The Rice Cooker Has Been Perfect Since 1955
Sep 13, 2023
The rice cooker has been perfect since 1955.
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In January, Timothy Wu’s electric rice cooker started ailing. His Zojirushi NS-ZCC10—a white, shoebox-size machine that plays a cheerful jingle when its contents have been steamed to fluffy excellence—wasn’t keeping rice warm for as long as it used to. Following a quarter century of almost daily service, the machine was so loved that his two young daughters (one of whom had years ago dubbed herself “rice monster”) requested a funeral. A few nights after the rice cooker’s demise, the family gathered around the machine, lit candles, and made speeches about what it had done for them. This faithful companion had accompanied Wu through at least four cities, a marriage, the birth of two children, and jobs in both the Obama and Biden administrations, outliving as many as 10 phones, several computers, and multiple cars. “There are not that many things in life which are utterly reliable, in some ways completely selfless, and so giving,” Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School and a prominent critic of Big Tech, told me.
The rice cooker, after all, is a perfect appliance in basically every way: a tabletop device that tells you what it does (cooks rice) and does what it says it will (cooks rice) with ease and without fail. You measure grains and water in a ratio provided by the cooker, pour everything into its inner pot, close the lid, and press a button. Within 30 minutes or so, you will have the ideal bowl of rice—pleasantly chewy, with grains that are not clumpy or dry. The machine automates an otherwise fiendish process: “If you’re cooking rice with a stovetop and a pot, you either have to use a timer or you have to really carefully notice when the water has stopped simmering,” the chef and author J. Kenji López-Alt told me. “And it’s really difficult to do that by eye.” Just a bit too much or too little water, rice, heat, or cooking time can produce a gloopy or burnt mess.
Not only is the automatic electric rice cooker perfect, but it has been so for decades—perhaps since the first model went on sale, in 1955, and certainly since engineers harnessed more advanced technologies in the ’70s and ’80s. Many models on the market today work in functionally the same way as the ones sold generations ago, and in some cases, the similarities go even further. Wu’s new rice cooker, also a Zojirushi NS-ZCC10, is utterly indistinguishable from the now-deceased one he bought in the ’90s: a spitting image in shape, buttons, elephant logo, and all. The finished rice is just as good. So much modern technology, especially in disruption-obsessed Silicon Valley, promises that over time it will improve dramatically and inevitably—a computer that was the size of a room in 1955 can now fit into your pocket. But the rice cooker hasn’t changed much at all, because it hasn’t needed to.
The fact that this rice cooker worked for 25+ years of constant usage without fail makes me want to praise its engineers -- and the fact that the new model is identical to the old suggests they knew they got it right. pic.twitter.com/C13sxEveQC
The simple, static elegance of rice cookers is not especially common in the United States, the self-proclaimed home of innovation and progress where so many other gadgets have made it big. The average American does not cook much rice compared with much of Asia, and only 13 percent of American homes use a rice cooker. But these marvelous machines are near ubiquitous in much of East and Southeast Asia, where rice is a staple: In the rice cooker’s birthplace, Japan, 89 percent of multi-person households own one.
Read: J. Kenji López-Alt thinks you’ll be fine with an induction stove
This kitchen masterpiece was developed as the country was rebuilding after World War II, when a Toshiba salesman advertising a washing machine to housewives learned that preparing rice three times a day was more arduous than doing laundry. The traditional Japanese method of cooking rice, in earthenware pots known as kama over a stove called a kamado, required constantly watching and adjusting the heat. Realizing a business opportunity, the salesman proposed that an engineer design something for Toshiba that could cook rice automatically. The engineer knew little about cooking rice, but he asked his wife, Fumiko Minami, to help. She spent two years studying her kama, other rice-cooking appliances, and various prototypes, as the historian Helen Macnaughtan has documented, eventually arriving at the technique that still powers the simplest models today.
At its core, the greatest kitchen appliance requires just a thermometer and a heat source. Assuming your proportions are right, rice is fully cooked when all of the water in the pot has been absorbed or evaporated. To track that, the first Toshiba rice cookers used a bimetallic strip that senses when the pot surpasses 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the boiling point of water, and turns off the machine. The appliance’s internal temperature can only surpass that point at when all the liquid is gone and, therefore, the rice is finished. “It’s a foolproof way of cooking rice that’s way more reliable than anything you could do in a pot on the stove,” López-Alt said.
After testing the final prototype near a steaming bathroom, under a scorching sun, and in an ice warehouse, Toshiba released the first rice cooker in December 1955. In Japan, the technology was immediately miraculous. Within a year, Toshiba was producing 200,000 rice cookers a month. By 1960, half of Japanese households had one—and the appliance was spreading to neighboring countries. After acquiring a rice cooker, “people felt like they were not that poor anymore,” Yoshiko Nakano, a professor of management at the Tokyo University of Science and the author of Where There Are Asians, There Are Rice Cookers, told me. In her research, Nakano found that for working-class households across East Asia, the new machines were more life-altering than televisions or refrigerators, freeing many women from time-consuming drudgery.
The electric rice cooker has evolved from Minami’s original design. Manufacturers quickly added a function to keep rice warm for many hours, obviating the need to cook multiple batches a day. In 1979, they introduced microchips, which could modulate temperature and cook time based on factors including the volume and type of rice. Then came induction heating in 1988 and pressure cooking in 1992. Many of these steps forward in technology have really brought the rice cooker back in time—making it better emulate the traditional kamado cooking method, says Marilyn Matsuba, a marketing manager at Zojirushi. Microchips modulate temperature in a method similar to what people used to do manually; induction heating and pressure cooking mimic the traditional earthenware pot and its double lid. Over the years, rice cookers have also become better at handling some varieties not commonly found in East Asia, such as long-grain basmati.
Manufacturers have continued to tweak and improve their most advanced models, which can cost more than $700. Zojirushi’s most expensive rice cooker accepts feedback on the quality of each batch of rice and uses AI to personalize its cooking cycle to each user’s tastes. And local variations exist, such as a machine that makes tahdig, the crispy-bottom Iranian rice dish. But many popular rice cookers on the market today, especially in the U.S., still use the decades-old thermometer or microchip methods. And even the microchips may be unnecessary. The highest-rated, cheapest models on Amazon, which run about $20, are thermometer-based, and various comparisons from food writers and publications find that the simple models work great. López-Alt, who eats rice many times a week and is known for testing recipes and equipment with scientific rigor, owns an old-fashioned rice cooker. Even Matsuba, of Zojirushi, told me that while the company’s latest technologies do make better rice, “perhaps the cost-benefit isn’t as clear to the consumer,” especially to American consumers who don’t scrutinize the minutiae of cooked rice as people do in Japan.
As an American who eats plenty of rice, I had to decide for myself. This weekend, I tested an old, bimetallic-switch-based rice cooker against a microchip-wielding Zojirushi, which sells for more than $200. The fancy machine’s rice was a bit fluffier, the simple one’s rice just barely mushier. But the far-cheaper technology cooked rice almost as well in 19 minutes versus the Zojirushi’s 46-minute cycle, which soaks the rice beforehand and lets it steam briefly once finished. Without several side-by-side samples, I’m not sure I would have noticed a difference. My verdict: perfect since 1955.
Read: The Instant Pot will not solve all of life’s problems
That’s possible because the rice cooker is a modest tool, aspiring to a simple, millennia-old task. Not only are its mechanics an anachronism, then, but so is its spirit—it’s not trying to cram several functions into a single product, nor is it maddening to use. Compare the rice cooker’s simplicity to the seven-in-one Instant Pot, the Omni Cook (a blender that can sous vide, self-clean, and knead, among 18 other functions), or the Ninja Foodi (an air fryer–pressure cooker chimera)—a class of kitchen appliances that seek to replace your entire kitchen. In the pursuit of doing everything, these gadgets rarely do any one thing as well as we would like, perhaps why the Instant Pot’s popularity is plummeting. “Many other technologies in our life are frustrating and often have their own agendas; they want to advertise products to us or do other things,” Wu told me. “The rice cooker is just selflessly serving.” Having a product that is straightforward and works well every time is a vanishingly rare experience, in the kitchen or outside it.
A few months after the funeral, over Easter weekend, Wu and his family took out their retired Zojirushi. His daughters thought “it was dead,” he said, “but it’s not”—only the keep-warm function had degraded. When he successfully cooked a pot of rice with the old rice cooker, “the children were overjoyed, and they cheered.” It was a resurrection, if only of sorts: A single rice cooker can falter, but the rice cooker can never really die.