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.”
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.
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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.
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.
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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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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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.