Essential Tools

All About Pressure Cookers

February 18, 2015

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

26 Comments

taxidog February 24, 2015
glutwin, I will try to post a recipe in the next few weeks as I have to nail down specific measurements and yield. There are are a lot recipes online that you can use as a guide as I did. I don't think you can really screw it up as long as you follow the basic oatmeal/liquid ratios on your oats container. I don't think playing with the add-ins matters much. Note that the carrots should be ground fairly finely in processor as they don't cook enough otherwise and have an unpleasant texture. See my last post for my take on this recipe.
 
taxidog February 23, 2015
Carol, I did look at a lot of carrot cake oatmeal recipes but ended up just making a mashup of all of them plus a few of my own ideas. I used the directions on the SC oats box-1 c. of oats, 4 c. liquid- plus ground carrots, crushed pineapple (drained, juice saved and used as part of cooking liquid with a bit of OJ and the water), yellow raisins, walnuts, unsweetened coconut (broken down a bit in the processor), orange peel, cinnamon- whatever your idea of carrot cake heaven happens to be. Cook for 6 min. @ 15 psi. Allowed the cooker to release pressure naturally then added vanilla. Sweeten to taste. A dollop of whipped honey nut cream cheese is sublime.
 
glutwin February 24, 2015
Absolutely in NEED of your carrot-cake (steel-cut) oatmeal recipe!! This sounds like a wonderful reason to haul my pressure cooker from its hibernation post too far back in the kitchen cupboard!
 
sue February 23, 2015
Artichokes. 15 minutes.
 
rachiti February 23, 2015
Some great ideas in the article and comments. I never thought of using it for stock...I'll have to give that a try this week.
 
rachiti February 23, 2015
I never got the whole "fear" thing regarding pressure cookers from the 1980's onward. You don't pull of the weight from the top until it's de-pressurized & cool - that's it. (of course consult your specific pressure cooker book for details) One doesn't shove one's fingers into the fire or override the safety interlock on the microwave..same here...follow basic safety & only use an appliance if it's not damaged and things should turn out swimmingly. I never bother with slow cookers because the flavors are bland in comparison to the depth of flavor I can get in a pressure cooker. Plus, since I can sear meat in it and then just add the other ingredients - it truly makes a one pot dinner.
 
Frances February 23, 2015
I love my pressure cooker. Best risotto you can ever make in one of these. I also make 'baked' cheesecakes in there in 15 minutes. How can you beat that?!!
 
Ecuacan February 22, 2015
I have a Kuhn Rikon and love it. A couple of tips: I find that flavors meld faster in the pressure cooker so things cooked in the pressure taster as good in the short cooking time as something that has had to simmer for a while on the stove. Tomato based soups or stews can scorch due to the higher heat used to at the beginning to get the pressure up. The solution is to 1 - heat the food to boiling, give the bottom a really good stir, and then put the lid on and 2 - after you put the lid on, put the heat to medium high while the cooker gets to pressure, not high. Another tip - cook a bunch of beets with the skin on in the pressure cooker. Peel when cook. slice/chop and marinate in your favorite vinaigrette. Put these pickled beets in salads, eat them like olives, or add toasted nuts, parsley and feta or goat cheese for a beet salad. The possibilities are endless...
 
Suzanne R. February 22, 2015
About 2 mos. ago, I bought the Cuisinart Countertop Cooking Series 6-Quart Pressure Cooker, Model CPC-600WS; it's beautiful and SO easy to use. I love it!
 
taxidog February 22, 2015
Foaming when cooking grains, rhubarb, cranberries and applesauce can be prevented by filling the cooker no more than halfway and adding some fat. A tablespoon or so should do it. It seems to me that the problem is foods high in starch or pectin (but that is a guess). If foam starts coming out of the valve or vents cut the heat off right away of course. An excuse to use butter! Oil will do if you have more self-restraint than me.
 
taxidog February 22, 2015
Carrot cake steel cut oatmeal in 6 minutes. Enough said. And I thought I didn't like oatmeal. I have a T-Fal 6 qt. that I am quite fond of. I also got a kindle book "HIP Pressure Cooking" that helped me get comfortable with it. It's my current obsession. I especially love that I can cook whole grains like brown rice that usually take forever in no time at all.
 
Carol February 22, 2015
Where can I find that recipe or did you put that together yourself? Carrot cake oatmeal sounds delicious!
 
cookinalong February 22, 2015
Best stove top pressure cooker? Kuhn Rikon, hands down! I've had one for 8 years and use it at least 5 times a week with no problems. All I've ever done is replace the gasket. More expensive than some others, but worth every penny.
 
James February 22, 2015
YA! exactly
 
Stephanie February 19, 2015
For the record, pre-soaking beans doesn't make the cooking time faster but is an important step which shouldn't be skipped. All legumes should be soaked for at least 24 hours before consuming; doing so cleanses them of harmful phytoestrogens.
 
Andrew February 19, 2015
.
 
Lindsay February 19, 2015
The pressure cooker recommendation of 15 psi (pounds per square inch) can be met with a stovetop pressure cooker, but most electric pressure cookers (I believe including the Cuisinart shown) are around 10-11 psi.
 
Erin J. February 19, 2015
I'm partial to my Fagor Duo, it lets me pressure cook and pressure can meats/low acid foods. Freaking love it.
 
Tracey February 18, 2015
I highly recommend the Instant Pot brand. I found out about them on Nom Nom Paleo's website - she raves about them. I have the 7-in-1 and it's an amazing machine.
 
Chris A. February 19, 2015
I agree I have an Instant Pot too. The slow cooker feature also works really well and actually cooks at a lower temp instead of boiling everything like most crock pots do.
 
Kristin B. February 18, 2015
any recommended brands and models?
 
Author Comment
Leslie S. February 19, 2015
For this article we used We used a 6-quart Cuisinart Electric Pressure Cooker (EPC-1200PC), which worked great - especially for someone new to pressure cooking!
 
Andrew February 18, 2015
Editor:<br />Piqued your interest. Not peaked.
 
Alexis February 18, 2015
Can we get a link to whatever recipe the photos in the article come from?
 
Author Comment
Leslie S. February 18, 2015
Of course! The recipe I used is a hybrid of Lorna Sass's mushroom and gruyère risottos from her cookbook, Cooking Under Pressure. (I just followed her mushroom risotto recipe, and added Parmesan and gruyère at the end): http://www.amazon.com/Cooking-Under-Pressure-Anniversary-Edition/dp/0061707872?tag=food52-20
 
Alexis February 18, 2015
Sounds fantastic, thanks :)