French

The Tool French Cooks Swear By to Get Dinner on the Table—& Fast

by:
May 10, 2017

There’s a secret weapon lurking in most French home kitchens, a device that saves time and money, and makes it easier to produce daily meals. It’s the pressure cooker.

Called the cocotte-minute or auto-cuiseur, this is a tool so essential to some French kitchens that my friend Matthieu went so far as to joke that “no self-respecting French home would be without” one. (Needless to say, he may have been exaggerating.)

Invented by the French physicist Denis Papin in the seventeenth century, the pressure cooker has long been heralded by home cooks as a speedy, albeit slightly perilous, way to soften dried beans or tough cuts of meat. Though many Americans (including me) remain wary of the device—probably due to too many viewings of the exploding dinner scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—the French are not at all intimidated by the pressure cooker. In fact, they seem to regard it with a nostalgia more powerful than Proust’s emotions for the madeleine: “I grew up with the constant whistling of the pressure cooker and I find the music of it pretty soothing,” says my friend, Thomas.

With the growing popularity of the Instant Pot and other electric multi-function devices in the United States, the pressure cooker seems poised to take American home cooks by storm. When I received an Instant Pot as a gift, I began researching innovative ways to use the device, talking to my French friends about their favorite tricks.

Here are 5 tips from French home cooks for making the most out of your pressure cooker:

1) Infuse herbs into vegetables and meat.

When you’re steaming fresh vegetables on a rack, add a sprig or two of fresh herbs to the pot of liquid below. In the 1 to 3 minutes it takes to cook, the herbs permeate the vegetables, adding a complex flavor that pairs beautifully with a sauce or compound butter. Delicious combinations include zucchini and thyme, potatoes and rosemary, or globe artichokes and lemon zest.

“This technique is also wonderful with meat,” says Lucy Vanel, the owner of the Plum Lyon cooking school in Lyon, France. She suggests stuffing a leg of lamb with mint, and pressure-cooking it over a bed of mint leaves.

2) Replace a step in a recipe (rather than adapting the entire recipe).

Obviously, the pressure cooker is great for one-pot meals. But French cooks also use it as a shortcut—to replace or simplify a step in a recipe. For example, you can speedily soften the endives for endives au jambon, the cauliflower for a gratin, or the chickpeas for falafel.

“I cook a batch of whole potatoes in advance,” says my friend, Thomas. “Later on, I fry them with duck fat and herbs and use them for omelettes and cold salads.”

3) Use it to economize.

Roast chicken bones are pressure-cooked for stock—not just once, but often twice, or even three times. Bruised, battered, or tough fruits and vegetables—like quince, beets, or celery root—are transformed into silky compotes and purées; used as baby food; topped with grated cheese and browned as a gratin; or served as a simple side with a drizzle of fine olive oil. French people also love to use the pressure cooker for tough cuts of meat like beef cheeks, pig’s feet, tripe, or rabbit.

And this concept of thrift also extends to the modest amount of energy consumed by the pressure cooker—far less than the stove or oven—which is greatly appreciated by the frugal French cook; they also love the way that steaming in a pressure cooking preserves the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables more so than boiling vegetables in water on the stove. Also: “Things taste better because you haven’t lost any flavor,” says Lucy Vanel.

4) Eat more soup!

Soups—and the pressure cooker—play a large role in the four-course French family meal. “My mother has always been adamant that lunches and dinners must have four courses—starter, main dish, cheese, dessert—which is nice but a bit severe,” says Thomas. “Soups were always the winter starter—usually potatoes, carrots, and leeks made in her cocotte-minute.”

Soup, which is as economical as it is delicious (it stretches a small amount of vegetables and fills you up before the rest of the meal), can be ready in minutes.

“When I was an exchange student lodging with a French countess,” says my friend Steve, “she would use her pressure cooker to make an extremely economical leek and potato soup, which was our first course nearly every night of the week. She didn’t bother puréeing it, just cooked the potatoes until they were soft enough to be crushed against the sides of the pan. The whole operation only seemed to take about 20 minutes.”

5) Keep the pressure cooker in a convenient spot.

This is an obvious but important point—the expression of “out of sight, out of mind” rings true. Though French kitchens tend to be small, home cooks keep the pressure cooker at hand—even at the expense of precious real estate—because it’s such a useful tool. Rather than bury the device in the back of the cupboard, they keep it stored on a convenient shelf, drying in the rack, or sitting on the stovetop (or countertop), waiting to be used.

“As a busy parent, my maman would use her cocotte-minute everyday,” my friend, Jérôme says. “I don’t dust it off for special occasions,” Lucy Vanel adds. “I consider it one of my most useful tools. Store it with the pots and pans. Make it accessible—and always have it in mind as a way to save time.”

What are your best pressure cooking tips? Tell us in the comments below!

23 Comments

Leslie M. February 20, 2018
There's a Facebook page on Instant Pot recettes en français; they have some good tips and recipes. Apparently Pinterest has recipes too but I don't belong. I'm really hoping for a decent cookbook with a mixture of traditional and more modern recipes for the Instant Pot. That said, I haven't had any trouble translating regular PC recipes into Instant Pot-ese, now that I've used my pot for a bit.
 
Author Comment
Ann M. February 22, 2018
I recommend Melissa Clark's book, Dinner in an Instant!
 
patricia D. February 20, 2018
Would love to hear about a cookbook for instant pot cooking (French style) Have lived in France for over 40 yrs and used stove top pressure cookers, but the recipe books for instant pot I've seen just don't seem interesting enough -<br />the times I've tried the instant pot as a slow cooker, results have been pitiful and I do have a slow cooker bought in ENgland years ago which works very well - just thought instant pot could do everything (as it says on it publicity)<br />Would love to get your ideas - just limit it to being an electric pressure cooker?
 
Author Comment
Ann M. February 22, 2018
Hi Patricia, I find the pressure cooking function is great for French food, especially braised meats like seven-hour lamb. I also enjoy using it as a shortcut (as in tip #2) – for example, softening cauliflower for a gratin, or leeks for poireaux vinaigrette. I also appreciate the yogurt function. Slow cooking is the function I've used the least. Good luck and happy (pressure) cooking!
 
Leslie M. June 19, 2017
I have looked all over for a good traditional French pressure cooker cookbook to use with my Instant Pot. There seems to be nothing current, but I finally found a used copy of La Cuisine avec - les autocuiseurs from Françoise Bernard's collections. It would be nice to have something new!
 
Author Comment
Ann M. June 19, 2017
Another good book is the little free cookbook from SEB, makers of "la cocotte-minute" (look for it on French Ebay). A generation (or more) of French people grew up eating those recipes :)
 
Leslie M. June 19, 2017
Thanks, Ann. I have some of the SEB and Cookeo books, but they don't seem to focus on the more traditional recipes I was looking for.
 
Claudine (. May 18, 2017
That is such a good tip (#2) to use a pc to replace a step in a recipe. I'm always thinking about one pot meals when I think about pressure cookers, but really, it could make many other meal preps so much quicker, yummier and more efficient.
 
Author Comment
Ann M. May 23, 2017
I loved this tip, too! And it's a great way to eat more root vegetables (and other toughies) that take so long to cook.
 
Martin May 15, 2017
Wrong link... The one I got in the email lead to this: <br />https://food52.com/blog/19001-send-help-i-m-kind-of-falling-in-love-with-the-instant-pot?bxid=5820bc6d27fdb0952c8b5053&utm_campaign=20170514_sunday_digest&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Sailthru&utm_term=9599968<br /><br />Had to google the title that was actually in the email.
 
KR May 15, 2017
Ok. The link must have been incorrect. I was directed to another post through the newsletter which had nothing to do with France. Mystery solved! yay : )
 
DMStenlake May 14, 2017
Cook book yay! Mom used the pressure cooker for the Hungarian recipes and when the weight started rattling she'd yell "look out, get out of the kitchen". Scared me, still does, so my husband uses ours. And I still run when the pressure starts to build!
 
Author Comment
Ann M. May 23, 2017
Ha! A friend jokes about "the stain" on the ceiling – familiar to all who grew up in a pressure cooker household :)
 
NYRangersfan May 11, 2017
Use it to "par cook" chicken and ribs, and then finish them off on the outside grill. Works really well..
 
Author Comment
Ann M. May 23, 2017
Pre-cooking chicken in the pressure cooker and finishing it in the oven is also great!
 
Devon D. May 10, 2017
What a delightful read! As a proud Southerner reluctantly transplanted to Suburban Pennsylvania, I nostalgically echoed the sentiment of the author's friends in this article. A "true" Southern kitchen had the likes of at least a Mirro/ Presto, and as children your mother's pressure cooker always let you know when the food was done (and it was safe to return to the kitchen!) via the diminishing sound of the jiggler. I use my 10 yr old, $22 6qt aluminum Walmart special (Presto) almost every day and even my 3yr old baby girl knows how to check the vent tube and insert the gasket correctly. Praying she'll enjoy an upgraded version (researching a Fissler) along with the heirloom cast iron I collect for her when she begins cooking! May we all cook with love!
 
Author Comment
Ann M. May 23, 2017
I love this pressure cooker nostalgia and legacy!
 
melissa May 10, 2017
i would TOTALLy buy the french pressure cooker cookbook. please do a roundup of the recipes spoken of in this article!!
 
Lune May 10, 2017
I second that idea!
 
BocaCindi May 11, 2017
I'll third that idea.
 
rosetreez May 12, 2017
I'd love the recipes too!
 
Veggielover May 18, 2017
Me too!
 
Author Comment
Ann M. May 23, 2017
Thank you! In fact, I am actually working on a French pressure cooker cookbook!