How to Use a Pressure Cooker

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.

| September/October 1990

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 Cooker Advantages

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.  

  • Once pressure is achieved—which takes about five to eight minutes—time comparisons with the microwave almost universally favor the pressure cooker.  
  • Asparagus spears take one to two minutes under pressure; microwaving takes eight to 10 minutes, plus three to five minutes' "resting" time.  
  • A pound of green beans cut in one-inch segments calls for zero- to one-minute pressure cooking; in the microwave they'll take five to 11 minutes, plus three to five minutes' resting.  
  • Presoaked chickpeas require only 18 minutes in the pressure cooker; reserve as much as an hour for the microwave.  
  • In every comparable recipe for potted beef, veal, chicken or pork, microwave cooking takes two to four times longer, and the recipe is more complicated to follow. Only fish is equally fast in both systems.  

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.  

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