Successful Pasta in a Rice Cooker
Yes, you can absolutely cook pasta successfully in your rice cooker. There are a lot of complaints to be found all over the Web about the results of rice cooker pasta, but the most likely culprit may not be the appliance.
I had always been taught that the only way to cook pasta that was tender but firm and not sticky (al dente) was to cook a small amount of pasta in a whole lot of water and to boil it quickly and vigorously, which pretty much meant stove top only. I was very confused, then, when an Italian friend of mine cooked pasta for three people in a saucepan, just over half-way full of water.
“Won't it get mushy and sticky?” I asked him.
“Buy better pasta,” he told me.
Good pasta is not the only secret to successful rice cooker pasta, but it is a major one. Start with a good quality pasta – it's only about a dollar more per box, or about 50 cents per meal – but makes a world of difference to the finished product. A pasta that doesn't give up most of its starch to the cooking water will be firmer when fully cooked, not mushy. Also, less starch in the cooking water means less stickiness. If you are cooking pasta in one quart of water in your rice cooker the concentration of the starch will be five times higher than if you are cooking the same pasta in five quarts of water on the stove top. This makes it even more important to start with a higher quality pasta.
Regardless of the brand, cooking technique plays the most major role in the finished product. Especially in the confined spaces of your rice cooker. Keep these tips in mind for best results.
1. Temperature and timing. It is important to realize that pasta will cook at 180 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that even if the water has not returned to a boil (212 degrees), your pasta is already cooking. If you follow the accepted wisdom of beginning timing once the water returns to a boil, the result may very easily be pasta overcooked by a minute or more – mushy, sticky and flavorless. While the cooking time on the box is a good rule of thumb, the best way to tell if your pasta is ready is to taste it. Start your timer as soon as you add the pasta to the boiling water and begin testing it 60 – 90 seconds before the first cooking time on the box. Test every 30 seconds or so. Remember that pasta will continue to cook both in the colander and in your sauce, so if you drain when it is completely done, it will be overcooked by the time you sauce and serve. And remember that cooking times will vary widely depending on your rice cooker, your elevation and your pasta.
2. Oil in the water. It is a myth that adding oil to the water keeps pasta from sticking together when it cooks. What it does do, which will be vital when cooking pasta in a rice cooker, is help prevent boiling over. Oil and water really don't mix, no matter how much you stir it, and a floating oil barrier will help tamp down the bubbles that form in boiling, starchy water. Always add a little oil or fat (about a teaspoon) to your pasta cooking water or you may find yourself buying a new rice cooker.
3. Stir often at the start. This is actually the only way to keep pasta from clumping together when it cooks, especially in smaller amounts of water. Stirring frequently in the first three minutes of cooking separates the individual pieces of pasta, which are at their stickiest during the early part of cooking. Pasta becomes more slippery once it has absorbed some water. Stir occasionally after the first three minutes of cooking. Stir carefully if you are cooking filled pasta, like ravioli or tortellini.