And cooking rice is just the beginning.
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Way back in the day—longer ago than I care to admit—when I was in college, a rice-cooker was one of the few items that we were allowed to have in our dorm rooms. Basically it was that and a coffee maker. Everything else, from toasters to hot plates, was forbidden. The rumor was that the fire insurance was too high for stuff like that.

And back then I had the cheapest kind of rice cooker I could find. It had one button that switched from "cook" to "warm" (if you wanted to turn it off, you unplugged it). It had a glass lid, and the pot was probably made from 100% aluminum.

I used it to make rice and, occasionally, ramen soup for a couple years until I got my own place, and then it went into a cupboard. When I had my own kitchen, I got into the habit of making rice on the stove top, which is generally pretty easy, and pretty quick—so a single-use item like a rice cooker felt like more of a hassle to drag out than it was worth. During one move or another I eventually got rid of it.

That was it for me and rice cookers for a long time until, one year as a housewarming present, my wife's father bought us a fancy Japanese rice cooker by a brand called Zojirushi. It's about as cute and futuristic as a kitchen appliance can get: It has a half dozen buttons on it, looks like a sleek white egg, and it sings a little song at you when you turn it on, and when the rice is ready.

I thought it was sweet, but also largely pointless—we don't eat that much rice on the regular, and I can still make it myself. And it retails for about $175—which is crazy expensive. But because it was such an extravagant gift, I started looking for ways to use it. And that's when I discovered all that it could do.

The first thing that I discovered was the various grain buttons. While my old rice cooker did just fine with white rice, it couldn't really handle much else. Trying to cook brown rice (or heaven forbid, wild rice) I would end up with something that took about four times longer than on the stove, and was inevitably a little tough, or dry, or gooey. But my new rice cooker handled everything from sushi rice to long grain, without trouble.

But best of all is the porridge function: This thing can cook steel cut oats and they turn out just as good as if I made them on the stove top. And that's where my second discovery comes in: The timer function.

You can set something to be ready as much as 24 hours in advance. And that's the life-changer. I started waking up to steel-cut oats every morning, then prepping the pot to have quinoa or brown rice waiting for me when I got home—instantly I was tossing together stir fries and grain bowls in just minutes. And it keeps food warm for hours as well.

Luckily, you don't need to have $175 to drop on a rice cooker to get the same benefits. There are a few great options on the market right now. The Aroma professional plus is easy to use and versatile, with a delay timer of up to 15 hours-—more than enough to prep breakfast the next day, or dinner that evening. And it cooks rice, quinoa, and brown rice—which can also be used to cook oats. If you want to splurge a little, I can't recommend the Zojirushi enough. It'll last you years and years, it looks great, and can more or less cook any grain you want to toss in it.

Bottom line: A high-end rice cooker is a surprisingly versatile piece of kitchen equipment, that will save time and help make having delicious healthy meals even easier. It's well worth the investment.