I always used to think of pressure cookers as vaguely alien: neither pot nor appliance, of nebulous usefulness, and maybe even slightly dangerous. The fact of the matter is, pressure cookers used to be dangerous (no, really – they sometimes exploded) in their earlier forms, as recently as a few decades ago. But the models on the market today are made with a different, much safer technology, and they’re amazingly useful for a busy cook that wants to make hearty meals but doesn’t have all day to spend slaving over the stove.
The principle of cooking under pressure is actually a relatively simple one: the higher the atmospheric pressure pushing down on a pot of water, the harder it is for that water to boil – which means the water gets hotter before turning into a gas than it would in an open pot. That means water in a pressure cooker is about 40 degrees F hotter that water at a full rolling boil in an open pot, and anything you put in it will cook in 1/4 to 1/3 the time while still attaining the same level of flavor and tenderness. Pressure cookers range in size from 4 quarts upwards (six is usually a good size for a family), and the larger ones, like this National Presto can be used for ultra quick canning.
In practice, that pressure builds inside the pot because a rubber gasket seal between the lid and the pot prevents steam from escaping. When you put your pot on a hot stove (filled no more than 2/3 full of liquid to prevent excess pressure buildup), the internal pressure quickly rises to about 15 psi. Once the pot is at full pressure, you lower the heat to medium-low (to maintain it), and then set a timer according to your recipe. When cooking is finished, you can either let the pot cool on its own until the pressure returns to normal (which is better for red meats, but takes the longest), or run it under cold water or use the pressure release valve (if it has one) to quickly lower the temperature. Remember that delicious chicken soup you used to have to cook all day before the meat fell off the bones? It’ll be ready to eat in 20-30 minutes when prepared in even the most basic pressure cooker, like this Fagor Splendid.
In other words, it’s just about the best way to get a big Sunday dinner every night of the week, even if you work long hours, and unlike a crock pot you don’t even have to set it up in the morning. If the thought has your interest piqued, but you aren’t quite ready to run out and buy a kitchen cabinet full of them, this 6 Quart Presto is about as bare bones (and inexpensive) as modern pressure cookers come, but it’s extremely high quality and effective, especially for the price.
That said, a lot of slightly more expensive pressure cookers, like this 8 Quart Fagor Duo (one of the best out there), come with a lot of seemingly small features that can make a real difference – like multiple pressure settings, a quick pressure release valve (so you don’t have to wait for the pot to cool to open it), an indicator to let you know when the cooker has reached the appropriate pressure, and even a steamer basket for cooking anything you might not want touching the water.
One feature you want to look for is a stainless steel (rather than aluminum) construction, which helps disperse heat better and allows for a more even cooking. As well, a two handled pressure cooker like this 6 Quart Fago Futuro can be much easier to handle and transport (especially if you want to cool it off quickly in the sink), because you can pick it up with both hands instead of trying to maneuver all the weight on one unbalanced handle.
You can even get fully electric pressure cookers, which look a little bit like slow cookers (some of which can be used the same way – or as rice cookers). Instead of putting these ones on the stove, you simply plug them in, set your desired pressure, and the built in heating coil will maintain the right temperature and pressure until you hit the release valve, like a traditional one. The main drawback of an electric model like this top rated Cuisinart 600 is that it can’t be used as a regular pan, and can be a little more difficult to clean because you can’t submerge it in water. That said, the digitized settings make it easy to brown meat, or keep your food simmering or warming (again like a crock pot or rice cooker).
Whatever design you choose, you can rest easy knowing that all modern pressure cookers are built in with many multiple redundant pressure release valves – so if you accidentally leave the heat on too high, you’ll just get a little hiss of steam instead of a projectile metal lid! If you have a chance to shop around, make sure to remove and replace the lid a few times, as some are more difficult than others to secure – and when you buy, be sure to really thoroughly read the manual. Not only will it contain a lot of important safety information, but if you’ve never used a pressure cooker before, it can give you a ballpark of how long to cook different items so you can modify your recipes accordingly.
What’s the biggest draw of a pressure cooker for you? Are you looking for a way to make faster meals that doesn’t involve the microwave, or just trying to figure out what all the fuss is about?