WHEN I FIRST heard about a new machine by Zojirushi that not only cooks rice but also comes with some slow-cooker functions, I was intrigued. Then it showed up at my house, and I was quickly thrown for a loop. While the bowl was big enough to make a good amount of rice, the “slow cook max fill” line was halfway up the side of the pot, meaning you can use the machine to make only a scant liter of slow-cooked food. Realizing my mistake, I sent the machine back for the larger of the two versions, which I quickly learned could make rice for 10 people but slow-cooker chili for about three.
Anyone else confused by that ratio?
Zojirushi is a love brand in our house. My wife, Elisabeth, and I have one of the company’s rice cookers, the R2-D2–adjacently-named NS-LAC05. It’s a veritable marvel that can make three standard 180-milliliter rice cups at a time. Ours was a wedding gift from eight years ago, and it’s been chugging away on our countertop making delicious rice and keeping it warm for days ever since we got it. While some people prefer cooking rice on the stove, I love the quality and convenience of a dedicated cooker, along with its ability to make some rice for dinner then have a warm scoop ready and waiting the following day at lunch. It’s almost certainly the most-used appliance in our kitchen.
Not too long ago, I tested Zojirushi’s high-end pressure induction rice cooker, an expensive but impressive machine, which made me a little jealous that I didn’t own one. But until our little LAC-05 kicks the bucket, we’ll be just fine.
About two years ago, I also looked at Zojirushi’s “multicooker,” a roomy, six-quart slow cooker that can be controlled to the degree and can even sear meats. Slow cooking is what it’s made for, but it can also make rice and yogurt and can even steam food. It’s nothing like typical slow cookers and functions better than most of them, especially for control freaks.
Zojirushi’s press materials promised that the new Umami married some of the better characteristics of those two machines: a rice cooker that can slow cook. While I was confident that the rice end of things would be just fine, that idea that you could make a huge pot of rice but only slow-cook 1.8 liters (two quarts) of food made no sense.
To borrow a few lines from Hugh Acheson’s excellent cookbook, The Chef and The Slow Cooker, “Some slow cookers are big, up to seven or eight quarts and some are wee tiny, like two quarts. I recommend a reasonably big one, four quarts or larger.” Wee tiny, indeed.
Personally, I’d recommend at least six quarts, as cooking in volume is part of slow-cooking’s charm. Not only can you put a pork shoulder in a six-quart model at the beginning of the day and have luscious tacos for dinner, but you can also make low-effort chili for friends and stick a yogurt container’s worth of leftovers in the freezer when they head home.
Plus, just about any recipe you put in a six-quart pot will fit in there.
Once the larger Umami arrived at the test kitchen, I opened the Eat Your Books online recipe index, found 17 fantastic sounding slow-cooker recipes in cookbooks that I own, and pulled them from my shelves. For no reason other than it sounded great for that very evening, I started with an America’s Test Kitchen recipe for farmhouse chicken and corn chowder. Once in the pot, the ingredients went over the “slow cook max fill” line by a fair amount, but there’s no turning back with a pot of raw chicken, so I hit Start and crossed my fingers.
Then I took those 14 cookbooks and put them back on the shelves as I realized I’d never use a slow cooker so small that it forced me to make scaled-down batches of all of my favorite recipes.
Out of a sense of due diligence, I made a few of Zojirushi’s own slow-cook recipes, which would fit without scaling down. Surprisingly, just one is offered in the Umami’s manual—a minestrone soup, of all things. A company rep also sent an older recipe of theirs for a beef soup in which big chunks of veggies and marinated chuck are made tender after bubbling away in stock for two hours. It was a nice soup but a lot of effort for the small quantity it made.
On a whim, I also made the Umami manual’s recipe for chicken dry curry where the uncooked rice is combined with curry powder, cumin, garlic powder, and sake, then cooked underneath a layer of chicken thighs and vegetables. The recipe uses the jasmine rice setting, not the slow cook function. I also made brown rice and shiitakes cooked with rice wine, mirin, and soy, on the brown rice setting, though I couldn’t bring myself to put salmon in there for the full 104-minute cycle. As Elisabeth put it, “It sounds like it it’d be really cooked at that point.”
Fill ‘er Up
I’d learned a few things in my testing to this point. First, the inherent ratio in this machine is way off: You can make a ton of rice in it, but with the max-fill line on the large model at 1.8 liters, this is not a practical slow cooker. Second, if you want that sort of generous-size one-pot meal out of your rice cooker, the recipes that can be made on the regular-old rice settings will feed a lot more people. It’s a niche thing, but if that’s your bag, the reference for such a technique is The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann.
The real lesson was that I should just think of the Umami as a regular-old rice cooker with a peculiarly undersized slow-cook feature. With that in mind, I did a rice-only head-to-head between the Zojirushi rice cooker I own and the Umami. Zojirushi uses Tamanishiki Super Premium Short Grain Rice as its in-house testing rice, and I did the same. I cooked batches side by side on the white rice setting, and Elisabeth and I did a blind tasting together. The surprising result? There was little difference between the two. If anything, we both had the slightest of preferences for the rice from our “old” machine.
To be fair, the Umami has several other settings that Zojirushi’s simpler models do not, notably an umami setting, which “soaks and steams rice longer for a sweeter taste,” along with a congee option. There are even regular and extended keep-warm settings to coddle that day-after rice. Yet none of these additions are all that compelling. My old rice cooker won’t lose it’s spot on my countertop anytime soon.
This all makes recommending the Umami difficult. If you leave out the company’s “conventional” models, you can roughly categorize Zojirushi’s American rice-cooker offerings into three groups: the lower-end Micom like I own, the higher-end Micom like the Umami, and the truly high-end induction and pressure-induction models. The prices rise precipitously as you progress through that last sentence.
Unless you’re quite curious about the extra features that the Umami offers, I would recommend Zojirushi’s more basic models, especially considering their more affordable prices. If you really want to see a difference in your rice, save up and get the pressure-induction model. And, of course, if you are interested in a fancy slow cooker, get the one they put out a couple of years ago, call a bunch of friends, and have them over for dinner. You’ll have plenty of food.