Rice is the most widely eaten food in the world but can be tricky to prepare. While some people swear the stovetop method is easy and a special machine is unnecessary, others familiar with rice gone wrong consider a rice cooker a must-have item. The best cheap rice cookers provide insurance that rice will be fluffy, separated, and moist time after time. In addition, many function as steamers, food warmers, slow cookers, and occasionally as bread makers. We waded through expert and user reviews to determine the best affordable models. Our top picks range from simple on/off units to programmable rice cookers and even computer-enhanced models. They serve up perfectly cooked white and brown rice -- and sometimes stews and steel-cut oats, as well -- while saving users from scraping brown residue off the bottoms of their pans.
Choosing a Cheap Rice Cooker
The best rice cookers produce excellent rice: individually fluffed kernels with a tender, consistent texture throughout, and no crispy bits or soggy/pasty areas. Although there are some who claim that the results are no better and the process no simpler than cooking rice in a pot on a stovetop, many consumers -- especially those with little cooking space or without ready access to a stove -- lament not having bought one sooner.
Rice cooker prices range from $13 for a plastic microwave rice steamer to more than $400 for a top-of-the-line rice cooker by Zojirushi. Premium brand Tiger joins Zojirushi atop the rice cooker food chain, while Panasonic and Aroma occupy the lower end of the spectrum and offer some of the best rice cooker prices. Our research suggests that, for less than $100, budget-minded cooks can find a cheap electric rice cooker that prepares restaurant-quality rice, is easy to clean, and might even multitask.
All rice cookers, even the cheapest, completely take the guesswork out of making rice. They come with measuring cups and have lines on the inside of the pot to indicate how much rice and water to use. Basically, all users have to do is measure, turn on the machine, and wait for perfect rice. The differences in price depend largely on the type of machine and its features.
Micom/Fuzzy Logic Rice Cookers.In our budget price range of $75 or less, "fuzzy logic" or micro-computerized rice cookers are considered to be the best rice cookers available. Computer chips give them the ability to adjust temperature and cooking time, cutting down on much of the trial and error that usually goes into making rice (as well as porridge or oatmeal). These precise machines come with pre-programmed settings for different types of rice, various cooking modes, and sometimes specified textures. Higher-end models also boast flexible timers, digital readouts, and sleeker designs.
The best cheap "fuzzy logic" rice cooker we found is the Panasonic SR-DF101 (starting at $66). Its computerized technology typically comes with a much higher price tag and it consistently makes excellent rice (up to 10 cups). Just below this top pick is the Tiger JBV-A10U (starting at $70), which is about the same size and has an upper tray for preparing other food while the rice is cooking.
Programmable Rice Cookers.Standard programmable rice cookers don't have the same high-tech sensitivity as their computerized counterparts, but they similarly offer specialized settings for, at the very least, white vs. brown rice -- along with a much lower price tag. Some even deliver sought-after features like digital displays and delayed start.
The 20-cup family-size Aroma ARC-150SB (starting at $37) is the best cheap programmable rice cooker on our list. We also picked a 14-cup programmable model, the Hamilton Beach Digital Simplicity 37549(starting at $33).
On/Off Electric Rice Cookers.These units feature the bare basics -- one cook mode and sometimes a keep-warm setting. In the absence of varied cook modes and settings, some experimentation is in order to get the timing and ratio of liquid to solid down pat, particularly if you branch into steel-cut oatmeal, quinoa, bulgur, and other grains, beans, soups, and stews. Many do come with a steamer basket, so that vegetables and proteins can be prepared along with the rice, rounding out a meal.
For those who want the simplicity of an on/off model that can produce large quantities of rice, the 20-cup Tiger JAZ-A18U (starting at $70) is a good choice. While it may seem a tad expensive given its lack of bells and whistles, it's a durable machine from the highly respected Japanese brand. Loyal users report good results time after time, over years and years of use.
Considering we had to bump up against the top of our price range to find an on/off rice cooker that performs well, it's not surprising that two such models sit at the bottom of our ranking. The Black & Decker RC1412S (starting at $27) should be easy to use, but consumers insist the instructions are a nightmare, and the machine doesn't last very long. Some say the Maxi-Matic Elite Gourmet ERC-008ST (starting at $22) makes a lot of great rice for the price, and many add that it's very simple to use, but many reviewers say it doesn't last long enough to be worth the savings.
Induction Heating.The latest news in rice cookers is induction heating. Pots with this technology heat the whole pot instead of just the bottom, and they are extremely responsive to the temperature of the rice inside the pot. They cook faster and more evenly than other rice cookers -- and they're also way more expensive. For instance, the top-rated Zojirushi NP-NVC10, which can be programmed to cook any imaginable kind of rice, among other foods, is hard to find for less than $350 and is strictly for rice connoisseurs.
Regardless of the type of machine chosen, many users and experts stress the importance of reading and following the manufacturer's directions. Editors at Chowhound suggest that all imported rice be rinsed and/or pre-soaked, or there's the risk of a starchy mess boiling over from the machine.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Rice Cooker Reviews: What We Considered
In our research, we looked at the results of testing by experts at America's Test Kitchen and recommendations from review sites such as The Sweethome and Techilicious, as well as the devout enthusiast who helms Sacred Rice, a site dedicated to rice cooker reviews. They say almost all rice cookers can turn out small amounts of white rice easily and well. Issues arise when cooking brown rice or large quantities. As a result, the experts tend to favor the more expensive fuzzy logic and induction rice cookers. However, some of the inexpensive rice cookers we researched are such stellar performers that experts recommend them alongside upscale competitors.v
Capacity.Many consumers may be unsure whether to choose a small rice cooker or a large one. The size is measured in cups of rice. This usually refers to the amount of uncooked rice a machine holds, although sometimes it reflects the fully cooked capacity, and the specs don't always make this distinction clear.
Further, one cup in a rice cooker does not equal one standard American cup. It is usually equivalent to 180 milliliters, as opposed to the 240 ml in an American cup. (Most rice cookers come with a measuring cup, so be sure to save it. If the little cup gets lost, 180 ml is roughly equivalent to three-fourths of a cup. For those who are daring enough to measure by shorthand, a commenter on a Stack Exchange Q&A site for chefs suggests a grain-to-water ratio of 1:2 for white rice.)
With the idea of feeding a family, our picks all produce at least 10 cups of cooked rice, and the Aroma ARC-150SB and the Tiger JAZ-A18U make a hefty 20 cups. With a large rice cooker, you don't have to make the maximum amount of rice every time; you can adjust the yield for occasions that call for a smaller amount. Our top picks also offer the option to keep rice warm and ready to eat for days (see below). For single people, dorm rooms, or kitchens with very little counter space, the Panasonic SR-3NA-S (starting at $40) is a good 3-cup rice cooker (1.5 cups uncooked).
Versatility.White rice is not an automatic go-to for everyone. Many consumers are specifically searching for a rice cooker that can produce brown rice and other varieties. But finding the best rice cooker for brown rice is not always the easiest endeavor.
On/off rice cookers, like the Tiger JAZ-A18U and Panasonic SR-3NA-S, are fine for white rice, but brown rice requires fiddling with the measurements. And the jury is still out on exactly how much water should be added to this type of rice cooker to produce optimal brown rice. For example, pros at Crazy Korean Cooking suggest a grain-to-water ratio of 1:1.5 -- and they also say rice should be pre-soaked for at least three hours. Editors at EatingWell recommend a ratio of 1:2.5. In other words, getting it right may take some hands-on experimentation. And bear in mind that brown rice takes longer to cook, so the cooker may have to be turned on again after an initial cycle has been completed.
Programmable rice cookers, such as the Aroma ARC-150SB and Hamilton Beach Digital Simplicity 37549, are specifically designed to cater to a wide selection of grains. Brown rice automatically cooks at a lower temperature and for a longer time than white rice. The computerized models take this a step further, sensing how to optimally cook a particular type of rice at a particular time in a particular pot. For brown rice aficionados, especially those who like to vary their repertoire (from short to long grain to brown basmati), the Panasonic SR-DF101 and Tiger JBV-A10U may be the safest bets; the Tiger model gets particularly good marks from users in this arena.
Programmable and fuzzy logic rice cookers have options for making cereals like grits and oatmeal, in addition to rice. Other grains, like quinoa, and long-cooking items such as beans also can be made in a rice cooker. Many reviewers mention using the Aroma ARC-150SB as a slow cooker to make pot roast with vegetables, pulled pork, soup, and chili. Enterprising rice cooker users have even branched out to chocolate cake, carrot cake, poached pears, mac and cheese, hard-boiled eggs, vegetable frittatas, and Korean kimchi.
The steamer basket that comes included with most rice cookers is a handy addition for making fish and vegetables, or even sweet potatoes. Gourmet Sleuth offers a helpful chart of various vegetables, how much water they require, and how long they take to cook in a rice cooker. Unlike most machines, which provide fairly simple steaming setups, the Tiger JBV-A10U has a "synchro-cooking" feature that allows food to be cooked above as the rice cooks below. A special plate insert prevents the flavors from mingling.
Cooking Time.Electric rice cookers are convenient, no doubt, but they may not save much time. Generally speaking, rice cookers take at least as long as the stovetop method, and consumers say fuzzy logic models are the biggest time hogs -- even before the rinsing and pre-soaking that's necessary for some rice varieties.
According to the owner's manual for the Panasonic SR-DF101, a fuzzy logic model, the minimum cook time for white rice in quick-cook mode is 30 minutes, and brown rice may need close to two hours. The programmable cookers are not much different -- the manual for the Aroma ARC-150SB suggests that the full 20 cups will take about 50 minutes for white rice and more than two hours for brown. Luckily, there is very little supervision required, and the machines keep rice warm for hours, so a pot can be started well ahead of mealtime. A 15-hour-delay setting on the Aroma unit and the Hamilton Beach 37549 is a boon for those who like to come home to piping-hot rice for dinner or begin their days with ready-made hot cereal.
On/off cookers such as the Tiger JAZ-A18U, Black & Decker RC1412S, Maxi-Matic Elite Gourmet ERC-008ST, and personal-size Panasonic SR-3NA-S are a bit faster -- users say they take about 20 minutes or so to produce a pot of rice, not including any initial soaking or additional steaming.
Keep Warm Setting.All of our picks have "keep warm" settings that cater to flexible meal schedules or all-day eating. Most stay on for 12 hours; the Tiger JAZ-A18U keeps rice warm until unplugged. The question is whether each machine can maintain a decent temperature for an extended period without burning the rice or imparting an "off" taste.
In reviews of the Tiger JAZ-A18U, users say rice is fine for about three days, but after that it starts going bad. The Hamilton Beach 37549 can be reprogrammed once the initial 12 hours of warming are up if additional time is desired. One user comments on Amazon that the rice keeps for several days if a bit of water is sprinkled on it daily. Some users also like that the timer on this machine counts how long it's been in warming mode. The manual for the Panasonic SR-DF101 suggests that rice be eaten within five hours to avoid a bad taste or smell.
The Maxi-Matic Elite Gourmet ERC-008ST, which stays in warming mode indefinitely, draws more than a few complaints from users who say the click it makes when it finishes cooking is barely audible, and rice left to warm in this machine tends to dry out and get hard on the bottom. The Panasonic SR-3NA-S does not have a stay-warm mode at all, but most people will probably make short work of the scant 3 cups of cooked rice after the cooker shuts off.
Cleanup.Almost all rice cookers come with a nonstick inner pot. While some consumers prefer a stainless steel or ceramic pot due to general health concerns, standard aluminum pots with nonstick coating are much easier to clean; rice seems less likely to come out brown on the bottom. The Maxi-Matic Elite Gourmet ERC-008ST, which has no coating, is a subject of many user complaints of burnt and clinging rice that's wasted and cleanups that require both soaking and scrubbing. But keep in mind that, with a nonstick pot, it's important to use a utensil that won't scratch. All the rice cookers we looked at, with the exception of the Panasonic SR-3NA-S, have a plastic paddle included (a wooden spoon will also do).
Most of the models we recommend come with hinged outer lids, but some, like the Hamilton Beach Digital Simplicity 37549, have a removable inner lid that detaches for cleaning. The mini-Panasonic SR-3NA-S and the Maxi-Matic Elite Gourmet have completely separate glass lids that are dishwasher-safe. The Tiger JAZ-A18U, Hamilton Beach, Black & Decker, and Aroma rice cookers feature a condensation collector, a small plastic bin that channels away excess moisture and keeps it from running down the sides of the machine when the lid is opened after cooking. These also detach and wash up nicely.