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8 surprising foods you can make in your rice cooker that aren't rice

From ribs to rice pudding, here are some of the more remarkable dishes you can make in that simple countertop appliance.

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There's more to your rice cooker than meets the eye.

David Priest/CNET

The rice cooker is possibly my favorite small appliance, because -- you guessed it -- I eat a lot of rice. But these countertop devices are capable of more than you think. I've made everything from pancakes to ribs in mine, and it's all thanks to their simple design, which keeps the heat high and the moisture mostly trapped until they reach a certain temperature, usually a bit over 200 degrees.

For the tests described below, I used two of the best basic rice cookers around -- the $25 Oster and the larger, impressively performing $113 Tiger. I went for the single-button devices because not everyone has the same type of cooker, and controlling for all the special settings on a Zojirushi or Instant Pot Instant Zest wouldn't be practical.

So what unexpected meals can you make in a basic rice cooker? Here are a few of my favorites.

Ribs

David Priest/CNET

Yes, ribs. For a simple rib recipe that'll take about an hour to cook, grab a rack of baby back ribs, a pint of ale, a cup and half of your favorite barbecue sauce, and a cup of broth. Rub some seasoning on the ribs -- again, your choice -- and toss the lot into the rice cooker. Turn it on for an hour, and you'll finish with tender, tasty ribs.

Eggs

Maybe you want something simpler than ribs. Rice cookers are all about convenience, after all. For a quick breakfast hit in the morning, crack an egg and switch on the cooker. The Oster rice cooker gave me an over medium egg in two or three minutes.

Alternatively, you can use the steamer to get a perfect medium boiled egg. Fifteen minutes in the steamer produced a good egg for me, but depending on your preferences and particular cooker, you might want to add or subtract a little time. 

Pancakes

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Pancakes in a rice cooker are a revelation. Make the mix as usual and pour a liberal scoop into the bottom of the cooker. For thinner cakes, you won't need to flip it; you'll just get a crispy-on-one-side-soft-on-the-other pancake. Flip thicker ones and you'll end up with a pillowy breakfast cake like nothing you get from the skillet. My kids especially loved these, as they each got their own mini loaf to carry around with them for the morning.

Oatmeal and other grains

David Priest/CNET

This seems obvious, but many of us don't try other grains in our rice cookers, even though they cook by very similar processes. Oatmeal is a great breakfast option, and quinoa and farro are great, healthy alternatives to rice. Just follow the basic water-to-grain ratio on the directions, and you should end up with a solid result. If you make it often, you can also tweak the measurements to taste.

Rice pudding

David Priest/CNET

I love making rice pudding in the rice cooker because it's the same as making rice with one simple extra step. Start by making a batch of white rice. When it's done, let it cool for a few minutes while you mix up sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and coconut milk. I eyeball the ingredients, but generally shoot for a rice-condensed-evaporated-coconut ratio of 4-2-1-1. Throw in a cinnamon stick, a strip of lemon zest (one big one so you can fish it out later) and a dash of nutmeg to taste. Mix everything together and pour it into the rice cooker with the cooling rice. Then set your cooker to "warm," wait 45 minutes or so until you've got the perfect rice pudding, mix in some cinnamon and serve.

Lentils

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OK, take a break from the delicious and extremely unhealthy rice pudding to consider something a little kinder to your body: lentils. Most legumes won't work well in the rice maker because they need a lot of time soaking and simmering, but lentils will cook really nicely in a basic cooker. Toss them in with the amount of water suggested on the packaging, and you should end up with a bowl of effortless lentils. Again, depending on your device, you may want to tweak the ratios over multiple attempts, and adding a bay leaf, some salt and pepper isn't a bad idea to liven up the dish.

Soup and chili

Speaking of livening up dishes, what better to pack with flavor than a nice soup or chili. Rice cookers are sort of perfect for this type of food, because they are built to boil. That means you'll definitely cook through ground turkey or beef, and if you taste every 15 or 20 minutes, you can cook pretty much any soup you can imagine into its best result.

Applesauce

David Priest/CNET

My favorite rice cooker dish is applesauce. It's tasty, great for kids and super-simple to make and personalize. I've adapted this recipe -- which basically consists of cored and quartered gala apples and water -- to add little extra flavors like cinnamon, lemon, raspberry and other fun tastes.

Want more surprising recipes? Check out our recommendations for the Instant Pot.