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.
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!