The rice cooker was a lifesaver when making sushi in culinary school (and that’s about the only time we were allowed to use a household appliance). I found it to be useful because cooking rice perfectly on the stove is not as easy as one would think (and I’m not talking about the boil-in-bag kind). Outside of class, those cookers are convenient if you eat rice frequently, but never suited my personal cooking needs, or piqued my interest. Until I was shown the way, at least.

I was scrolling through my Google feeds — packed with various food blog posts — and stumbled upon an article about rice cookers from the New York Times. What’s this?! Not only can it cook perfect rice, but it can steam, bake, saute, braise, simmer, poach and more?

Turns out, you can make a whole meal in this contraption, and it doesn’t even have to include rice! Of course, you can make rice-based dishes such as pilafs, Italian risotto, Indian biriyani, Thai curry dishes, Chinese fried rice, rice pudding, etc. But you can also cook other grains and legumes — barley, oats, quinoa, lentils, beans — great bases for soups and one-pot meals. If you simply switch the machine to “cook” and let it heat up, you can also saute and braise. For example, to braise baby back ribs: add your liquid and ingredients of choice, close the lid and switch it to “cook.” It’ll be done in less than an hour.
Steaming is also a breeze using the rice cooker — fill it with about a cup or so of water, insert the steaming tray, add your veggies or protein, switch to “cook,” and it steams your food to perfection. You could also make a steamed custard or bread pudding by simply filling ramekins with your custard mixture and finishing them as mentioned above.

Did I also mention that you can BAKE in this thing?! Just whip up some cake or quickbread batter, fill no more than halfway, and voila! A perfectly baked cake or bread comes out in less than an hour, and you don’t have to worry about the top or bottom getting too brown. It also makes perfect pasta dishes- just dump in the dry pasta, water, salt, your favorite pasta sauce and switch it to “cook”. Think of it as a Crock-Pot that can actually generate some serious heat when necessary.

My favorite dish to prepare in the rice cooker is macaroni and cheese. This comfort food is on the top of my “guilty pleasures” list, but I’m not about to go through the process of cooking the pasta, making the bechamel-based sauce (just because I know how doesn’t mean I want to make it), melting the cheese, baking it, blah, bah, blah. And ohmygawsh it’s so easy to make in the rice cooker and comes out just as good as making it the old fashioned way. Plus, it’s much more rewarding to make it this way than popping a packet full of processed cheese powder in the microwave.

I am changed woman now, converted to the wonderful ways of the glorious rice cooker, and I continue to spread the gospel of this machine that has both inspired me and changed my way of thinking about cooking.

Fabulous Rice Cooker Mac n’ Cheese

(adapted from Rice Cooker Creations by Deb Murray; measurements are for a 7-cup machine, adjust your ingredients according to your machine’s instructions)

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cup elbow macaroni
1 1/2 cup chicken broth or water and a chicken bouillon cube (optional)
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (or more if you like it a little spicier)
3/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella
salt and pepper, to taste

1. Combine the macaroni, broth/water, and cream in the machine’s bowl. Switch to “cook” function. Open it occasionally and stir to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom and sides.

2. When it switches to “keep warm”, add the remaining ingredients and stir until the cheese is melted.

3. Switch to “cook” again. It will switch to “keep warm” after only a few minutes. Eat.

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