Back in the old days (before I had kids and lived in a big fancy house), I lived a simple life. I had small apartments with roommates, and kept my expenses really low. Less than $10 a day (not including rent).
I cooked much of my own food (like today), but I did so with a very limited set of culinary tools — Two knives, some mixing bowls, a microwave, and a rice cooker. Sure, I could have eaten out, but I chose to save my money instead.
I really loved having that rice cooker back in my younger days — For less than $15 I could buy a 20 pound bag of rice. Combine it with frugal toppings, and I had some very affordable and healthy meals!
Normally I try to avoid these single purpose kitchen gadgets — They’re usually a waste of money. Instead, I prefer “general use” kitchen implements (aka multitaskers) — The kind of tools that get used all the time instead of gadgets that get stashed in a drawer.
So how exactly does a rice cooker fit into my multi-use ethos?
A rice cooker was the very first kitchen appliance I ever owned. I first picked one up back in college because the dormitories didn’t allow most forms of cooking. But the use of rice cookers and microwaves was considered OK.
Thus began my long love affair with the rice cooker.
That original model was very basic model, but it still cooked perfect rice. It looked a lot like this simple and affordable Tiger model (which costs a mere $68):
These days our family has upgraded to a fancier induction heating model.
While both models worked great, I’ve got to say that I prefer the new induction heating models. It cooks fast and evenly. Literally, every pot of rice has been perfect. It never burns or sticks.
For a single guy with little cooking skill, minimal space, and a desire to save money — a rice cooker is a perfect first kitchen appliance.
Although not widely publicized, rice cookers are incredibly versatile tools that are able to cook a wide variety of dishes.
I’m not kidding! They cook more than just rice!
The secret in making good use of a rice cooker is understanding how it works — It brings water to a boil (212F or 100C) for either a set amount of time, or until the water cooks off.
If the temperature rises significantly above boiling this usually means all water has been boiled off, and the power level is reduced.
Many newer rice cookers now reduce the power to a warming level. This typically holds a temperature of 150F (65C).
Keeping this temperature profile in mind, we can utilize the rice cooker to make a wide variety of foods. Many of which might surprise you…
Beans & Lentils
Probably the first dish everyone tries outside of rice, is throwing beans into the rice cooker. And it works perfect. Like magic, rice and beans work well together, and form the basis of many a cheap and flavorful dish.
One of my favorite dishes to cook in the rice cooker is lentils.
Yes, I know lentils can be cooked over the stove in a pot, just like rice. This same cooking method has all the same problems as cooking rice: The potential for the pot boiling over, and burning to the bottom of the pan.
To avoid these issues, the chef has to closely monitor the temperature and stir the lentils occasionally… That’s boring as shit!
With a rice cooker, you don’t have to worry about any of that crap. You turn-on the lentils and walk away. Set it and forget it.
Today for lunch, I made spicy garlic lentils in my rice cooker. I added lentils, water, garlic, my favorite Mesquite spice mix (from Costco), and salt and pepper.
I closed the lid, pressed the start button and ran an errand. I wasn’t even at home while my lunch was cooking.
When I returned, I added some butter to the mix on the ‘warm’ setting. Why? Because it’s friggin delicious on lentils!
Soups And Stews
But why stop at rice and beans? The rice cooker is also great for making soups and stews!
This is typically a job I’d designate to a slow cooker, but if you don’t have one, a rice cooker works great!
The rice cooker’s temperature is slightly hotter than a slow cooker, so soups tend to cook a little faster. (Rice cookers might also be slightly more energy efficient, due to better thermal insulation.)
Either way, they both make delicious soups and stews.
Here’s a couple soup & stew ideas for the rice cooker I thought looked really good:
Next up — Can you think of another ingredient that lends itself to cooking at temperatures where water boils? Pasta of course!
From spaghetti to lasagna, every form of pasta you can think of can be cooked in a rice cooker. Just google it. There’s hundreds of recipes!
One of my favorites is this macaroni and cheese recipe:
How about some lasagna? This recipe looks fantastic!
Bread & Cakes
OK, now this is where things start to get weird. Unbeknownst to me during my college years, rice cookers can also be used to make bread and cakes. Unreal, right?
Why would anyone use a rice cooker instead of an oven? Well, not everyone has access to an oven! Students and travelers often need to make due without an oven.
(Again, the rice cooker might also use less energy than a large western-style oven… earning it a frugal thumbs-up.)
While the technique is slightly different, this recipe for making bread looks very familiar:
How about some cheesecake? Yes, I said cheesecake! This one looks mind-blowingly good:
I hope this post has inspired you to see the lowly rice cooker in a whole new light. I’m a richer person today because I own a rice cooker, and I use mine nearly 4 times a week!
They really are versatile home appliances that can be used for more than just white or brown rice.
With a little practice, they can save you a considerable amount of money…and you don’t have to eat rice all the time!
If you’re a student, traveler, or just a financially independent stay-at-home dad (like me), the rice cooker is an excellent tool to have in your kitchen arsenal…perfect for whipping-up quick, cheap, and easy meals that need very little attention.
While I’ve shared a few of the recipes I thought were interesting, there are literally thousands online.
If you’re the kind of person that prefers professional cooking books, these rice cooker recipe books look excellent:
I hope you’ll give some of these ideas a try, but let’s make this more interactive — I know a bunch of you must have rice cookers…
Do you have any great rice cooker recipes? Please share in the comments!
[Image Credit: Flickr1]