A rice cooker is a very simple thing in principle. It’s just a pot with a lid, designed to boil water until it’s gone. The simplest models, the kind with a single “on” button, work by switching to “keep warm” mode once the temperature in the pot rises above the boiling point of water. That’s a simple and sure-fire way of knowing when the grain in the pot has absorbed all the water.
More sophisticated models use a variety of technologies to heat the water, sense when the rice is done, and control the pot’s actual operation. Whether your own cooker is a basic push-button version or a top-of-the-line “fuzzy logic” model, it’s perfectly capable of steaming vegetables as well as cooking rice.
Steam Vegetables in a Rice Cooker
Most rice cookers come with a small steamer basket that’s perfectly sized to sit in the cooking pot. To steam vegetables in the rice cooker, first add the recommended amount of water – usually 2 or 3 cups – to your cooker. Fill the basket with your chosen vegetables and position it over the water, cover it with the lid, and, if you’ve got the one-button type of rice cooker, push the button. Steam the veg until they reach your preferred doneness; then unplug the pot.
If your rice cooker is the processor-controlled kind, there’s usually a menu option or separate button for steaming. Aroma rice cooker instructions call for you to select steam from the menu button, then use the up and down buttons to set the time in 1-minute increments. Other machines may ask you to keep pressing the steam button to increase the time. Once you’ve set an appropriate steaming time – there’s often a chart in the manual – the machine may start automatically, or you might need to press the start button.
The timer counts from when the unit actually comes to a boil and starts steaming, so your actual cooking time will be longer than the time you’ve chosen. After you’ve steamed vegetables a time or two, you’ll know roughly how long to expect.
Steaming Over Rice
You can also steam vegetables over the rice as it cooks. This works best when you’re making a small batch of rice, because cookers often won’t have room for both a full batch of rice and the steamer basket.
Some vegetables steam more quickly than others, so be selective. You can steam cauliflower in the rice cooker along with white rice, for example, if the florets are reasonably large. Brown rice takes twice as long, though, so if you want to “set and forget,” you’ll need relatively dense veggies like carrots.
You can also take out the steamer when the vegetables are done or put it in when the rice is partly cooked. This gives you more flexibility in the vegetables you cook, but you’ll have to be careful of the hot steam.
A Few Pointers for Steaming Vegetables
You can adapt your vegetable choices to the rice cooker. Broccoli cooks more quickly than cauliflower, so if you want to steam them together, you can simply make the cauliflower florets smaller than the broccoli florets. For carrots and other dense vegetables, slicing them thinly or shredding them can help them keep pace with their faster-cooking counterparts.
If you’re working with the relatively small and shallow steamer basket that comes with many rice cookers, you may need to be aware of space as a consideration. You can get a lot of French-cut green beans or thin-sliced carrots in the basket, but relatively few bulky florets or baby potatoes.
Steaming Without a Basket
If you don’t have a steamer basket with your rice cooker, you still have options. If you have a small trivet that fits into your cooker, you can put the vegetables in a small bowl or plate or even on a sheet of foil, and steam them on that. Otherwise, you can roll foil into balls, set a plate on top of the balls, and use that as a platform for your steamed vegetables.
You can also place a bowl or a colander into the insert along with the water, and steam your vegetables in that. Or, you could put a small wire-mesh strainer over the pot with your vegetables in it, then cover that with the lid. You’ll need to also drape the top of the rice cooker with a clean kitchen towel, because otherwise the strainer will prop the lid open, and steam won’t be trapped inside.
Finally, if you’re cooking rice anyway, greens and other delicate vegetables can just go on top of the rice once it’s done cooking. Clap the lid back on right away, and the steam rising from the rice as it cools will delicately steam the vegetables to tenderness.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.