I can’t remember how long it took me to realize that my first kitchen in Korea was ovenless. Was it weeks after I moved into my first officetel apartment? Was it days? The first hour? I gave it a “well this is new and different” expat shrug. I resolved to improve my fried rice and experiment with Korean soups. If I was homesick, I’d make pancakes or grilled cheese. But as time went by I spent Sunday after Sunday casting blank stares across my 12 square foot kitchen, wistfully stuck on baked potatoes. Casseroles. Blueberry muffins.
Eventually a departing coworker sold me her convection oven. For a while that sufficed. I baked banana bread, generously adjusting the baking time from the recipe. Vegetables would moisten, soften and brown. Tiny cuts of meat would roast pretty well in my little hot box that melted any object within inches of its radiant neon glow.
Repeated failure struck when I tried to get fancy. Cake after standard sheet cake would emerge after hours with gooey cores and rocky circumferences. Adjusting the temperature, setting and bake time was of no use. My boyfriend and I ate our half-chicken Christmas dinner in shifts, dismembering the cooked breast from the still-raw drumsticks… I’ve never hurled insults at a household appliance with the same zeal.
When I moved to a new apartment, I relocated the oven to the curb. The two of us were through. I didn’t have the money to buy a quality standalone oven. As a renter in Seoul, a “real” oven that required proper installation was likely out of the question.
I turned to an appliance that had never caused me a moment of pain: my cheerful, chirpy Cuckoo. My rice cooker, the magic machine capable of steaming anything to perfection, would be my key to fresh bread and birthday cake.
With a little trial and error and Internet consultation, my steam dreams came true. Brownies, cakes, sweet and savory breads are all a veritable cinch in a rice cooker. The fluffy, lightly chewy texture that is the hallmark of perfectly steamed rice materializes too in rice cooker treats. Temperature control, a challenge when working with most ovens, is never a concern when baking with a Cuckoo.
Bake or steam time, on the other hand, can take some finesse. Another caveat is that the rice cooker is limited to baking in the round. Muffins become muffin cake, lemon bars will result in a few lemon squares and a few lemon crescents. You get the idea.
A general guideline for baking with a rice cooker.
Note: These directions are most compatible with a Cuckoo rice cooker, a very popular Korean brand. My rice cooker’s size is three quarts. (You can check the size in your rice cooker’s manual.) You will need to take the size of your rice cooker into account when baking. A three quart rice cooker can handle recipes for baked goods that call for about 1 to 1.5 cups of flour. When baking with a three quart cooker, you may need to halve or reduce any recipes that call for 2 or more cups of flour. Those using a very large rice cooker should consider doubling or adjusting their recipe to 1.5 times the given amount.
When the prepared batter is inside the rice cooker’s dish and ready to bake, set your rice cooker to steam (찜) using the “menu” button (it’s “menu” written in Korean: 메뉴). (In a Cuckoo, the arrow on the screen should align with the word 찜.) Once you’ve selected steam, the screen will display a default time in minutes. To change the steam time, press the 예약 (“timer”) button which should up the time. Keep pressing until you reach the correct number of minutes.
You can then press “cook” (취사) to begin baking. It’s good to check the rice cooker once or twice while baking is underway–you may need to add or reduce time accordingly. Test the center of your creation with a toothpick or chopstick to make sure it’s not raw in the middle. The utensil should come out clean.
Easy Yellow Cake in a Rice Cooker
1 box yellow cake mix
Spoonful of oil to grease the pan (preferably coconut oil)
Prepare cake batter according to the box directions. (I don’t read Korean fluently and I find most prepackaged baking directions are visual and easy to follow.)
Grease the pan evenly with oil before pouring in the batter. Bake for given time on box instructions (Typically 45 min – an hour.)