If you disassemble an automatic rice cooker, you will find that it is little more than an aluminum pot sitting atop an electric heating element. When plugged into a wall socket, the device will do its best to progressively heat, simmer, boil, dessicate, and finally, disintegrate whatever is placed inside the pot. As the name suggests, the typical use is to put water and uncooked rice in the pot and to allow the device to continue running until somewhere between the "boil" and "dessicate" stages. This is not as easy as it sounds. The interval during which the rice is neither over- nor under-cooked is about the same as the time between the light turning green and they guy behind you honking (and, in some cities, swearing out his window at you.)
Some of the fancier rice cookers come with advanced features, such as teflon-coated pots for easier clean-up and heating elements that surround the pot for more even heating. Many models come with thermostats that will shut off the heating element as soon as all the water has boiled away. You would think that this would provide you with the perfect pot of rice, and in fact, it gets pretty close. However, there always seems to be a 1-grain-thick layer of dry, crispy rice cake stuck to the bottom of the pot when it's done.
Many people, even those who have owned a rice cooker for years, are misled by the name and assume that a rice cooker is only useful for cooking rice. Quite the opposite is true. It is possible to cook an entire beef stew in a rice cooker, assuming you bear in mind that unlike a regular stew pot on a stove, the rice cooker has only two temperatures: on and off. Here's a quick recipe:
<LI>Chop 1 lb. of beef into 1-inch cubes.
<LI>Pour a thin coating of oil in the bottom of the rice cooker's pot and add two finely-chopped cloves of garlic.
<LI>Turn the rice cooker "on" until the oil bubbles around the garlic.
<LI>Coat the beef with flour and brown it in the oil.
<LI>Add coarsly chopped onion, carrots, raw potatos, rutabaga, turnip...whatever you enjoy in a beef stew.
<LI>Add whatever herbs and spices you like.
<LI>When the onions get limp, add 3 cups of water and 1 cup of red
<LI>Now comes the tricky part: The rice cooker will try its best to eliminate all moisture from the stew, since it thinks it's cooking a pot of rice. Since a stew should really have some moisture left, you must turn off the heating element for a few minutes out of every ten or so to thwart the rice cooker's attempt to destroy your dinner. After about an hour of this, your stew will be done.
(This recipe works quite well in my rice cooker, which is a large 10-cup model. If you have a smaller rice cooker, you should reduce the proportions accordingly.)
<H2>Rice Cookers and Students</H2>
Because of the simplicity and versatility of rice cookers, they are popular among students living in college dormitories. However, some dorms have regulations prohibiting the use of any device with a heating element because of the potential fire hazard. This regulation is easy to get around. If anyone complains, all you have to do is point out that incandescent lightbulbs also contain heating elements. If your rice cooker must go, then all the lightbulbs in the building must go as well, right?