The automated rice cooker (jidō suihanki) has been a staple in Japanese kitchens ever since Toshiba introduced the first electric model in 1955. Since then, technological advances like fuzzy logic (computer chips that make automatic, precise adjustments to time and temperature), induction heating, pressure cooking and steam cooking have continued to reduce cooking times and increase versatility.
Most home cooks already take full advantage of handy presets for cooking sushi rice, porridge (okayu), sweet rice and mixed rice (useful for sekihan and takikomi gohan), but the versatile rice cooker can also be used to steam, poach and bake, so you can prepare a complete meal from appetizer to dessert without turning on your stove.
By inserting a plastic or silicone steamer tray (depending on your model of rice cooker, it may already come with one), you can use a rice cooker to steam vegetables and proteins like eggs, chicken breasts, tofu, steak and seafood. The rice cooker is also useful for preparing steamed appetizers like Chinese-style shūmai and bao dumplings, chawanmushi (savory egg custard) and fruit custards.
By layering ingredients — rice and water on the bottom, steamer tray with fish/protein and vegetables on top — you can prepare an entire meal in one pot, without having to worry about synchronizing cook times.
One of the advantages of steaming in a rice cooker, rather than an electric pressure cooker, is you can easily open the lid to check on progress and adjust cooking time as necessary. Depending on your rice cooker, it may already come with a steam (jōki) setting, which makes the process easier.
When steaming in the rice cooker, line the steamer basket with a single layer of cabbage leaves, parchment paper or foil to keep the juices from seeping into the rice. Cut thicker cuts of meat or poultry into strips for more even cooking. Fish steaks work particularly well in the steamer basket.
In general, quicker-cooking foods like shrimp, tofu and soft vegetables can be placed nearer the center of the steaming basket while longer-cooking vegetables should be on the outside of the steaming basket. And vegetables with tough skin, such as kabocha squash, should be turned flesh-side down.
You can simply add water, stock or wine to the rice cooker insert to poach just about any protein, but I find it particularly useful to create simple, seasonal desserts like poached dried figs in spiced red wine, whole poached pears or quinces (karin). Poaching them in the rice cooker makes their flesh silky and buttery. Add enough liquid so that the food you are poaching is just covered and cook on the okayu setting to provide just the right amount of slow, gentle heat.
Since most Japanese apartments don’t come equipped with ovens, you can even harness your rice cooker to turn out rich chocolate cakes, fluffy cheesecakes and even yeast breads! Make sure to grease the inner pot, let your dough proof for a couple of rises and then select the bread or cake setting, flipping your bread partway through to ensure a golden-brown crust. Even if your rice cooker is more basic, several rounds on the normal white rice setting will do the trick.
If you’re looking for a decadent dessert, Zojirushi’s gateau chocolat delivers. Dense and fudgy (and conveniently gluten-free), this will delight dessert lovers and the not-so-sweet tooth alike.
Recipe: Rice cooker gateau chocolat (flourless chocolate cake)
Prep: 20 mins., cook: 60 mins.
These quantities are for a 1-liter rice cooker. If using a smaller machine, reduce quantities by ¼.
200 grams bitter chocolate, chopped
60 grams unsalted butter, plus a little extra to grease the bowl
100 milliliters whipping cream
50 grams cocoa
100 grams sugar
4 large eggs, separated
1 tablespoon sugar, for decoration
⅓ teaspoon rum, for decoration
Lightly grease the bottom and sides of the rice cooker bowl with butter.
Combine the chocolate and 60 grams of unsalted butter in a glass bowl and place over a pan of simmering water. Stir occasionally.
When the chocolate and butter are completely melted, remove from heat and add 50 milliliters of whipping cream in several additions, mixing well each time. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks and 50 grams of sugar until glossy and thick. Add the melted chocolate mixture to the egg yolks and fold gently to combine.
Put the egg whites in another large bowl, beat with a hand mixer until whitish and foamy, then add the other 50 grams of sugar in two to three additions and continue whipping until you have firm peaks.
Add half the whipped egg whites to the chocolate mixture and mix quickly with a rubber spatula so as not to break the bubbles. Next, add half the cocoa while sifting and mix quickly by folding. When the mixture is no longer powdery, add the remaining cocoa and mix.
Add the remaining whipped egg whites and fold gently.
Add the batter to the greased rice cooker insert, smooth the surface, tap the bottom of the pan with your palm lightly several times to remove air bubbles and set it into the rice cooker.
Cook on the “cake” setting (or, if your rice cooker does not have a cake mode, use the regular rice setting to cook for approximately 60 minutes. You may have to do this several times).
As soon as it is done (the cake should be set all the way through, with no wet spots, you can check with a chopstick) take out the bowl and tap the bottom — careful, it will be hot — about five times to remove the steam from the cake. After the cake has cooled completely, remove it from the pan and chill in the refrigerator.
Add the rum and last 50 grams of sugar to remaining 50 milliliters of whipping cream, whip and garnish as desired. If serving the cake the next day, remove from the refrigerator approximately 20 to 30 minutes before plating to allow it to soften.
Courtesy of Zojirushi Japan