Kathy Maister's Start Cooking

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!

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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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46 Comments

Kathy Maister said:

Thanks Kevin for this great post!

I have two questions:
1. Is a pressure cooker something a beginning cook should consider investing in?

2. Is there any one in particular that you would recommend?

KGWagner said:

Kathy –

1. Is a pressure cooker something a beginning cook should consider investing in?

Yes, for several reasons. First, if nothing else, it’s a good general-purpose pot. You can hard-boil eggs, make spaghetti or chili, broth, etc. Anything you’d do with a regular pot, you can do with the pressure cooker pot. So, less space to take up in the cupboard duplicating things.

Second, they’re safe. Between the various pressure releases and interlocks, there’s no more danger associated with them than there is with any other cooking pot.

Next, as I mentioned in the article, they’re fast and easy. Perfect for today’s busy schedules, and with less clean-up. Everybody loves a tender beef or pork roast, but who has time to mess around in the kitchen for 2 hours?

Finally, you get to keep all the vitamins and minerals from the food you cook, as opposed to boiling them away. Food is expensive enough without removing a major reason for eating it.

There are other reasons, but I’ll let curiousity bring them out so I don’t make this post too long

2. Is there any one in particular that you would recommend?

I like the one I just bought quite a bit. It’s the Chef’s Design unit pictured in the article above. That one happens to be a 9qt. pot, but they come in several sizes.

What I like about it is it’s stainless steel as opposed to aluminum, with a 3-ply bottom that has a sandwich of aluminum in the middle for good heat distribution. Stainless is easier to clean, and acidic foods don’t eat it like they do aluminum.

Not that aluminum pots are bad, per se. You’ll get more aluminum in your bloodstream by using an anti-perspirant every day. But they do eventually get pitted and progressively more difficult to clean. On the plus side, they’re somewhat lighter and less expensive.

The other things I liked about the Chef’s Design unit were that it came with a glass lid to use in place of the pressure lid for when you’re using the pot as just a pot. Plus, it came with two pressure regulators, so you can do lower pressure cooking if you want to. Finally, it has a perforated basket that sets down inside rather than just a spacer, which is nice if you want to segregate your veggies (or whatever) from the broth that results from cooking to make gravy or sauces. Beats having to dirty up a strainer.

There are others at the link above, so shop around, and see what sounds best.

VeggieQueen said:

Kevin,

I am curious about whether or not the Chef’s Design cooker is a spring valve, modified jiggle top or jiggle top cooker? I teach pressure cooking and it would be good to know about it.

I think that the pressure cooker is perfect for beginning cooks as it requires so few steps to get things right — especially great soups.

Thanks for posting this.

Jill

KGWagner said:

Incidentally, for what it’s worth, my first cooking experience with the new cooker is here. There’s not a lot of detail about the recipe I used, which was just out of hand, but more about playing with the cooker.

KGWagner said:

Jill –

I don’t think I’d call it any of those things, although “modified jiggle top” might come close. It’s actually a weighted spool valve.

The spool is the weight, and it sits on a hollow shaft with grooves cut into it. As the pressure rises, it overcomes the weight of the spool, and raises it to expose a port for steam to escape. Depending on the weight of the spool, you get different pressures in the pot. This particular cooker comes with two weights.

What this does is regulate the pressure a little more evenly, without the spitting you get from a jiggle-top. Of course, to ensure a more regulated pressure, you need to be sure the pot isn’t overloaded, but that’s true of all pressure cookers.

Incidentally, there’s a safety built into that as well. You can’t remove (or blow off) the regulator unless you unlock the pot, and you can’t unlock the pot unless the pressure is back down to ambient.

Charmed said:

Kevin,

I purchased an electric pressure cooker about a year ago and I love it. Any experience/comments about these?

KGWagner said:

Charmed –

I’ve never used one or known anyone that’s had one, so I can’t really say. I’m not a big fan of electric cooking in general, though. In standalone appliances, you often have submersibility issues that make them a little more difficult to clean. For stoves, there’s the reaction times involved with heating/cooling of the elements, and the inability to really see where you’re adjusted.

But, that’s just me. I’ve been cooking on an electric stove for about 6 years now after about 42 years of gas, and I’m finally getting to where I have repeatable results and don’t burn my eggs too often

Charmed said:

Kevin,

I agree with you on that. I actually have a duel fuel range and love the gas cook top and electric oven. I have a hard time follwoing recipes for the pressure cooker because all that I’ve tried are for stove top cookers. But still…I love it. heh

KGWagner said:

Charmed –

It shouldn’t make a difference whether you use a standalone electric pressure cooker or a stovetop unit. The whole trick to the thing relies on physics – water under pressure boils at a higher temperature, so you make higher temperature steam, which is what’s doing the cooking. The pressure is regulated to go no higher than 15 psi, so that means you’re cooking at approximately 257 degrees in a moist environment.

Pressure cooker recipes can be very time-sensitive, though. You can turn veggies to mush in no time flat, so it’s a good idea to follow the timing and pressure release advice they give you in those recipes.

David Perednia said:

There have been lots of requests for a good pressure cooker. Following along with Kevin’s comments about the pressure cooker being a good cooking pot I would suggest looking into an electric pressure cooker. QVC (yes I’m hooked) has a very nice line of electric pressure cookers. One new one that they have is a multi-purpose 6 quart electric pressure cooker which has 9 functions including delay time, cook time, cook, slow cook, brown, stew, steam/canning, pressure adjust, and keep warm/cancel . The extra functions are great for a forgetful cook like myself who can easily get involved writing a comment on a cooking website while my dinner is cooking.

The variable pressure settings from 20%, 30%, 40%, 50%, 60%, 70%, and 80% pressure make cooking delicate vegetables from broccoli, asparagas and string beans to all kinds of squash much easier.

I have no relationship to QVC other than as a satisfied customer.

Cheers and good cooking.

VeggieQueen said:

It sounds as if your Chef’s Design cooker is a modified jiggle top whereas many of the other modern cookers are spring valve, with no jiggler at all. Having built-in safety features is fantastic but I still prefer doing without any jiggler and only use the spring valve. I haven’t tried the new programmable electric ones but I’d like to. Just love what a pressure cooker can do for food, and that’s the most important part. Right?

Karen (Pediascribe) said:

What an interesting article. I bought a (very nice) pressure cooker about 8 years ago. I’ve used it once. I just never know what to cook in it! How sad is that?

Tonight I made some rice (long grain/short grain/black/brown–it was a mix from whole foods). It took 50 minutes to cook (simmer) and another 15 to sit off the heat. It was yummy, but usually I don’t have that sort of time. How can I adapt this for the pressure cooker?
Thanks!

KGWagner said:

Karen –

Here’s a very good chart for cooking various types of rice in a pressure cooker.

VeggieQueen said:

You can cook brown rice in the pressure cooker with 1 cup rice, 1 1/2 cups water and bring to high pressure for 22 minutes on the heat. Let the pressure come down naturally for about 10 minutes. Voila, good brown rice.

Your pressure cooker can really save you time. Try using it.

raj said:

I can recall numerous stories, way in the past, of pressure cookers blowing up in kitchens of friends and family. It’s good to know that they are much safer now.

Elyse said:

Would love to post a link to your pressure
cooker article on ourmagazine site–check
out http://www.babybloomermagazine.com

Elyse O’Connor
http://www.elyseoconnor.com

KGWagner said:

This isn’t my site, so I can’t say, but I can’t in my wildest nightmares imagine there’d be any objection.

In general, links are always fair game on the Wild, Woolly Web. The WWW wouldn’t really exist if you couldn’t do that. If you want to use content, then the general rule to avoid copyright infringement arguments is to limit your copying of content to the first paragraph or two, then at least attribute it if not link to where you got it. Linking is in itself attribution, so you don’t have to be redundant there.

I’m glad you enjoyed the article. There are a lot of good ones here. Have a look around. Kathy has done a lot of work so we don’t have to

Kathy Maister said:

Hi Elyse, Thanks – a link sounds terrific!

Kevin you have done a great job with this article and answering all these questions.

The link to the chart on cooking times for rice in a pressure cooker is a real find!

Andy2 said:

Great post. Is there a major difference between something like this and a pressure cooker that looks like a crock pot? Are those even remotely similar? I don’t know much about them.

KGWagner said:

It’s tough to say without seeing what you’re talking about. There are a several different designs for holding the lid on a pressure cooker. Sometimes in the larger sizes, like those used more for canning or sterilizing [example], they use clamping dogs around the outside edge rather than the tab lock system you see more often on cookers. Perhaps that’s what you’ve seen?

In any event, if the lid locks down and facilitates the development of internal pressure in order to produce high-temperature steam, then there’s no difference between that and what we’ve been talking about here.

KGWagner said:

Kathy –

Thanks. I hope it’s been helpful.

Timing is important with pressure cookers, as the temperature is more or less a given. Here are some more timing charts I’ve found…

Orb said:

Great information here Kevin. We’re gonna get Kathy using one yet.

Kathy Maister said:

Some day I just may surprise you both…but not quite yet! :)

appliance parts said:

Anyway, cooking meals under pressure are better than simple cooking because your health might be in danger otherwise.

Orb said:

I’m not really sure how simply cooking would endanger my health.
Something to note is that “most” electronic pressure cookers will not cook at 15 lbs pressure which most recipes call for. The recipe will still work but additional time needs added if as an example your cooker only gets to 12 lbs.
Aa simple white rice recipe that I use all the time is

Put a tablespoon or so of oil or butter in your cooker. Coat 1 cup rice with the oil and add 1 1/2 cup broth or water. Then bring to pressure for 3 minutes and do a natural release. “5-10″ minutes it depends on your pressure cooker. Makes about 3 cups cooked white rice.

Debbie Morgan said:

When do I begin to time a recipe?

KGWagner said:

Debbie –

Start timing at the first pressure release. It takes a little bit of time for the liquid to boil and create steam, which builds pressure and allows the temperature to climb. Once the pressure is up, you know the temp is too, so you start timing.

I usually put the sealed pot on a high flame and let it go until the first release, then turn the flame down to medium or less. That’ll keep a high pressure/temperature in the pot.

Judith in UMbria said:

I’ve been dithering for about 4 years and now I’m sold. Thanks for the help.

My thing is chick peas, which I find difficult to get perfectly done.

KGWagner said:

Thanks Judith!

There’s a nice set of timing charts here that specifically include chick peas.

Jill, The Veggie Queen said:

I make chickpeas often as they are one of my favorite beans. I presoak them, drain and then cook them. If I want them for salads or whole, then I pressure cook them for 12 minutes and let the pressure come down naturally. If they aren’t done to your liking when you open the pot, then put them on for another minute or two. I don’t know how you like them.

If I am cooking them to make hummus, then I cook them at 14 minutes at pressure so that they are softer. I could probably do it longer but that seems fine.

Alot will depend upon the age of your beans, too.

Good luck.

KGWagner said:

Jill –

You’re the Veggie Queen, so tell me. Is it me, or do sweet potatoes cook particularly fast? I usually give them 4 to 5 minutes and I never have to mash the things. I’ve always found them to take forever to bake, so I’m surprised at the speed they cook in the pressure cooker. Basically all I have to do is stir them and they’re good to go.

Jill, The Veggie Queen said:

Yes, sweet potatoes that are cut up only take 3 to 4 minutes. For me, though,, I still prefer my sweet potatoes baked in the oven for that sweet as sugar, caramelized goodness. Although yesterday I won a cooking contest with a dish named Spicy West African Sweet Potato, Tomato and Ground Nut Stew (which I am renaming West African Sweet Potato and Ground Nut Stew). I will have the recipe in my next email newsletter so you can sign up from my website, if you like.

The PC is so good for vegetables but people often only think artichokes. Too bad but obviously some of us know.

KGWagner said:

Jill –

Congratulations on your recipe win! I signed up for the newsletter, and look forward to the recipe.

Kathy Maister said:

Hi Jill,
West African Sweet Potato and Ground Nut Stew sounds GREAT! Will that recipe be only available through your newsletter? I noticed you have quite a few really tasty sounding recipes here. I wish there were photos as well! :-)

KGW – thanks for the time chart link. That is one page that everyone should bookmark.

Cheers,
k.

Jill, The Veggie Queen said:

Yes, this recipe will only be available through my newsletter this coming month. I like to offer my newsletter subscribers something more than people can get from my websites The Veggie Queen and Pressure Cooking Online.

I also wish that I had photos but I hardly have time to do all my recipe development and testing, let alone put my not-so-great photography skills to work. If I had a good photographer, I’d probably be lying on a warm, sunny beach rather than sitting here at my computer.

I appreciate your comment and hope that people continue to start cooking. I am going to put a link in an upcoming blog post soon.

KGWagner said:

Jill –

Your link to Pressure Cooking Online contains a typographical error, so it leads nowhere. You missed the “i” in “cooking”

I know you can’t edit it, so the link above will work.

Kathy Maister said:

Thanks Jill!

I know what you mean about taking photos! Hiring a professional photographer is really very expensive. It was a true leap of faith when I began taking photos for startcooking.com. What most people do not realize is that each photo-tutorial that I do takes about three days to make. Most of the time when I’m clicking away I’m just holding my breath and praying that the photos turn out. Clearly with the videos I have professional help as I can’t be on both sides of the camera at the same time!

Thanks for visiting startcooking.com and I do hope that everyone signs up for your newsletter!

Cheers,
Kathy

Jill, The Veggie Queen said:

Thanks for the heads up on the bad typing. My website is Pressure Cooking Online which should go somewhere now.

jane anne said:

Hi, this has been a very informative column! I purchased the Chef’s Design p/c and have misplaced my user’s manual. Could you tell me if steam should be consistently coming from the hole on the small handle? Also, the sliding lock doesn’t seem to work. Is there a trick to moving it? Thank you so much!

KGWagner said:

You might see a small amount of steam from the smaller handle, but it shouldn’t be much – almost none, really. And the slide lock needs the pressure weight installed so it’s fully seated before it’ll lock. The weight should sit down all the way flush with the top of the large handle. The safety interlock system involves both handles and the lock button, as well as internal pressure. I’m just guessing, but it sounds like the interlock system isn’t working right. It might be worth it to return the thing for a replacement. As it is, it won’t develop pressure so it’s of little use to you anyway.

Jill, The Veggie Queen said:

I am not familiar with your PC so cannot comment on it. I know that many of the manufacturers say that the steam should consistently come out. I actually prefer to have very little steam come out but for the button to stay up. Now, if you don’t have a button, listen to your manufacturer. In fact, it’s best to listen to them. I suspect that you’ve looked for the manual online already.

If your lock doesn’t work, what I wrote above won’t matter since the cooker won’t work without being locked.

startcooking said:

Hi Jill and Kevin,
Many thanks for sharing your expertise! As you know, I do not own a pressure cooker.

jane anne,
You are in luck to have two such knowledgeable people advising you!

Cheers,
Kathy

Ann said:

I am a lover of pressure cooker and it has become a staple gadget in my kitchen. I use it almost everyday and food always come out tastier and more flavorful. Not to mention the time you save cooking when you use pressure cooker. Those who haven’t tried it should not be afraid of explosion or blowing up of the lid since the modern pressure cookers that we have now are very safe and actually simple to use.

startcooking said:

Slowly, I am coming around to the idea of learning how to use a pressure cooker! Ann, I really like your site. It will be a great resource for when I finally do take the plunge.
Cheers,
Kathy

Robert said:

After reading this post I also think buying a presser cooker is a great idea!

Jill, TheVeggieQueen said:

Ann, you are a wonderful testimonial to how great the modern pressure cooker really is. I use mine almost daily and I am not sure that I could live without it. Great food fast.