For most people, the humble rice cooker conjures up images of perfectly cooked, fluffy white rice. After all, rice cookers specialize in simmering rice until the grains reach tender perfection. But did you know your reliable rice cooker is also capable of cooking a variety of meats?
While specially designed pressure cookers may be better optimized for meat cooking, you can still use a standard electric rice cooker to prepare chicken, pork, fish, and other quick-cooking cuts. The steaming method tenderizes the meat while retaining moisture.
So if you’re looking for a convenient, hands-off way to cook meat, using your rice cooker may be worth considering. Read on to learn more about how to cook meat in a rice cooker, which cuts work best, proper safety precautions, helpful tips and tricks, and the advantages and limitations of using this alternate cooking approach.
A Primer on Rice Cookers and How They Work
Before diving into cooking meat, let’s review what exactly a rice cooker is and how it differs from stove or oven cooking.
A rice cooker is a small kitchen appliance specially designed to cook rice, but it can prepare other foods like oatmeal, stew, and steamed vegetables. Here are the key features that allow rice cookers to cook food:
Cooking Vessel: At the core is a thick, aluminum or stainless steel cooking pot that contains the food and cooking liquid. Some rice cookers have a nonstick coating for easy cleaning.
Heating Element: This brings the liquid inside the cooking vessel to a rapid boil. In most models, the heating element is at the bottom of the cooker.
Thermostat: This helps the rice cooker automatically switch between cooking modes. Once it hits boiling point, it will switch to the warm, simmer setting ideal for finishing the cooking process.
Keep Warm Function: When liquid is fully absorbed, an automatic keep warm mode kicks in to keep the rice piping hot and fluffy for hours.
This differs from stovetop cooking where you manually maintain the desired heat level the entire time. Rice cookers automate much of the process.
How Rice Cookers Cook Food
Rice cookers use a simple but highly effective wet-heating method:
1. Bring to a Boil
The heating element brings the liquid and food to a vigorous boil. This initial boiling helps drive moisture into the food.
2. Reduce to Gentle Simmer
Once the boiling point is reached, the rice cooker automatically switches the heating element to low or warm mode. It allows the contents to gently simmer and steam until fully cooked.
3. Keep Warm
Finally, when sensors detect all liquid has been absorbed, the cooker switches to a keep-warm setting. This keeps the food ready to serve for hours while preventing overcooking.
This unique cooking method maximizes moisture retention and absorption to result in very tender grains of rice and other foods. It also minimizes the risk of burning or scorching foods that can happen on a stovetop.
For tougher meats needing higher, more sustained heat to break down connective tissues, rice cooker temperatures may be insufficient. But for quick cooking cuts, it can be remarkably effective.
What Types of Meat Work Best?
When considering cooking meat in a rice cooker, it’s important to choose the right cuts for optimal results. The moist, gentle simmer of a rice cooker works best for more delicate meats that cook quickly and benefit from moisture retention.
Here are the best options:
Lean Boneless Chicken and Turkey
Lean, boneless chicken and turkey breasts are excellent choices. The moderate fat content and lack of bones allow these meats to cook evenly. Chicken also pairs well with the variety of spices and sauces you can add.
- Try chicken tenderloins, boneless thighs, or cubed breast meat. Cook time: 15-30 mins.
- Ground turkey or chicken also works well for rice cooker dishes like tacos, chili, or meat sauce.
Pork Tenderloin, Chops and Roast
Pork tenderloin is ideal for rice cookers. With very little connective tissue, it remains juicy and tender. Boneless pork chops and roasts also fare well, cooking gently without drying out.
- Opt for boneless chops around 1 inch thick. Cook time: 20-30 mins.
- Pork tenderloin medallions or kebabs require just 15-20 mins.
Fish Fillets and Seafood
The moist environment of a rice cooker is perfect for cooking delicate fish. The gentle heat prevents overcooking. Try salmon, cod, tuna, or halibut fillets.
- Scallops, shrimp and other seafood also do well steamed in a rice cooker. Avoid dense shellfish like lobster.
- Cook fish and seafood just until opaque, about 15-20 mins depending on thickness.
Sausage Links, Meatballs and Ground Meat
Pre-cooked sausages can be gently warmed in a rice cooker and develop a nice texture. Cooked meatballs heat up nicely too.
- Uncooked sausages and meatballs may also work but may need more liquid. Check internal temperature.
- Ground meats like beef, turkey, or pork work well in rice cooker recipes like tacos, meat sauce, chili, etc.
Stew Meat, Short Ribs, Pot Roasts
Tougher bone-in meats and pork shoulder require slower braising but can be cooked to tenderness in an electric rice cooker over 1-3 hours depending on quantity.
- The best results come from cutting into 1-2 inch chunks.
- Add broth or sauce to braise or stew meats low and slow.
Meats to Avoid
On the flip side, here are some meats that are not well-suited for rice cooker cooking:
- Large, tough cuts like brisket, pork shoulder, and spare ribs. These may braise in a rice cooker but an oven or grill works better.
- Chicken leg quarters or wings. The skin and fat content makes it harder for heat to penetrate bone-in pieces.
- Thick bone-in chops or steaks over 2 inches. The cooker can’t achieve high enough heat.
- Turkey drumsticks or whole birds. Too large and thick.
- Fatty meats like bacon, sausages, or ribs that require high heat to crispen.
Stick to boneless, tender, thin-cut meats whenever possible for rice cooker success.
Tips and Techniques for Cooking Meat
Cooking meat in a rice cooker may seem counterintuitive at first. After all, traditional ovens, grills, and stovetops reach much higher temperatures for searing, crisping, and caramelizing meats.
Rice cookers can’t compete in terms of high dry heat. But when armed with the right techniques, your rice cooker can become a surprising source of moist, succulent meats with little effort.
Choosing the Right Cooker Settings
- Most rice cookers have cook mode settings ranging from warm to high heat. Select lower simmer settings for meats.
- High heat can cause meats to overcook and dry out. Gentler settings lead to more tender results.
- If your cooker only has on/off settings, just cook for shorter times and check frequently.
Prepare Meat Uniformly
- Cut meat into evenly sized, uniform pieces or thin slices to ensure even cooking.
- Irregularly shaped pieces may end up over or undercooked. Consistency is key.
- For bone-in cuts, separate meat from bones before cooking for more thorough heat penetration.
Avoid Overcrowding the Cooker
- Too much meat crowded in the cooker bowl restricts airflow and steam circulation needed for even cooking.
- Leave at least 1-2 inches of space around meat pieces and limit quantity. Cook in smaller batches if needed.
- The metal inner pot should never be more than half full when cooking meat.
Add Liquid to Enhance Steaming
- Adding some broth, wine, juice or water helps create steam to thoroughly cook meats. Use about 1/2 to 1 cup liquid per 3 cups of meat or less.
- Sauces, marinades, and cooking liquids add bonus flavor. Consider tomato sauce, teriyaki, wine, etc. based on the recipe.
Include Aromatics and Seasonings
- Rice cooker steaming locks in flavor, so be generous with herbs, spices, garlic, onions, and peppers when cooking meat.
- Marinate meats or use rubs and spice blends before cooking. Add fresh herbs at the end.
- Try adding citrus slices, ginger slices, whole garlic cloves, and chopped onions.
Use a Meat Thermometer
- Always check meat doneness with a food thermometer, especially poultry, to confirm a safe internal temperature is reached.
- Undercooked meat can harbor dangerous bacteria. Chicken should reach 165°F internally before removing from heat.
- For less guesswork, opt for a digital rice cooker with a built-in meat thermometer probe.
Allow Meat to Rest Before Serving
- As with oven cooking, meat cooked in a rice cooker should rest for 5-10 minutes before slicing and eating.
- Resting allows juices to redistribute evenly throughout the meat for better moisture.
- Tent meat with foil as it rests to retain heat. The inner metal pot will keep food warm.
Sample Cook Times for Common Meats
Determining exact cook times for meat in a rice cooker takes trial and error based on your appliance wattage, quantity of meat, thickness, and other factors.
But here are some approximate time ranges to use as a starting guide when cooking various meats in a rice cooker:
- Boneless breasts or tenderloins: 15-30 mins
- Ground chicken: 10-15 mins
- Chicken thighs: 20-30 mins
- Chops (1 inch thick): 20-30 mins
- Tenderloin: 15-20 mins
- Sausage links: 15-20 mins
- Pork roast: 40-60 mins
Fish and Seafood
- Fish fillets: 15-20 mins
- Shrimp: 5-10 mins
- Scallops: 10-15 mins
- Stew meat: 45-60 mins
- Ground beef: 10-15 mins
- Meatballs: 15-25 mins
- Chili with meat: 45-60 mins
- Chicken stew: 30-45 mins
- Meat sauce: 60+ mins
Get to know your rice cooker model. Check meat periodically and use a meat thermometer to assess doneness rather than relying solely on cook times.
Rice Cooker Meat Recipe Inspiration
To get started cooking meat in your rice cooker, here are some recipe ideas across a variety of cuisines:
- BBQ-pulled chicken
- Cheesy meatballs and pasta
- Sausage and peppers
- Chili mac with ground beef
- Teriyaki chicken bowls
- Mongolian beef
- Char siu Chinese BBQ pork
- Shrimp fried rice
- Greek lemon chicken
- Turkey meatballs with tzatziki
- Tuscan cod with white beans
- Moroccan lamb stew
- Shredded chicken tacos
- Chorizo and potato tacos
- Beef barbacoa
Soups and Stews
- Chicken tortilla soup
- Beef stew
- Pork chili verde
- Seafood bouillabaisse
Let your rice cooker unleash its simmering potential on meats!
Is it Safe to Cook Meat in a Rice Cooker?
When many first consider using a rice cooker to cook meat, safety concerns inevitably arise. Is thoroughly cooking meat possible? What about bacteria like salmonella?
The good news is that when proper precautions are followed, rice cookers can be a safe method for cooking meat. Here are some tips:
- Always cook meat fully to the recommended safe internal temperature. Poultry should reach 165°F, pork at 145°F, and beef at 160°F before removing from heat. Use a meat thermometer to verify doneness.
- Don’t leave cooked meat sitting in the heated cooker for over 2 hours. As with any cooked foods, leftovers should be promptly refrigerated in shallow containers to minimize bacterial growth.
- Wash the removable cooking pot, lid, and any utensils thoroughly with hot soapy water after cooking meats. This prevents cross-contamination from raw meat juices.
- Carefully follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Some rice cookers may not be intended for meat cooking. Verify with the appliance guidelines.
- Ensure the cooking pot contacts meat directly and doesn’t touch the direct heating element to prevent burning or scorching.
When handled responsibly, a rice cooker’s moist steaming method can safely cook meat without the high risk of undercooking or burning associated with grills, stovetops, and ovens.
The Benefits of Cooking Meat in a Rice Cooker
Rice cookers may seem unsophisticated, but they offer some unique advantages when cooking meat:
Simple “Set-it-and-Forget-It” Operation
- Just add ingredients, turn on the cooker, and walk away until mealtime.
- The automated cooking process means no monitoring is required. Great for busy households.
Tender, Juicy Results
- The wet steaming method tenderizes meats and seals in moisture extremely well.
- Meats cooked in a moist environment won’t dry out or overcook.
- Affordable rice cookers have removable nonstick cooking pots that clean up easily after use.
- No need to scrub grill grates or baked-on sheet pans. Just soak the pot and wash.
Space and Budget Friendly
- Compact rice cookers take up minimal counter space. Great for apartments, dorms, or campers.
- Rice cookers cost a fraction of many other cooking appliances.
- Bring a rice cooker along in an RV, to a potluck, or use in a dorm room. The compact size and ease of use make them highly portable.
For those seeking an unfussy way to cook meats without babysitting a stove or firing up the oven, a rice cooker can be a game changer. Set it, forget it, and enjoy the results!
Potential Drawbacks to Consider
While rice cookers can certainly get the job done for many types of meat, it’s not a perfect cooking method. Here are some of the drawbacks to keep in mind:
Limited to Smaller Cooked Meal Portions
- The compact 3-8 cup capacity of most rice cookers restricts how much meat you can cook at once.
- Forget cooking a full-size roast or whole bird. You’ll have to cook larger meals in batches.
Minimal Browning and Caramelization
- The steaming effect won’t produce flavorful browned or crispy bits on the meat exterior.
- Meats like chicken wings, ribs, and bacon that depend on high dry heat will not turn out as well.
Less Control Compared to Oven Cooking
- With pre-set programs, you have less ability to calibrate times and temperatures.
- The simple on-off functionality limits your culinary options.
Not Suited for Large-Scale Meal Prep
- While convenient for individual meals or couples, using a rice cooker to cook meat for a whole family meal prep is inefficient.
For more serious cooks seeking restaurant-quality results and large-batch cooking capability, traditional ovens and cooktops are still the better choices over a rice cooker.
FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
Here are answers to some common questions for those new to using their rice cooker for meat:
What types of meat can you cook in a rice cooker?
Lean meats like chicken breast, pork tenderloin, fish fillets, and ground meats work best. Avoid large roasts and bone-in cuts.
How do you adjust the cooking time based on meat thickness?
The thicker the cut of meat, the more time it needs. Increase time by 5-10 minutes per inch of thickness. Watch meat closely and use a thermometer.
Is it okay to add vegetables and mix different ingredients like a stew?
Absolutely! Adding veggies, beans, grains, etc. is a great way to make a complete one-pot meal. Put firmer vegetables on the bottom and more delicate ones on top.
Can you use rice cooker liners or pots instead of the cooking vessel?
It’s best to cook meat directly in the cooker’s inner pot. Ensure it makes contact with the heating element at the bottom. Some liners may interfere with heat transfer.
How do you clean a rice cooker after cooking meat?
Remove all food debris, then wash the removable pot, lid, and accessories with hot soapy water. Rinse and sanitize with diluted white vinegar or lemon juice to remove odors.
The Takeaway on Cooking Meat in a Rice Cooker
While designed for cooking grains, rice cookers can be repurposed as an easy, fuss-free way to steam and simmer meat to tender perfection. The moist environment ensures chicken, pork chops, fish, and other quick-cooking cuts turn out juicy and flavorful.
Be mindful of capacity limitations, and allow for slightly longer cook times compared to the oven or stovetop. With some trial and error, you can make the most of this handy appliance beyond just rice.
So don’t let your rice cooker languish once the rice is gone. Put it to work cooking meat for simple, satisfying meals using this handy kitchen tool in novel new ways!