Pressure cookers may seem intimidating, but in fact, by reducing the cooking times for whole foods, they can be almost as convenient for a busy lifestyle as microwave ovens.
The pressure cooker may well be the savior of whole-foods home cooking in a society always pressed for time.
ILLUSTRATION: BILL MAYONE
Remember mom's pressure cooker? That heavy pot with the jiggling metal disk on top, rattling away on the stove like a bomb about to explode? Remember Mom in tears and dinner on the ceiling?
No more. Always more apocryphal than real, exploding pressure cookers are now a relic of culinary history. Better technology has eliminated the safety risks that once unnerved wary cooks, leaving only the benefits—fragrant, succulent stews in half an hour, for example. Knowing how to use a pressure cooker, then, is more about knowing how to adapt recipes and their cooking times than any specialized cooking techniques.
The pressure cooker may well be the savior of home cooking in a society that's always pressed for time. In fact, the pressure cooker is to whole foods what the microwave oven is to convenience foods. By dramatically reducing cooking time for beans, grains, vegetables, soups and stews, it turns dishes that once called for advance planning and long simmering into spur-of-the-moment meals.
Note: For a handy, printable chart on how to pressure cook several types of beans, vegetables, grains and meats, see MOTHER’s Pressure Cooking Guide.
Pressure cookers work by applying steam heat to food in an airtight environment. The buildup of pressure caused when steam is trapped inside the pot allows temperatures to rise above those attainable in nonpressurized vessels. As a result, when compared with conventional cookery, most foods cook 70% faster with 50% less fuel. Imagine brown rice in 15 minutes, lentil soup in two, broccoli in two. Moreover, with the pressure valve open, the pressure cooker doubles as a pot for all-purpose cooking.
Flavor is another selling point. Because all the juices and aromatic oils are trapped inside the pot, meats emerge tender and succulent, stews are thick and rich, soups and sauces taste as if they have been simmering slowly for hours. The short cooking time combined with the airtight cooking environment also results in maximum retention of nutrients.
All high-quality models have multiple safety systems, including at least two pressure-release devices to guard against explosion and a safety lock in the lid that makes it impossible to open the pot while pressure exists inside. Look for these safeguards. Another feature well worth shopping for—for the sake of both time and safety—is a quick pressure-release valve; it allows you to reduce pressure manually, rather than leaving the pot to sit until the pressure declines or carrying the hot, heavy pot to the sink and running cold water over it.
At one time, all pressure cookers used an external, detachable pressure gauge; recipes called for different pressures, which meant that the gauge had to be matched to the recipe. Newer models have a built-in, almost silent pressure indicator with only one or two automatic settings, so the cookers are much less complicated to operate. In our experience, the single-level pressure cooker, which is the simplest type to monitor, is perfectly adequate for home use.
Formerly, almost all pressure cookers on the market were aluminum. Today, many are stainless steel, which we feel is preferable. In shopping for the latter kind, be sure it has a heavy aluminum core or an aluminum-clad base for even heat and thermal retention.
Pressure cookers come in several designs, but the traditional-looking pot is probably the best choice. Those that have complex cover systems reminiscent of medical sterilizers are intimidating, while those that force you to slide the lid into the pot when you open it are awkward and often messy to use. Two grips, or a single grip positioned opposite the handle—preferably of heat-resistant, nonslip material—are recommended, since a full pressure cooker can be heavy.
All models include trivets for steaming vegetables, and several come with steaming baskets as well. Again, stainless steel is the material of choice.
Pressure cookers range in capacity from two to 20 quarts (the latter is for canning). A six-quart pot is adequate for most households, although cooks who like to prepare large quantities of soup stock or who regularly feed large crowds might prefer the eight-quart model. When choosing, keep in mind that, in pressure cooking, the pot can be only two-thirds full.
Some pressure cookers require at least two cups of liquid to achieve proper pressure; others work with as little as a quarter cup. If you often cook small amounts of food, a model that functions with less liquid will be more useful.
Never load the cooker more than two-thirds full.
Although many manufacturers provide recipe inserts, most don't tell you how to cook staples or how to adapt your own stove-top recipes.
To help make the pressure cooker user-friendly, we've created comprehensive tables that will allow you to strike out on your own.
Keep in mind that the tables are guidelines. Cooking times may vary slightly, depending on many factors: the size and age of the vegetables (large or old ones take longer), the size of the cut of meat (thicker is slower) and the variety of the grain.
If you're new to pressure cooking, "cook" a cup or two of water first, just to get the feel of the process. Be sure to follow all manufacturer's instructions for assembling, operating and caring for your utensil. For the cooker to function properly, the rubber gasket must be in good condition; replace it if it shrinks, leaks or expands.
As a general rule, the pressure-release valve is recommended when timing is critical, as with vegetables, which overcook quickly. Foods that are mostly liquid or that are prone to sputtering or foaming (beans and grains are less suited to this technique (they tend to clog the valve). If you need a quick loss of pressure with these foods, let the pot stand off the heat for a few minutes first, then very gradually release the steam with the valve.
Never try to open a pressure cooker while there is still any indication of pressure inside. The lid lock in the preferred models prevents opening until all pressure is released. Never try to force the handles apart. It's a good idea to gently shake the pot to further ensure that all pockets of pressure are gone. In addition, it's best to open the lid away from you, in order to direct any remaining steam away from your face.
One final note: Most manufacturers advise not to pressure-cook reactive foods—that is, those that sputter, splash or froth excessively, such as white rice.
Pressure cooking requires liquid to produce the necessary steam; never use less liquid than instructed, even if you reduce the amount of food. As a general guideline, vegetables can be braised in one-fourth to three-fourths cup of liquid, while stews need one to two cups in order to produce enough gravy. For steaming vegetables or pudding, you need a minimum of one-half cup water (or broth) for up to five minutes of pressure cooking, one cup liquid for six to 10 minutes, and another cup for each additional 10 minutes. Foods that absorb liquid, like beans, grains and dried fruit, require adequate amounts to compensate.
Careful timing is the key to this technique; begin the count as soon as pressure is reached. If you're working from a range of numbers, start with the lowest; you can always bring the pressure up again and cook a bit longer. When the suggested time is "zero," remove the cooker from the stove as soon as full pressure is achieved, and quickly reduce the pressure. In contrast to the microwave, the quantity of the food in the pressure cooker doesn't alter the cooking time once it's up to steam.
If you intend to let the cooker cool naturally, rather than reducing pressure quickly, factor this into the timing. And don't forget: Once pressure is released, the cooker should be opened to prevent further cooking.
Cooking Vegetables: Although many vegetables cook quickly with other methods (steaming, for example, they emerge from the pressure cooker even faster and with more of their color and nutrients intact. The best method is pressure steaming: Just place the vegetables in the steaming basket, and set them over plain water or seasoned broth.
Dried Beans: Healthful, delicious beans are often inconvenient to prepare: They have to soak all night and cook all afternoon. With a pressure cooker, they're a quick fix.
Beans may be soaked or not prior to cooking. Unsoaked, they need longer cooking and more water, but they also froth less and hold their shape better. Because legumes expand during cooking, never fill the cooker more than half full.
Grains: Since grains more than double as they cook, the total volume—grain plus liquid—should not fill the pot more than halfway. Grains should be cooked directly in liquid, not in the steam basket. Cooking small seeds like millet, kasha, and cracked wheat is not recommended, since they may block the steam vent.
Barley, Wild Rice, Triticale, Oats, and Whole Wheat and Rye Berries: Rinse and drain the grain, and combine it with twice its volume of water. If desired, add one tablespoon oil or butter per cup of grain to minimize foaming.
Meat and Poultry: Since the pressure cooker must have liquid to function, it's particularly suited to stews and pot roasts. Less expensive cuts (which are also less fatty tenderize beautifully in the moist heat. Sear the meat in a small amount of oil in the open cooker, if desired or as the recipe directs. The more bone and the more tender the cut, the less cooking is needed.
Combinations: To pressure-cook several different foods with varying cooking times (rice and beans, meat and vegetables, begin with the longer-cooking item, reduce the pressure when partially cooked, add additional foods at appropriate times, and bring pressure back up again. Use the chart provided for additional preparation and cooking instructions.
Nikki and David Goldbeck have coauthored six food-related books.