An electric cooker is a small electric kitchen appliance used to heat and cook food. These cooking devices speed up the cooking process and help save on cleanup time by reducing the number of implements needed to accomplish a task.
Cooking vessels are either built in or removable for easy cleanup. While some of these one pot wonders have a more limited range (breadmaker, rice cooker), others like multi, slow, or pressure cookers are amazingly versatile.
Press a button, and these little sous-chefs just start cooking.
But Do I Really Need a Countertop Cooker?
What might surprise you is the range of dishes that can be processed in an electric cooker: roast, ham, chicken, desserts, dips, oatmeal, soups, stews, casseroles, etc. Depending on materials and cooking method(s) employed, some provide healthier results than others.
So how did the electric cooker become such an indispensable tool in today’s kitchen? There’s no disputing that when women started joining the workforce in the 1970s, life took a hectic turn. Time had in fact become a true luxury.
Between the job, maintaining a household, kids’ school schedules, who has time or energy left to lovingly prepare dinner? Evenings traditionally devoted to homework and family time have been taken over by extracurricular activities, leaving everyone scrambling for solutions to quick and easy, nutritious evening meals.
Thankfully, a tantalizing range of electric cookers is now offering simplified meal prep, and as a result, one pot meals are quickly gaining in popularity.
Let’s take a look at the amazing multi cooker first, as it is the most versatile of all. Then, we’ll see how some of the less complex electric cookers have been refined for increased usability and perfect results every time.
What is a Multi Cooker?
Tired of multitasking and always feeling like you’re about to blow a gasket? Meet the multi cooker, the true queen of multitasking. Imagine a self-sufficient, ultra versatile one pot cooker on steroids.
Multi cookers first showed up in the United Kingdom in the 1920s and were viewed as an economical way of cooking by saving on gas consumption. In the 1950, Japan adapted its rice cookers to process grains other than rice and make soup.
As the European market kept on developing new small electric kitchen appliances, each dedicated to a single task, multicookers started appearing that would conveniently combine some of these tasks.
Today’s multi cooker is equipped with a timer and features a selection of functions geared towards different modes of cooking or types of food. Simply add your ingredients, select the appropriate setting for your recipe, then get on with your day – or go to sleep and wake up to freshly cooked steel-cut oatmeal! 🙂
While a number of companies – Breville and Cosori among others – manufacture their own version of these multitasking small appliances, the Instant Pot multi cooker has gained such popularity that the brand name is now used generically.
So…What Is an Instant Pot?
The multifunctional Instant Pot basically combines third-generation pressure cooking and slow cooking but is not limited to those functions.
An added bonus is the Saute/Brown option which allows you to pre-fry ingredients, making a stovetop redundant. However, it does come with a slight disadvantage: if you do not wait for everything to cool before adding liquids, your liquids will start evaporating and, without enough liquids to last till the preset time, your contents will not cook fully.
The Instant Pot multi cooker allows you to create healthy one pot meals with minimal effort. Add ingredients, and simply select one of the basic functions to get this little wonder started:
More choices for further refinement:
Additional settings automatically program cooking for certain foods:
True multi functionality at its best!
Ten safety mechanisms are put in place in order to protect users: four address lid safety, while three each monitor pressure and temperature control.
These little marvels are available in various sizes from 2-quart to 10-quart capacity – the 6-quart size being by far the most popular. Keep in mind that these pots can only be filled up to two thirds maximum in order to avoid clogging the regulator, depending on ingredients and the amount of liquid used.
Can reduce cooking time by up to 70%;
Will keep food warm for up to 10 hours;
Stainless steel inner pot versus chemically coated aluminum;
Traps nutrients as well as flavours and aromas;
Microprocessor controlled programs for perfect results every time;
Add a steamer basket or trivet, and you can cook two different dishes at once!
None that we could find – sorry…
What’s an Electric Pressure Cooker?
Cooking with an electric pressure cooker involves using a sealed vessel to boil a liquid (water, broth, etc.), creating steam which as it builds up increases the pressure inside the container, heating up the contents.
The most sophisticated machines can accomplish a number of tasks as indicated by the settings: Saute, Brown, Pressure cook, Slow cook, Soup, Stew, Meat, Chicken, Rice, Risotto/Steam as well as Keep Warm – but no roasting, pan frying or deep frying.
A little background…
Did you know that the first pressure cooker appeared in France in 1679 when French physicist Denis Papin, aiming at reducing cooking time, invented the “steam digester”. But we have to wait till 1864 for Georg Gutbrod to start manufacturing them in Germany, followed by Spain in 1918.
America entered the competition in 1938 with Alfred Vischer producing the first pressure cooker designed specifically for home use. It was formally introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 by the National Pressure Cooker Company, later renamed National Presto Industries.
Fun fact: the Sherpas often use this mode of cooking, but high altitude requires them to increase cooking time by about 5% for every 980 ft above 2,000 ft elevation, according to Wikipedia. Altitude dwellers, be warned!
Using an electric pressure cooker is much safer than the stove top variety. Each new generation has seen features added increasing not only cooking flexibility, but also pressure cooker safety.
While first-generation electric pressure cookers rely on pressure and temperature sensors to control power, the next generation add a digital controller which makes delayed cooking possible, as well as a count-down timer.
Another safety barrier consists of a gasket or sealing ring which provides an airtight seal. If it is not installed properly or if any other safety mechanism is not correctly in place, pressure will simply not build up.
With digital technology and the addition of Smart Programming, third-generation one pot pressure cookers gain flexibility and accuracy. A touch of the finger, and an array of quick, healthy and delicious one-pot meals will cook to perfection – no babysitting needed!
Safety mechanisms also become more sophisticated: if the steam release is in the wrong position, no longer can steam build up, and heating is interrupted.
Pros & Cons
Pressure cooking dramatically reduces the time needed to cook foods – by up to 70% – and greatly simplifies cleanup. They also use less energy than boiling, steaming or oven baking.
But is pressure cooking healthy? Since less liquid is used, foods cook faster, resulting in lesser leaching of minerals. A shorter cooking time also means that vitamins are preserved relatively well. And compared to other cooking methods, you will also notice a significant increase in flavor and color retention.
The best electric pressure cookers will feature both a housing AND an inner cooking pot made of stainless steel. Needless to say that a stainless steel housing with teflon-coated inner pot and aluminum components is not as healthy.
Some models allow you to multitask through the use of accessories like a steamer basket, a trivet or a metal divider, allowing side dishes to cook separately.
Inspecting the food or adding ingredients is not as easy as opening the lid on a pot. Pressure must be allowed to release first before opening the machine.
The gasket, essential in creating and maintaining pressure, must be cleaned thoroughly. Made of rubber or silicone, it will dry up over time and needs to be replaced on a regular basis – about once a year.
The benefits clearly outweigh the risks. Modern pressure cookers integrate two or three safety valves plus other safety features and are perfectly equipped to handle pressure! 😉
What Is a Slow Cooker?
A slow cooker is in fact a small electric kitchen appliance which is used to simmer at a slower rate and using a lower temperature than regular cooking such as boiling or baking.
The concept behind slow cooking starts with first cooking food at a high temperature until it is fully cooked, and then lowering the temperature to a simmering point (190-212 degrees Fahrenheit) which helps distribute the flavors while keeping food warm, moist and juicy.
As heat rises, condensation causes the glass lid to form a seal with the container, allowing pressure to build up inside and slowly cooking the contents. Some models come with a sealable lid for safe and easy transporting, making them highly popular for potluck meals.
Note that it is important to start with enough liquid (water, broth, wine) so that an even temperature can be maintained, and there is no risk of overheating and drying up the contents.
As it can be left unattended for hours, freeing you to do other things, it is a highly convenient kitchen tool for today’s busy lifestyle. With minimal preparation, you can serve a meal that will taste like you have spent hours stirring pots over a hot stove.
Slow Cooker or Crock Pot?
The Rival Company purchased the Naxon Utilities Corporation of Chicago in 1970 and renamed it “Crock-Pot” the following year. In 1974, Rival revolutionized these vessels by introducing a removable stoneware inserts which made the appliance easier to clean. The brand name stuck and is now used generically, and now both terms have become interchangeable.
But choosing the best slow cooker for your needs is not as easy as it seems. The multitude of brands, sizes and configurations may seem overwhelming at first. And then all those features: with or without temperature probe? manual or automatic program setting? programmable timer? ‘Keep Warm’ feature? removable liners option or now?
All important points that must be considered first before you start on your quest for the perfect gem that will take over weekday cooking for you. 🙂
Manual or Digital Settings?
Basic models simply offer High and Low manual settings which may be all you need. If you are away all day, you may prefer a programmable slow cooker with timer and a LED digital display panel. This allows you to select the High or Low heat setting as well as the number of hours based on your recipe. When done, it will switch automatically to keep warm mode till you get home.
A temperature probe offers a set-and-forget option, taking all the guesswork out of achieving perfect results while ensuring food safety. No more worrying whether meats such as poultry and pork have been properly cooked through. Once the probe detects that the internal temperature has been reached, the appliance switches to a Keep Warm mode.
Size and Uses
The main factors to think of before purchasing a slowcooker are how many people you will be cooking for and how often you plan on using this small appliance. One point to keep in mind: while most vessels are removable for easy cleaning, some are built in.
Some models give you the option of using removable liners for easier cleaning which raises the questions of safety for both your health and the environment.
Crock pot sizes vary from one to over eight quarts, so you first need to decide whether a small slow cooker will serve you well, or if you need a large slow cooker. Will you be preparing meals for yourself, just for the two of you, or for a large family? They’re also a very convenient option for those who love entertaining.
Another consideration is how often you will be using your crock pot. Even if you’re only cooking for two, you might want to cook large meals so that you have leftovers for quick dinners or perhaps to freeze for later. The standard 6 quart would be a good option in this case, just as it would be convenient for main meals, soups and stews for a family of four to six. For side dishes, desserts, or if you are cooking for two, the 4 quart might be a better choice.
Next, consider the types of foods you are likely to be preparing: a large roast or a whole chicken for a main course, or a number of complementary dishes, say meatballs and pork chops? A a double or even a triple slow cooker might make a better choice, or simply get more than one. Squash casserole with pulled pork, anyone?
Finally, is it likely to travel with you to the occasional potluck gathering? A portable crock pot with locking lid would be perfect. And if you like to entertain at home buffet style, the Hamilton Beach Connectables Collection was designed with you in mind! Connect up to seven of these 4-quart slow cookers together, and you’re off to the races…
Which Is the Best Slow Cooker Brand?
Once you are clear about the size and settings that will work for you based on the above criteria, you can’t go wrong with either the highly popular Hamilton Beach slow cooker or a Rival crock pot.
But just what is a crock pot? In 1974, Rival introduced the removable stoneware insert which made it easier to clean and quickly became so popular that they are now commonly referred to as ‘crock-pots’. This brand is now owned by Sunbeam, a subsidiary of Jarden Corporation.
Other popular brands include All Clad, Cuisinart, KitchenAid and West Bend slow cookers. And if you have your heart set on a stainless steel cooker and budget is not an issue, check out 360 Cookware – you won’t be disappointed!
Pros & Cons
Stewing for long periods of time brings out flavors and tenderizes cheaper cuts of meat, sometimes at the expense of appearance. Colors and textures seem to meld together, and ingredients lose their individual taste as some of their flavor transfers into the liquids. Though you may end up with a very tasty dish, each mouthful will taste and feel pretty much the same no matter what you bite into.
Another concern is the loss of vitamins and nutrients from vegetables submitted to low temperatures for extended periods of time. Tomatoes are the notable exception, as their nutritional value improves with cooking.
One more thing to consider: what if power goes out while you are away, counting on your little sous-chef to have dinner ready when you return? Will you notice, or will you serve an undercooked meal?
And finally, cooking with raw legumes such as kidney beans can be hazardous, as the internal temperature never reaches levels high enough to destroy toxins like boiling would. This is why it is recommended to soak legumes overnight (make sure you discard the soaking water) and sometimes even boil for a short period of time before adding them to the pot.
What Does an Electric Rice Cooker Do?
An electric rice cooker or rice steamer offers the most convenient and precise way to cook various types of rice for the best tasting results possible, efficiently eliminating guesswork. Just add rice and water, press a button and get on with your life.
Once the water has been absorbed by the rice or boiled off, the rising temperature triggers the thermostat, and the appliance goes into Keep Warm mode, keeping the rice warm until you are ready to serve.
In contrast, traditional rice cooking involved steaming in an earthenware pot inside a furnace. Testing doneness to ensure a perfect balance between rice and water was truly an art form, and dinner schedules were forced to adjust based on when the rice was expected to be cooked.
That changed in 1974 when Zojirushi first introduced the Keep Warm feature, and rice was finally tamed. But it wasn’t till 1983 that the company produced its first MICOM (microcomputer) rice cooker which was able to make minute adjustments in temperature and cooking time for better results.
Two years later, Zojirushi addressed the remaining issue of cooking different types of rice by introducing menu settings which allowed for customized cooking length and temperatures for brown rice, sticky rice, sushi rice and porridge.
In 1992 – the same year Aroma Housewares started manufacturing rice cookers in California – Zojirushi introduced induction heating for more precise heat control resulting in more evenly cooked rice. The cooking process is further tightened, as the entire inner cooking pan is heated up instead of just the bottom of the appliance.
Zojirushi’s latest development occurred four years later when they added the pressure system. Higher cooking temperatures alter the structure of starch within each grain of rice, resulting in a more gelatinous form that is softer, sweeter, fluffier for longer periods of time, and easier to digest.
How to Make Rice in a Rice Cooker
Once you have selected the best Japanese rice cooker for the types of rice you enjoy eating, cooking rice is pure child’s play. Simply measure the amount of rice needed using the cup included with the machine with an approximate 6-ounce capacity. Add liquid as indicated, press a button, and let your new BF do the rest!
It is no secret that the Japanese love their rice, so it should come as no surprise that their best rice cookers would make a perfect choice to cook various types of rice with precision. Thankfully, Zojirushi has simplified rice cooking by providing individual settings to cook various kinds of rice to perfection.
While the basic Conventional models are limited to cooking white or brown rice, more advanced Zojirushi rice cookers/steamers provide extra settings such as mixed, sushi, quick cooking, sweet, porridge, GABA brown, and/or rinse-free.
A few select models offer utmost versatility. Umami, slow cook, jasmine white rice, long grain white rice, steel cut oatmeal, semi-brown, quinoa, cake, steam-reduce, scorch can also be yours – depending on the model you choose.
All but the basic Conventional models sport an easy-to-use LCD control panel and a Reheat function that reheats rice in the Keep Warm mode to the best serving temperature. All surfaces that come into contact with food or beverage are BPA-free.
Zojirushi residential cookers range between 3- and 10 cup- capacity, while their commercial models can cook 20 or more cups. Aroma on the other hand offers a 5- to 32-cup capacity.
Pros & Cons
Once you own a Zojirushi rice cooker, you’ll never look back. That is the feedback from the great majority of owners who marvel at the difference in taste and texture resulting from the use of these small appliances.
The only con would stem from having to really know the different types of rice available so that you can choose the perfect model that fits your preferences.