Kathy Maister's Start Cooking

How to Pick and Use a Pressure Cooker

posted in General by Lisa Freeman

Note from Kathy:
I get a lot of questions and comments on pressure cookers. Those that have one swear that they are great, even for the beginner cook.
Kevin Wagner recently did a great post on Pressure Cookers – The Original Microwavewhere he described in great detail the fundamentals of a pressure cooker. Here, Lisa is carrying on with the story. I am slowly coming around to the notion of buying one. In the meantime, I am delighted that we have Kevin and Lisa to share their expertise on pressure cookers!



Pressure Cookers have gotten a bad rap, and it’s no wonder. I have a distinct childhood memory of my mother making lentil soup in a pressure cooker, when – splat! – ­­­ the steam cap erupted and the lentils went flying onto the ceiling and walls. These days, pressure cookers are a bit different, and certainly safer and easier to operate. Once you use one, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it!

How Pressure Cookers Work

Pressure cookers look like an ordinary pot with a cover, but they’re actually tightly sealed vessels that can cook food very quickly. So, a soup that takes four hours to make normally, could take as little as 45 minutes in a pressure cooker. Special valves release air slowly so that the pressure doesn’t build to the point that the darned thing pops. It’s a kitchen marvel, really.

Great Reasons to Own a Pressure Cooker

  • Shorter cooking times help retain the vitamins and nutrients in the food
  • Food cooks up to 75 per cent faster than in a regular stock pot
  • Saves gas/electricity on your stovetop/oven because food takes less time to cook
  • Reduced mess and clean-up since everything cooks in one pot

Choosing a Pressure Cooker

Buying a pressure cooker is pretty straightforward. The big, stainless steel models can be cost a few hundred dollars, but a decent pot can be had for U.S. $75 or less if you catch a good sale. They range in size from 4 to10 quarts; I would recommend buying one with at least a 6-quart capacity. Also, look for heat-resistant handles.

Please, don’t buy a pressure cooker at a garage sale. These old behemoths do not have the safety features that are in use today. It’s not worth scalding yourself to save a few dollars on a used pot. Buy one manufactured in the last 3 years so that you get the latest technology available. Get a stovetop pot and not an electric one, please.

I highly recommend the Fagor brand of cookers. It’s great value for money, has helpful features and is made of stainless steel rather than aluminum. The pressure valve is not a moving part or a spinning top that could pop off. It’s also really easy to open, which is definitely a consideration, as a pressurized pot can take some serious muscle to open if it’s not well designed.

What To Cook in a Pressure Cooker

Soups, stews and beans are a natural fit for pressure cookers. Pot roasts turn out so tender you’ll kick yourself for not having bought one of these things sooner. Potatoes are a snap, and chili is a no-brainer. You can also steam vegetables in a pressure cooker in just 2-3 minutes. There are all kinds of recipes out there to try.

Keeping track of cooking time is important when it comes to pressure cooking, so use an oven timer to make sure you’re not overdoing things. Vegetables, for example, can turn into a soggy mess if you don’t keep an eye on the time.

Also, don’t use your pot for anything other than pressure cooking. I’ve seen people ruin a perfectly good one trying to fry up chicken wings in it. That’s a no-no, unless your pot instructions specifically say that you can.

So, go get yourself a pressure cooker and you’ll see how easily one of those slow-cooked meals like grandma used to make can be sped onto your dinner table in no time.

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The Perfect Espresso Maker – Which One to Choose?

posted in Equipment, General by Lisa Freeman

Tired of spending an arm and a leg on store-bought triple mocha cappuccinos? Then consider buying your own espresso maker and whipping them up yourself! If you’re wondering what to look for in an espresso maker, here are some tips:

Manual, Semi-Automatic, Automatic: Personally, I’m a big fan of the espresso-making process, so I like to go through all the motions of making the coffee — grinding my own beans, tamping the grounds into the machine, and then foaming the milk. The whole process doesn’t take more than 10 minutes, and it’s a fun ritual. So, one of the semi-automatic machines suits me just fine. It ends up being faster and cheaper than going to the local coffee shop.

For those of you who are into gadgetry and who have deeper pockets, a fully automatic machine reduces the coffee-making process to the push of a button. That’s all that’s necessary to produce a divine cup of joe. You won’t even need a separate grinder because the machine will do the grinding for you, dump the grounds into the coffee maker and then dump it into the cup waiting below. You can set the timer in the evening and your brew will be ready when you wake up. If money is no object and you just don’t want to get your hands dirty, then go for it.

On the other end of the spectrum is a fully manual machine, which I don’t recommend because you have to know what you’re doing in terms of pulling the lever — doing it too quickly or slowly affects the taste of the coffee. Not worth the trouble.

Price:You can spend anywhere from $75 U.S. to thousands of dollars for a coffee machine, so first establish a budget.

  • Plan to spend $150 to $300 for a competent machine without too many bells and whistles.
  • In the $300 to $700 range, you’re talking about a home professional unit that’s made with higher-end materials, such as stainless steel, as well as more features.
  • In the $700-and-up range, you’ve got a more restaurant-quality machine, all kinds of extra settings and options, and, most likely, a fully automated machine with a built-in grinder.

Pods: Just a brief word on these newer pod machines that force you to use coffee cartridges that fit your brand of machine. You’re stuck buying expensive, single-use containers that are not friendly to the environment and you are limited to the coffee flavours the company sells. In my grinder, I can mix up any coffee beans I like and don’t have to commit to one particular vendor for life. Plus, these machines take the fun out of making espresso!

So, What Machine Do I Choose? Ultimately, it’s difficult to recommend a single perfect machine. It all depends on the factors mentioned above, how you like your coffee, and what kind of features you’re looking for. Stick with a machine that’s simple to use, unless you have previous experience using an espresso machine. There are dozens of websites that offer ratings and recommendations, so do your research carefully and you can kiss Starbucks goodbye!

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Pressure Cookers – The Original Microwave

posted in General by Kathy Maister

Kevin Wagner, a frequent commenter on startcooking.com is today’s guest blogger. Thanks, Kevin, for all this valuable information!


Pressure Cookers – The Original Microwave
by Kevin Wagner.

A very useful tool for beginners to seasoned chefs and all points in between is the venerable pressure cooker. While they’re gaining popularity fast, there’s still some hesitation due to old stories that die hard about the dangers and drawbacks associated with their use. We’ll try to dispel some of those here.

Pressure cooker
Chef’s Design 9 Quart Pressure Cooker

A brief history

Back in the early part of the last century, pressure cookers were very popular because people didn’t have refrigeration or freezers, so canning was the order of the day if you needed or wanted to store food for any length of time. Pressure cookers were a good way to sterilize jars, as well as cook things thoroughly and in a reasonable length of time while preserving the valuable nutrients, texture, and flavor of the food.

During WWI, the depression, and WWII, shortages and rationing made manufacturing such things impractical, but they were still in high demand so people shared them. Once WWII was over, because demand was still strong, about 80 bajillion manufacturers in the late ’40s – early ’50s jumped into the pressure cooker game. They made a lot of bad units due to inexperience, the need for expediency, and a nation not so litigious as it is today. As you might expect, popularity dropped off. Handy is one thing, dysfunctional and/or lethal is something else. Also, at about that same time, refrigeration and freezing started to become common. Demand for pressure cookers began to drop off.

They’re becoming popular again because of energy concerns, the quality of the food you can make with them, and expediency. It’s nearly as fast as a microwave without all the downsides associated with that. But, liability insurance for making such things is through the roof, and all the safety features and structural overcompensation are expensive, so they’re not for the financially timid. A decent unit will run you anywhere from $45 to over $200, depending on size, features, and construction material (aluminum or stainless steel). On the plus side, all the good things about pressure cookers are still there, while the danger is gone. The pot I recently bought has 4 safeties built into it, so the chances of blowing my head off or burning myself are nearly non-existent. This ain’t your grandma’s pressure cooker.

How they work

So, why were they dangerous then and not now? To answer that, we have to know a little bit about how they work. It’s actually very simple. Water at sea level boils at 212°F. If you lower the pressure, say by going up a mountain or living in a high elevation area, the boiling point drops. It can get to a point where the water is boiling at such a low temperature that you can’t even cook with it.This is true of all liquids.

The opposite situation generally doesn’t occur naturally. That is, getting a higher pressure than at sea level in open air. Enter the pressure cooker. By enclosing and sealing the liquid in a pot, then boiling it, we create steam that raises the pressure in the pot, which at the same time raises the boiling point of the liquid. This phenomena can chase itself until the pressure is so high it forces an opening. Back in the old days, that sometimes meant bursting the pot if the pressure relief valve or regulator wasn’t working for some reason. Since the pots were made of steel or aluminum, it was a pretty violent thing. You not only got an explosion, you got super-heated fluids all over the place. But, generally cookers are limited to 15psi (pounds per square inch) or less, so the temperature stays below about 257°F.

Another thing that used to happen sometimes back then was someone would open the pot before the pressure had dropped down. In that case, you didn’t really get an explosion per se, but there was no telling where that lid was going to land. You also had super-heated steam blow out and catch you in the hands, arms, face, torso, etc. It was fast and it was a contact burn. There was no ducking it or wiping yourself off. You were burned, but good.

Why we aren’t so worried today

So, how do we prevent the pressure from getting explosively high or letting an active pot hurt us and ruin our day? Modern pots have a number of safety features built into them to prevent pressure build-up past safe limits (or at all), release over-pressures before they get dangerous, and mechanical interlocks prevent opening or closing them under the wrong circumstances. They’re very simple, highly effective, and difficult to bypass.

First, if everything isn’t just right, pressure won’t even build up. The sealing gasket has to be good, the safety releases have to be closed, the pressure regulator has to be set in place, and the interlocks have to be locked. Otherwise, it’s just a regular ol’ pot, albeit a little shinier than what the cavemen used.

Second, assuming we’ve done everything right and created some pressure, there’s a pressure regulator that’s designed to keep the pressure at some preset level. That can vary by design, but it’s always below 15psi. As a reference, the air in your car tires is probably around 32psi. If for some reason your regulator doesn’t work, there are other pressure releases. There’s always a valve in the lid set to open if the pressure goes above 15psi. Depending on design, there may be another one in the handle, which is part of the interlock system. There’ll be a similar one on the opposite side for the same reason. Also, the gasket may have a cutout it bears against that will pop open. In any event, you’re not going to build up too much pressure. Something is going to give, and it won’t be the pot or lid itself. You also won’t be able to open it until the pressure is back to atmospheric. So, we’re safe.

Why cook under pressure?

There are number of reasons, all of them good, but top of the list is always speed. You can make country-style pork ribs in 20 minutes flat, where a braise will cost you an hour and a half. Veggies generally only take a few minutes, sometimes even less. Because of the higher temperature and moist environment, you can use less costly cuts of meat and still have them be tender, saving you money. Speaking of saving, you use a lot less energy. Energy dissipation is lower, too, so you’re not going to heat up the whole house making dinner. You keep more of your food’s nutrients by not boiling them off over a long period of time, and what does cook off remains in the pot. The higher temperature also insures that any parasites or bacteria that may be on or in the food get killed off. Many recipes result in a single-pot meal, so there’s less clean up and clutter. The list goes on, but I think you get the idea. Pressure cookers are a Good Thing.

If you don’t have a pressure cooker now, I don’t think you’ll be sorry if you get one. If you currently have one of the older cookers, you may be better off replacing it. It’s not a good idea to give the old one away, either. They’re dangerous. The pot is fine to be used as a pot, but toss the lid so nobody’s tempted to pressurize the thing. Incidentally, there’s a pretty wide difference in price between online suppliers and locals, so shop smart.

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