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A rice cooker may seem fairly limited as far as kitchen tools go. It can accomplish one simple task very well, and that’s it.

But it’s time to expand your horizons. With a little creativity, it’s possible to use a rice cooker instead of your other kitchen tools to make all your meals and save on your food budget.

How a Rice Cooker Works

A rice cooker is made up of an electric heat source, a pot and a thermostat. In normal use, you fill the pot with rice and water and heat it.

Once the water boils off, the temperature inside the pot can rise above the boiling point. Once the thermostat detects this, the rice cooker turns off or, with newer models, goes to a “warm” setting. If your rice to water ratio was correct, you’re left with perfectly cooked rice after flipping just one switch.

Many home cooks have realized that, with some tinkering, you can cook many things in a rice cooker — not just rice. The most famous proponent of the rice cooker is probably the late film critic Roger Ebert, who took a detour from cinema to write his guide to rice cookers in 2009, called “The Pot and How to Use It.”

We spoke to Neal Bertrand, a resident of southern Louisiana who published his own rice cooker cookbook, called “Rice Cooker Meals: Fast Home Cooking for Busy People.” Bertrand, through his own experimentation and the input of cooks from the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, assembled 60 recipes that can be made using a rice cooker.

‘A Portable Kitchen’

A rice cooker can make much more than rice, from pasta to seafood and even beef. And using this one tool to cook can really help you save both time and money. For example, making pasta is a matter of putting it in a bowl with water and a little olive oil, followed by all the other ingredients.

Most of the recipes just require waiting until the rice cooker switches from “cook” to “warm,” but for gumbo and other dishes with lots of liquid, Brennan recommends using a kitchen timer as well. In addition, some of the meat dishes require browning in a skillet, though he said the rice cooker can also be used to brown meat in a pinch.

For someone extremely budget-conscious, a rice cooker can potentially replace many normally-used kitchen tools, including a stove.

“I call it a portable kitchen,” Bertrand said. “All you need is a rice cooker, your ingredients and a source of electricity.”

Bertrand said readers of the cookbook had told him they were able to eat during power outages in Louisiana by plugging their rice cookers into generators.

Buying a Rice Cooker

A decent rice cooker should cost $40 or less, according to The Sweethome, a home goods review website. Using the right credit card could go along way in making that expense more affordable and in rewarding any future ingredient purchases. (Here are a few credit cards that reward you for grocery spending. But before applying, make sure to check your credit. Many rewards credit cards require good to excellent credit scores to qualify. You can check two of your scores for free on Credit.com.)

To get any potential rice cooker chefs started, we’ve provided Bertrand’s recipe for Black-Eyed Pea & Sausage Jambalaya. Bertrand said it is a favorite from his cookbook. Enjoy!

1 lb. smoked link beef or pork sausage, sliced and browned. (Browning optional)
1 (15.5-oz.) can black-eyed peas with jalapenos
1 (10.5-oz.) can beef broth
1 1/4 cups (10 oz.) uncooked white rice
1/2 stick butter, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 small bell pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped green onions

Brown the sausage in skillet and drain excess grease. Add all ingredients to rice cooker, stir, cover and press down COOK switch. Once the meal is cooked, and the COOK switch pops up to WARM mode, let it stand covered 10 minutes before serving.

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