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!

Cheers!
Kathy

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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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10 Comments

KGWagner said:

Lisa – Great article! Everybody should have one of these things – they’re just too useful. I do have one bone to pick, though. You say in the article “a pressurized pot can take some serious muscle to open if it’s not well designed.” I’m sure you must have meant to say something different, as you should NEVER try to open a pot under pressure. If a pot doesn’t want to open, it’s either under pressure, the interlocks think it’s under pressure, or there’s something mechanically wrong and the pot should not be used. All pots have a way of reducing pressure quickly, either by removing the regulator weight or opening the pressure relief valve. Worst case, you can run the pot under cold water. In any event, if the pot doesn’t want to open, it’s best to assume that it’s not safe to open at that point.

Andy said:

Thanks for the article. I didn’t really know anything about pressure cookers and have never used one, but it is something I will consider investing in.

Lisa Freeman said:

KG: Yes, I certainly did not mean to open the pot under pressure. Heavens, that would be quite dangerous–and is certainly a good warning for anyone using a pcooker. Simply meant that opening the pot AFTER you’re done cooking and the pressure has been released, that they can sometimes be tough to open thanks to the tight fit of rubber seals and such.

Andy, a pcooker is definitely a worthy kitchen tool particularly for dishes that take heaps of time. You won’t regret it one bit. Enjoy!

KGWagner said:

Thankfully, modern pressure cookers have interlocks that make it all but impossible to open them unless the internal pressure has dropped to a safe level. They’re marvels of engineering simplicity, being effective and extremely difficult to bypass without making it impossible to build pressure in the first place.

It’s another good argument against buying old units at garage sales, as you pointed out. Those things are tragedies just waiting to happen.

TheVQ said:

The modern pressure cooker is THE tool for the “green” age in which we are living. The one thing that you don’t point out strongly enough is how great the food tastes when it comes out of the cooker. Not only is it fast but you get next-day taste right away in dishes like soup, stew and chili. I will continue to sing its praises until everyone gets one.

KGWagner said:

TheVQ – you’re right, of course, about them being a “green” tool, although you don’t point out why. Lisa does by reference – you can cook something with as much as 75% less time/energy. That’s a HUGE savings. To put that in perspective, 75% off is like paying $1 for a gallon of gas instead of $4. That doesn’t even take into account the savings you get from not having to run the A/C as much during the summer while you’re cooking.

maggie said:

I had an older pressure cooker but it scared me to use it. I might have to invest in the new ones.

KGWagner said:

Maggie -

The older units could be frightening, and rightly so. But, it’s really just not possible for modern units to hurt you any more than any hot pan could. If you have a dutch oven or a stew pot, those are more dangerous.

Paul said:

Thanks for all the buying tips. We were on our way out the door to shop for a pressure cooker at Linens N Things and Bed Bath & Beyond. I really like that it drastically shortens the cooking time since it gets so hot here in South Florida and every bit of heat we can avoid creating in the kitchen helps lower the AC bill.

Joseph said:

I think that by reading this post you can get some great tips on using pressure cookers.