SHIRLEY CHAN, a Chinese-American Web site designer, was born in Hong Kong, lives in Brooklyn, and has never cooked a pot of rice in her life. “One billion Chinese people cannot be wrong about rice,” she said: virtually every household has at least a basic rice cooker. As a child, it was her chore before each meal to wash the rice, measure it into the machine, and press the button. “It always, always comes out perfect,” she said. “Until I came here, I never even knew rice could burn.”
How does the machine know when the rice is done? A built-in thermostat tracks the temperature of the bubbling mixture of rice and water. When the water boils and turns to steam, the temperature in the pot begins to rise, which signals the cooker to switch to warm.
But it’s easy to override the machine’s small brain. Press the “cook” button, melt butter in the bowl, and sweat a finely diced shallot in it until soft — then add rice, broth and saffron strands, and start the machine again to make a daffodil-yellow pilaf. Cook some short-grain rice, then drizzle in some sesame oil and switch back to “cook,” mix in some kimchi and break eggs on top for a simple bibimbap, the Korean-American staple of rice “and whatever is in the refrigerator,” Mr. Park said.
Make grits, risotto or any grain cooked by the absorption method simply by adding extra liquid and stirring often. The machine has plenty of built-in cushions for the cook: the temperature never gets very high, the surface is nonstick, and everything happens in a kind of slow-motion.
The new-model rice cookers, with digital menus and “fuzzy logic” operation, are actually less flexible than their one-button ancestors. The machines have their own ideas about brown rice, porridge, sushi rice and sometimes more.
It's true. My rice cooker is an old-fashioned one, and I really prefer its versatility.