As simple as it may seem, cooking rice can be challenging. The timing and water ratios are hard to nail down, impacting the consistency in ways that range from buoyant and loose to watery mush. This is all critical, because a pot of rice can feed a family—or a village. Preparing it properly is an art form, and one that eluded me for years.
In Puerto Rico, rice is religion. We typically prepare white rice—cooked with a fair amount of oil that creates a delicious crispy crust at the bottom (called pegao)—as an accompaniment to our favorite dishes. Loose grains, perfect salinity, is all I’ve ever known. A plate of white rice topped with sofrito-laced stewed meat and beans conjures home.
But for years I tried, and failed to master, this most basic component of my island’s cuisine. My rice typically came out over- or undercooked and flavorless. It pushed against my identity, making me feel less Puerto Rican. Until I got a rice cooker.
I didn’t have a rice cooker growing up, and didn’t see it in most people’s homes, with the possible exception of Asian or Middle Eastern households. Although this tool is not standard in American homes (a slow cooker or electric pressure cooker is arguably more common), rice cookers are essential in kitchens across the Far East. They aren’t usually fancy or expensive (mine is a Zojirushi 6-cup that has two functions: Cook and Warm). Because it is so reliable, portable, and easy to clean, it’s become an indispensable tool in my kitchen.
Over the years, I began experimenting. You can prepare any kind of plain rice in a rice cooker—brown rice, black rice (with a little extra time), wild rice, and so on. But I wondered: Could I add coconut milk, beans, proteins, or spices to my rice? The answer is yes—you can make a complete meal in a rice cooker with tremendous ease for a breezy weeknight meal, or something a little special.
Arroz con pollo—a staple across Latin America and beyond—can be as complex or simple as you like. Prepared in a rice cooker, it makes for an easy, nourishing family meal. Jamaican rice and peas, another Caribbean staple, is fragrant and dynamic and can be served as a vegan dish on its own or alongside vegetables or proteins. For a date-night dinner, there’s orange-ginger salmon and sushi rice. Above all, rice cookers make rice so perfectly that you can—and should—experiment with your favorite ingredients and invent a delicious, simple dish that is truly your own.