Monday, February 14, 2011

review: zojirushi rice cooker

Once again CSN has provided me with a free product to review, which I'm late in reviewing this time because, like the deep fryer, I wanted to live with it for a while and see how often I ended up using it in the course of my normal cooking - not just when I'm specifically testing it out for the blog. The answer is ... all the time.

CSN sells all kinds of stuff through various linked niche stores, from home office desks to hot plates. This time, though, I'm talking about rice cookers - the Zojirushi 3-cup rice cooker.

It's almost impossible to mention a rice cooker without some wag saying, "Really? A whole gadget just for cooking rice? What a waste. I can do that on my stove."

But somehow, the toaster sits there without drawing comment, the most ubiquitous single-use gadget around, with some of them -- not the toaster ovens, mind you, just plain old toasters -- costing just as much as a rice cooker, sometimes even more. A whole cottage industry of the convenience food sector has built up around the assumption that if you have a kitchen, you have a toaster.

Toasters and rice cookers are equal in utility: they do nothing you can't do without them, but they do it better and easier.

"What?" that wag goes on. "How hard is it to cook rice?"

How hard is it to make toast?

Sometimes a dedicated appliance simply does a better job of an easy task. Even knowing that, I never got round to buying a rice cooker myself. Oh, I knew and accepted this logic, but it didn't make a rice cooker seem necessary. I read Ebert's widely circulated rice cooker column -- which has been expanded into a cookbook -- and when Matt got his rice cooker and loved it, I made a note to think about getting one eventually.

It just never seemed necessary.

Well, it isn't. But neither is a toaster. Or a blender, or a food processor for that matter.

So this was a good candidate to get for review from CSN. As it happens, I got the same model Ebert is talking about. You can find bigger rice cookers. You can find much, much more expensive ones. But the Zojirushi does a noticeably more reliable job of cooking rice than a pot on the stove does.

The main thing is that in a pot on the stove, the rice on the bottom is being heated more than you want it to be, and can stick. If you've never had a pot of rice turn unexpectedly gummy on the stove, or dry out without fully cooking ... well, I just don't know if I can believe you. Rice is a little finicky, and the better the rice is -- the more you move away from Minute Rice and Uncle Ben's -- the finickier it is.

But here's the thing, it's really a grain cooker. Even before you go off the res and start making soup and things like that in this - which you can, but I don't know if I see any reason to unless you're cooking in a dorm room - you've got the whole breadth of grains available to you. Oatmeal in the morning. Grits with dinner. Wheat berries or wild rice or what have you. The rice cooker doesn't come with instructions telling you how to cook those other grains, but the internet is full of information, and it's not hard to figure out, particularly if it's something you've cooked on the stove before.

You don't need a rice cooker, in the sense that it's not going to unlock anything for you - there's nothing it'll do that you can't do already. But that doesn't mean it isn't extremely handy, and you'll wind up using it a lot. What I particularly like about this model is that the footprint is small - smaller than the deep-fryer, for instance, and about the same size as ... well, a toaster.

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