"My son Mark learned to cook with a [stovetop] pressure cooker when he was nineteen years old," Urvashi Pitre writes in the introduction to her forthcoming book, Instant Pot Fast & Easy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2019). "I still remember the day he mastered four different dishes in one day. Now, Mark is scary-smart, this is true, but it's also true that pressure cookers are not that complicated."
Pitre—aka the "Butter-Chicken Lady," per New Yorker contributor Priya Krishna—is probably one of the smartest people I've ever talked to; she's a scientist by day and a cookbook author by night. From a single 30-minute phone conversation with her, I learned more about pressure cooking than I have reading about it for years in cookbooks, online, or even in my own kitchen tinkering with my little 3-quart Instant Pot, the electric pressure cooker Pitre also uses for her recipes. In these 30 minutes (about the time it takes for her Instant Pot butter chicken to come together), she expressed her frustration at all of the Instant Pot recipes out there that make you sauté first, when science shows a simple dump-and-cook would do.
"People aren't thinking through how a pressure cooker really cooks," she tells me. "They're not leveraging the full capabilities of the Instant Pot or coming at it from a scientific perspective."
According to Pitre, the Maillard reaction—which is a web of chemical reactions that happen between amino acids and carbohydrates when food is cooked, making it smell and taste great—is often conflated with sautéing, or that "brown crust" we all love on steak.
But this conflation disregards that the Maillard reaction can happen without caramelization and at temperatures as low as 130°F (though the lower the temperature, the longer it'll take to achieve the reaction, e.g. even in a slow cooker with liquid, or in a pressure cooker). "In a pressure cooker, the boiling point of water is increased as the pressure rises," Pitre explains. "So a pressure cooker can get to about 230°F, and that’s definitely high enough for Maillard. What this means is that when you put your food in a pressure cooker, essentially that super-heated water starts to create the Maillard reaction even though the environment is moist. It's not an all-or-nothing reaction."
What she was telling me, in short, was that a pressure cooker can create a Maillard reaction, even without the sauté function. This blew my mind.
"It's a mistake to take the moisture out of food by searing it first, and then just adding back plain water," Pitre says about the Instant Pot's sauté function (for which there is, of course, a time and a place, such as when you need to fry spices in oil for a tadka).
Ready to put all of this science to the test, I've collected Pitre's most delicious Instant Pot recipes below, along with a few from Archana Mundhe, author of The Essential Indian Instant Pot Cookbook. Mundhe's recipes celebrate another aspect of the multi-cooker that's worth mentioning here: convenience. "The Instant Pot makes the process more hands-off, especially for Indian cooking," Mundhe writes. "It is a true one-pot experience where you can cook traditional recipes like biryani, pongal, korma, and other dishes that would normally use multiple pots."
When I asked Pitre whether or not Indian food in particular lends itself well to the Instant Pot—perhaps explaining why "Instant Pot recipes Indian" is one of the most searched Instant Pot–related queries according to Google—she said:
"Does it lend itself? Hm, sure. One thing is that Indian food has been prepared in stovetop pressure cookers for years. Indian home cooks have been using them for so long, so when it comes to writing Indian recipes for the Instant Pot, there's no translation needed."
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).
Eric Kim is a Senior Editor at Food52, where his weekly solo dining column, Table for One, runs every Friday morning. Formerly the Digital Manager at Food Network, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.