Magazine pages and breathless infomercials promote a staggering number of kitchen gizmos, promising to make your life easier or your food more nutritious. Most are destined for the garage or basement after one or two uses, but rice cookers and slow cookers are strong candidates for long-term residency in your kitchen. Each is remarkably versatile, though they couldn't be more different in their operation.
Tortoise and Hare
Rice cookers and slow cookers are the culinary equivalent of the fable of the tortoise and hare, one built for slow cooking and one built for speed. Slow cookers use electric heating elements and a heavy stoneware crock to provide gentle, even heat, replicating centuries-old methods of cooking on an open hearth or in the dwindling heat of a community oven as it cools. Rice cookers are designed to come quickly to a boil, simmering rice or other grains and then keeping them warm until mealtime. Simple models shut off when the pot's temperature rises above the boiling point of water -- indicating it's absorbed completely into the rice -- while more sophisticated models use microprocessors for more precise control of time and temperature.
Rice cookers are equally adept at preparing other grains, including millet, quinoa or even your morning oatmeal. Many include a steamer insert, so you can use them to steam vegetables or fish instead of -- or as well as -- your grain. Rice cookers also provide a convenient way to prepare or reheat small quantities of soup or stew, which makes them ideal for students or others living alone. Slow cookers take a very different approach. Their great virtue lies in their aptitude for unattended cooking. Once you've cut up and optionally browned your ingredients, they simply go into the cooker's stoneware crock and do their own thing. Most dishes cook in two to four hours on the high setting, or four to eight on low.