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Cheapism: Best budget rice cookers

Dec. 14, 2011 at 1:15 PM ET

The Sanyo ECJ-S35K can be programmed to cook a variety of foods and even bake bread.

By Kara Reinhardt, Cheapism.com

With all the prep involved in a holiday party or Christmas dinner, it’s a good time to consider any appliance that frees up a burner on the stove and some time for the cook to tend to other tasks. Rice cookers can be left unattended and reliably turn out tender, fluffy grains. They won’t suit frugal consumers who are content with the stovetop method, but for those who prefer a sure thing, rice cookers can be had on the cheap. Sanyo, Panasonic, and Aroma all offer well-reviewed budget models that can also make practical holiday gifts.

There are essentially two types of electric rice cookers: simple, on/off models and programmable rice cookers that automatically adjust the cooking time and temperature. The latter come with a timer to ensure the rice will be ready when dinner is. They are more expensive, although you can find a solid performer for less than $100.

The one-button models actually tend to cook more quickly than their pricey counterparts, finishing white rice in as little as 15 minutes (brown rice takes longer, and cooking times vary for other varieties as well). Some basic rice cookers also include a mode that keeps the rice warm after it’s done cooking.

The capacity of a rice cooker is measured in cups -- but not the 240 ml cup used in the U.S. The measuring cups that come with rice cookers are typically 200 ml, the standard in Japan. What’s more, the capacity is sometimes measured in cooked rice and sometimes in uncooked rice, so note which one is indicated in the specs. Six cups of cooked rice is generally enough for a family of four if served as a side dish.

You can get more for your money by employing a rice cooker for other dishes as well, including oatmeal, grains such as quinoa, legumes, soups, and stews. Some rice cookers can steam vegetables or even bake bread. The site Rice Cooker Fetish has recipes for everything from dorm-room mac & cheese to pumpkin pie.

Below are Cheapism’s top picks for affordable rice cookers.

  • The Sanyo ECJ-S35K (starting at $91) is the only programmable rice cooker on our list. That means it takes a bit longer — 45 minutes on average to make white rice — but it comes with a 24-hour timer. It also keeps rice warm for up to 12 hours. Reviewers note its versatility; they find that it perfectly cooks not just rice but a variety of other foods. (Where to buy)
  • The Aroma ARC-1266F (starting at $27) takes 20 minutes to make white rice and can accommodate 6 cups uncooked (12 cups cooked). It automatically switches to a warming function when the rice is finished. Users appreciate that it comes with a steamer tray and call it an excellent value. (Where to buy)
  • The Panasonic SRG-06FG (starting at $25) cooks up to 3.3 cups of white rice in 30 minutes, yielding up to 6 cups. This no-frills model earns plaudits in reviews for being easy to use. (Where to buy)
  • The Zojirushi NS-RNC10 (starting at $92) is pricey for an on/off cooker, but reviews note that it's made by a highly regarded Japanese brand. It can cook 5.5 cups of white rice in just 15 minutes, making a total of about 10 cups. Users marvel at its speed and like that it automatically keeps rice warm for up to 12 hours. (Where to buy)

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