How the rice cooker changed everything

Sep 25, 2020

When the automatic rice cooker was first introduced in the 1950s, most people couldn’t afford it.

Is it better to cook rice over a stovetop or with an automatic rice cooker?

The question has riled chefs like Momofuku founder David Chang, who adamantly believes in cooking rice with a “normal pot.”

“Having a zojirushi or a cuckoo is great but they are expensive,” he wrote in an Instagram post demonstrating how to cook stovetop rice. “Cooking rice this way will help build your culinary intuition.”


Rice in the time of COVID-19 My house we are pretty much eat exclusively a koshikari short grain rice - we got a 15# bag we ordered 3 weeks ago, show up yesterday and we were overjoyed. Since we are stuck with an instapot and I refuse to cook rice in it anymore. It’s a good time for everyone to learn how to cook rice in a “normalpot”: Wash rice until it’s water runs sort of clean. I never plan ahead where I soak rice the night before. I never measure the rice or the water but I’m trying to get enough water to cover the rice about 1/2 inch? I cook rice covered on high flame until water begins to steam then I turn flame down to medium-low heat until most of the water evaporates. Then I turn of heat and let it rest about 10 min or so. If I want crunchy rice on the bottom (the best part) during the resting period I crank up the heat again until I can smell the rice sugar burning a little. Take off lid and fluff up rice. Should have enough give on texture where it’s not hard nor soft...just a tiniest bit of resistance When I joke about using the force to cook things I’m really not joking. Best way to learn how to become a better cook is through failure. Rice is a great way learn via screw up - if you undercook it it’s not impossible to correct (that’s another lesson). Until then, you can and way add water to intentionally overcook it. If you overcook the rice and it’s too mushy you can turn it into juk, congee, porridge or rice pudding. Nothing will go to waste. ps - cooking rice in a microwave is black belt level sandbag master shit #culinarydarkarts #sandbaglessons

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Since their introduction in the 1950s, automatic rice cookers have become a common kitchen appliance, particularly in Asian households.

In 2018, the global electric rice cooker market was valued at $3.2 billion, and it’s estimated to grow into a $5.5 billion industry by 2026, according to Allied Market Research.

Automatic rice cookers have become so ubiquitous that many people don’t know how to cook rice without one.

But when the first home rice cooker hit the market in the 1950s, most people outside Japan—where the machines first rolled out—could not afford it. They continued to cook rice manually.

(Read more: Hainan chicken rice isn't from Hainan)

Lili Ceng, who grew up in a Chinese household in Indonesia in the 1960s, used a steamer called a dandang to cook rice for her family.

“You had to cook the rice, constantly stirring, until it was half-cooked,” she says. “And then, you had to transfer the half-cooked rice to the dandang and steam the rice over low heat.”

The method required someone to constantly watch over the pot to make sure the rice didn’t burn. It was an arduous task that no one wanted to do.

In Indonesia, rice was tradionally cooked in a dandang.
In Indonesia, rice was tradionally cooked in a dandang. / Photo: Shutterstock

Helen Han says her family didn’t have a rice cooker when she was growing up in Hangzhou, China, in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Casseroles, stew pots, and soup pots could all be used to cook rice,” Han says. “But you had to get the right amount of water and control the heat.”

Automatic rice cookers removed the need to watch over the stove. Most models work by measuring the temperature of the pot and triggering a switch that stops the cooking process when it detects all the water has evaporated. This prevents the rice from overcooking.

(Read more: Tsingtao beer’s secret ingredient: Rice)

Ceng recalls the day her older brother finally brought home an automatic rice cooker in 1985.

“We didn’t have to fight over whose turn it was to cook the rice anymore.”

Lili Ceng

“We were so excited,” says the 58-year-old. “The whole family gathered around to unbox it together. We didn’t have to fight over whose turn it was to cook the rice anymore.”

Electric rice cookers at a refugee camp in Hong Kong in 1979.
Electric rice cookers at a refugee camp in Hong Kong in 1979. / Photo: South China Morning Post

By the 1990s, as more companies jumped into the fray, rice cookers became much more affordable, especially when China began producing more economical models.

But many people still prefer to manually cook rice

Vicky Cheng, the executive chef of Michelin-starred VEA in Hong Kong, says he never grew up with a rice cooker at home.

No matter how many people were eating at the dinner table, his mother always cooked rice over the stove and never felt the need to buy a cooker.

Chef Vicky Cheng of Michelin-starred VEA in Hong Kong.
Chef Vicky Cheng of Michelin-starred VEA in Hong Kong. / Photo: Alex Chan/SCMP

“A rice cooker is bulky,” Cheng explains. “You have to have it on the counter. Plus, since I was young, my mother showed me a trick where you can cook rice, whatever rice, in whatever pot, and it is always going to be perfect rice.”

(Read more: How to make perfect Cantonese white-cut chicken)

So is there a difference in taste between manually cooked rice versus machine-cooked rice?

Well, it depends on your skill level. If you’re a novice, it’s easy to end up with mushy or burnt rice.

But once you’ve mastered the fine art of cooking rice over a stove top, your rice can rival that of any top-line rice cooker.




Producer: Jessica Novia

Editors: Mario Chui and Joel Roche

Animation: Stella Yoo

Mastering: Joel Roche