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All About Pressure Cookers

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Give fast food a try -- pressure cooker expert and author of Cooking Under Pressure, Lorna Sass, walks us through this magical, misunderstood machine.

Risotto in Pressure Cooker

When we first decided to look into pressure cookers, based on the interest from our community on the hotline, we hesitated. We recalled the machines of our childhood that seized and emitted a chugging noise at high pressure, with the ever-present risk of a grand finalé that involved scraping tomato sauce off of the ceiling. Then we received Lorna Sass' cookbook, Cooking Under Pressure, which reassured us ("For those worriers among you... you can't do any injury to yourself or your loved ones.") and piqued our interest with recipes for risotto cooked in 4 minutes, spareribs in 14 minutes, and beans in a fraction of their regular cooking time -- without presoaking. How is this possible, you might ask?

More: Already a pressure cooking master? Here are some dishes you can try out.

Pressure cookers reduce cooking time to a third of the normal time by sealing the food within an airtight container, then increasing the internal temperature to produce steam and cook the food above a normal boiling point temperature. To be specific, the boiling point of water at sea level is 212º F, while the boiling point in a pressure cooker is 250º F. In short, food cooks much faster, while maintaining the integrity of their flavors. After flipping through Lorna's recipes, the majority of which take well under 20 minutes, we had to try one out for ourselves: 

Simmer in Pressure Cooker

Finding a pressure cooker:

If you don't already own a pressure cooker, or if you own one made in the mid-twentieth century, there are several "Second Generation" pressure cookers on the market today that have updated safety systems and electric cooking mechanisms. We used a 6-quart Cuisinart Electric Pressure Cooker (EPC-1200PC), but Lorna recommends buying any pressure cooker with the following qualifications: a heavy bottom and even weight distribution, at least one safety-backup mechanism like a steam release valve, and the ability to cook at 15 to 16 pounds per square inch at high pressure.

Many pressure cookers, like ours, are electric and can be left unattended while cooking, but many manual versions require a stovetop and more attention. If using a manual pressure cooker, you should consult your instruction manual before operating, as we used an electric version here.

Pressure Cooker with Risotto

Getting started:

Once you've scoped out, purchased, and carted home your ideal pressure cooker, it's time to get intimate with your new machine and take out the instruction booklet. While many things can be put together without a manual (Ikea furniture, coffee machines, iPads), pressure cookers are not one of these things -- especially if you lack experience with them.

Before your first use, follow your instruction manual's guide to connecting gadgets to your pressure cooker like condensation collectors, pressure limit valves, cooking pots, and power cords. Many of these items, like the pressure valve, are safety precautions, so take care when setting them up -- our instruction booklet featured several bolded, capitalized warnings, lest we turn our pressure valve clockwise, rather than counter-clockwise.

Pressure Cooker and Lid

Get cooking:

One of the most impressive features of a pressure cooker, besides it's ability to cook foods in record speed, is that it is truly an all-in-one machine. Using a stovetop or electrical preset, you can sauté, brown, or simmer your food. We sautéd chopped onions and mushrooms for a risotto in our pressure cooker before setting it up for high pressure cooking -- which is where things get tricky. To cook at high pressure, you must ensure that the lid is locked, the pressure valve is at the correct position, and that there is enough liquid in the machine -- many cookers require a minimum of 1/2 to 2 cups of liquid. And while you can cook a wide variety of foods in a pressure cooker, you should avoid cooking dishes that have foaming ingredients, such as cranberries and rhubarb. Once the lid on our pressure cooker was locked and turned on, the machine took about one minute to preheat, then indicated a countdown with an LED screen. 

Pressure Cooker Risotto

Releasing pressure:

Once your food is cooked, according to the time indicated on whichever recipe you are using, there are two methods to release pressure: natural and quick pressure release. For a natural release, turn the heat off and allow the cooker to sit until the pressure drops, for as long as 20 minutes. To use the quick-release method, either place your manual cooker under cold running water, or use a tong to pull the pressure valve forward to release steam.

Whichever method you choose depends on the recipe and the amount of time you have to cook. If opting for a natural release method, simply decrease the high pressure cooking time by 2 minutes, unless otherwise instructed. Once the pressure has dropped, which will be indicated by a released pressure float or a release of tension when opening the pot, tilt the lid away from your face to protect yourself from risidual steam. Once you've opened your cooker and admired the wonder of fully formed risotto or fall-off-the-bone ribs, you may have to simmer the mixture to release excess moisture.

Our favorite things to cook:

Now that we're all pressure cooking professionals, there's a world of quick and easy recipes to be had -- here are some of our favorite dishes that transform under pressure into fully-formed weeknight meals.

  • Rice and grains. Pressure cookers were made for one-pot meals, but can also cook brown rice in a fraction of the time.
  • Tender meats. The extreme pressure tenderizes meet within minutes, so it's possible to make a coq au vin or chili in under 20 minutes.
  • Soups and broth. Chicken stock and vegetable broth can skip the stovetop simmering time; in a pressure cooker, they take as little as 35 minutes to make.
  • Beans. Skip the pre-soaking stage and throw your beans straight into a cooker.

Do you have any advice for using a pressure cooker? Tell us in the comments!    

Photos by Alpha Smoot

Tags: Grains, Tips & Techniques, Dinner, Faster, Kitchen Confidence