked the internet.
You can probably gather from all this that I’ve always had a rice cooker. From the somewhat fire-hazardly dragged-over-from-Hong-Kong cooker I used throughout university and in the early days of living with The Boy, to the $10 Canadian Tire one we “graduated” to when we moved (with Teflon!), I have pretty much never made rice in a pot. I’ve made white rice (tweaking the water ratio slightly for jasmine vs. basmati as I got used to my CT cooker), brown rice, sushi rice, all to a pretty tasty degree, and never felt guilty about my “single purpose” kitchen gadget*. I should point out that all of the rice cookers I’d used up to this point (including the one in my mom’s kitchen when I was still living at home) were the kind that only had two modes: “cook” and “keep warm”.
* I do have a sort-of horror of single-use items that take up a lot of space. Yet, I still own (and cherish) my ice cream maker, pasta roller, and waffle maker. Logic, it seems does not always apply.
This past Christmas, The Boy surprised me by giving me the extremely popular Zojirushi “neuro fuzzy” rice cooker. This was a cooker that I’d read about hundreds of times on various food blogs (especially bento-focused ones), kitchen reviews and Asian cooking sites, but would never in a million years have put on a wishlist. I mean, I love rice, and we eat it at least 3 times a week, but come on, a $200 rice cooker? Still, if KitchenAid holds the title for “The” stand-mixer everyone wants in their kitchen, then Zojirushi offers up this model as “The” programmable rice cooker for every home. (They also offer both fancier and less-fancy models, but none of them get as much press as the NS-ZCC10.)
After squealing delightedly and vanishing for 20 minutes to read the manual (possibly while cuddling the cooker), I asked him what inspired him to get it. The Boy informed me that he still remembered when we were first house-shopping, and had visited a house where it was obvious from their kitchen that the folks who lived there were Serious about their rice. I remember that place. They had this enormous canister that dispensed rice — a little like an office water cooler, but for rice instead — and they had the Zojirushi rice cooker parked squarely in what was clearly Its Spot on the counter near the dispenser. According to The Boy, I had immediately dismissed the house for us due to the kitchen layout, then sighed wistfully when my glance landed on the cooker. (The things your husband will remember, ladies!) He figured that since it still seemed to be “The” cooker, and given my love of rice and the fact that we now all grown up and such, it was probably time to graduate to the fancy rice cooker of my dreams.
I know, is he a catch or what? It probably sounds very unromantic (“Here honey, have a rice cooker!”), but I can’t tell you how stoked I was by my present!
That very afternoon (yes, Christmas Day; what?), I set up my shiny new cooker with a load of brown rice, and decided to test-drive the timer function. (Finally! A way to tell the cooker when I want stuff to be ready, instead of just hoping it’d be around 25 minutes!) Aside from my delight that it kicks off the cook cycle by playing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”**, I was completely unprepared for the results of this little experiment. I’ve made brown rice before, and I’ve found it to be nutty, a little chewier, and generally tasty, but oh! I didn’t know that it could have the same toothsome texture as puffy jasmine just with a tonne more flavour! In subsequent days, I would learn that even white rice tasted better when cooked in this thing: it seems the rice boffins at Zojirushi really did their homework when it came to figuring out the science of cooking perfect rice!
** The Boy is a lot less impressed with this function than I am. It’s okay; haters gonna hate.
Since Christmas I’ve made jasmine, basmati and brown rice, both on the fly and with the timer setting. (I’ve learned that I much prefer the timer. This cooker is slower than my old one, and just getting home, throwing the rice in and hitting “go” can mean a 35-minute wait (not that it tells you until you’re about 15 minutes away from done)… and at this point I’m too used to knowing when the rice will be ready to deal with that kind of uncertainty.) I don’t know if The Boy really notices, since he’s not given to eating plain rice by the spoonful straight out of the cooker, but I can taste the difference in all of them. It sounds stupid, but the rice is so much better cooked in this cooker. The texture is perfect: fluffier, more toothsome, never soggy, never stale-dry.
I also test-drove the “porridge” setting, which I was ridiculously excited about. Now, I do make congee in a pot normally… but again, unless I remind myself to stay next to it and stir compulsively, it will end up uneven, and slightly burned, which is no good, even for someone like me who likes their congee on the thick side. No more of that! The first time I tried the setting, I spooned the results in a bowl, and immediately started googling to see what I’d done wrong: this porridge was thick! It turns out that Japanese rice porridge is generally thicker than the Chinese congee, so I just had the wrong expectations. Having figured that out, I am super-happy to know that never again will I end up with congee too runny for my taste — I already have to water down the stuff the cooker makes as is to enjoy it, and enjoy it I do! The texture, again, is perfect, with creamy evenly broken-down grains that make for one homogenous texture, rather than the liquid + rice lumps unevenness I sometimes ended up with when I made it in a pot. Better still, now when I’m sick, I can just haul myself out of bed long enough to to wash some rice, throw in the right amount of water, hit go and crawl back into bed, knowing that in about an hour (or whenever I set the timer for), I’ll have perfect congee with no work or pot-watching on my part. Bliss.
I haven’t yet tried the “rice with stuff” recipes, although the next time I work from home, I might set that up for an easy lunch. I’ll report back when I do try, although really this is less of a review and more of a 3-page gush about the cooker. (Did I mention how light it is? How its cups and scoops can be tidily packaged inside, and the power cord retracts, so all you’re left with is a cute egg-shaped bundle with a handle? All true.)
Update (January 30th, 2014):
So, as promised, I set up my cooker one day while working from home. Nothing fancy: I threw in two cups of rice (the minimum for the “mixed rice” setting) with some cut up (cooked) chicken leg from dinner a couple nights previous, some shiitake mushrooms soaked in soy and mirin, some green onions, and a little ginger. If I could have given the mushrooms a longer time to soak — both to soften up a little more, as well as to absorb more of the flavourings, that would probably have been better, but I was in a bit of a rush.
The first surprise for me was that the timer setting doesn’t work with “mixed rice” — so definitely not something you can set in the morning and come home to later (boo!). Still, given that it only (?) took an hour, it would definitely be a viable option for an easy weekend dinner. As long as you’re around within 4-6 hours of whenever you want to eat, you could just throw your stuff in, hit go, and let it keep warm until you were ready to eat.
Taste notes: I forgot to put the green onions in, so when it was done after an hour, I stirred those in. Noticing that the rice seemed a little on the dry side, I also sloshed in some of the soaking sauce from the mushrooms, stirred everything up again, and let it sit for awhile. Lesson learned? Do not be shy about the sauce! (I ended up pouring the rest of it in later for more flavour; were I to do it again, I would have just thrown it all in in the first place.)
While the rice was a little on the drier side, it wasn’t bad at all. I think I could have used more “stuff” in the “stuff to rice” ratio, but again, that’s something I can easily fix with my next attempt. In general, very pleased. This is a low-effort, very tasty, one-pot meal.
Cleanup is actually easier than it was with my old cooker: the aluminum inner lid is easier to wash than the glass lid of the old cooker, and I don’t know what space-age alloy the inner bowl is made of, but it has some kind of super-Teflon coating on it that doesn’t even let the rice water “spray” stick to the sides, even with brown rice. Awesome.
In short, my cooker has yet to disappoint me in any way. The only bad thing I can say about this thing is that it takes its sweet time making the rice… but since you can load everything in 12-14 hours in advance, who cares? I am completely smitten with this new addition to our kitchen, and I don’t care who knows it. It does take up more space than my old cooker, but the added convenience and tastiness make it so worth it I don’t even notice.
It’s shaping up to be a cold week round here, so I think kicking off the week with a little gratitude might help. Or possibly I’m just a little obsessed still. Either way.
Thank you, Boy!