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For Slow-Cooked Flavor in a Hurry, Turn Up the Pressure

Rich, full-bodied chili in 30 minutes? Artichokes in 10? You can do it with a pressure cooker.

Fine Cooking Issue 42
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Every pressure-cooker enthusiast has a story of the time she first realized the potential of these pots. Mine came one wet February evening after a particularly harrowing commute on icy New England roads. When I finally got home—exhausted, starving, and in no mood to cook—what I craved was a bowl of chili. Canned or take-out chili wouldn’t do. I needed long-braised cubes of pork shoulder in a rich, red chile sauce, the kind of stew that requires hours of slow simmering. In desperation, I pulled out my near-forgotten pressure cooker, and half an hour later, I sat down to dinner.

The chili I made that night stays in my memory. It was rich and full-bodied, with pork that fell into pieces at the slightest urging of my fork. I realized then that the slow-cooking stews and braises I love so much could be made on short notice any night of the week, and my pressure cooker has played a vital role in my kitchen ever since.

No more rattling time bombs

It doesn’t take a physics degree to understand how pressure cookers work. The lid, which is fitted with a rubber gasket, forms an airtight seal once it’s locked into position. As the contents of the pot heat up, steam gets trapped and pressure builds. At 15 pounds of pressure (the typical “high pressure” setting on a cooker), water boils at 250°F, almost 40°F higher than in conventional pots. The high pressure and temperature break down food fibers more quickly, shortening cooking time dramatically.

The pressure cookers you’ll find in stores today are a far cry from their predecessors, which were thin-bottomed aluminum pots with jiggling steam regulators that often clogged, resulting in an occasional lid flying off. The new “second-generation” cookers have locking lids that prevent pressure from building if the pots aren’t properly sealed and safety valves that release steam if the pressure gets too high, making those legendary (and perhaps apocryphal) kitchen mishaps a thing of the past. They’re also quieter. A gentle hissing is the only sound you’ll hear from these contemporary cookers.

In more than ten years of using my pressure cooker, and while testing several models for this story, I’ve never had a lid fly off or felt I had a time bomb ticking on my stove. Do use common sense, though. Never leave the house with a pressure cooker on the stove or leave one unattended for too long. It won’t blow up, but steam will be released through the safety valves and the pot could cook dry.

Best for foods that like slow cooking and moist heat

Pressure-cooker manufacturers might like you to believe that their products are ideal for cooking everything from adzuki beans to zucchini, but that’s not quite the case — quick-cooking foods like fish and tender vegetables are better prepared by other methods, in my opinion. Generally, pressure cookers perform best with foods that benefit from long, slow cooking and moist heat. My cooker springs to mind whenever I’m cooking the following:

  • Unsoaked dried beans, which get plump and tender in less than 30 minutes. Presoaked beans cook even faster.
  • Tough, flavorful cuts of meats, such as short ribs, pork shoulder, or veal shank, which require long cooking to get tender. My pressure cooker produces an awesome osso buco in less than 30 minutes.
  • Soups, stews, stocks, and long-cooking sauces like marinara or ragù, which develop deep flavor in 20 minutes or less. Because the pressure cooker is so efficient at extracting flavor and gelatin from meat bones, making homemade meat or chicken broth doesn’t have to be an all-day affair.
  • Grains, such as wheatberries and brown rice, which cook in just 20 minutes compared to the usual 45. Many pressure-cooker aficionados rave about fast, no-stir risotto though I think that pressure-cooked risotto doesn’t have the same complexity of flavor that comes from reducing the stock and stirring the rice constantly (try Abigail Johnson Dodge’s risotto recipe and decide for yourself). Some manufacturers caution that grains may foam up and clog the steam vents. To prevent this, add a tablespoon of oil or butter per cup of dry grain and fill the cooker just to the halfway mark.
  • Sturdy vegetables, such as potatoes, beets, and hardy greens. In ten minutes of high pressure, artichokes steam to an even doneness and potatoes cook to perfection. Whenever I’m making potato salad, grilled potatoes, or any dish that calls for boiled potatoes, I steam the spuds in my pressure cooker. Any greens that I’d normally braise, such as kale, collards, or mustard greens, break down to a tender side dish in just two minutes.

Try your hand at pressure cookery

As with any new piece of cooking equipment, you need to use the cooker a few times to get comfortable with it (see “Tips for better pressure cooking,” below). Once you make a dish that you like, use that as a starting point for similar dishes. Eventually, you’ll be able to pull together a dish using a loose recipe in your head. Here’s a generalized formula for a richly flavored pressure-cooked soup or stew; it’s easily varied depending on what’s on hand. This dish has four very flexible components:

  • 2 to 3 pounds meat or poultry—try chicken parts, pork sausage, or beef or lamb shanks;
  • 2 to 3 pounds vegetables—try potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnips, mushrooms, even hardy greens;
  • 1 to 2 cups dried beans or rice—you might want to start with lentils, chickpeas, white beans, or white rice;
  • aromatic flavorings and spices—garlic cloves, peppercorns, a bay leaf, a quartered onion or leek, fresh herbs, and citrus zest all add lots of flavor.

Start by heating oil in the cooker and browning the meat or chicken. Add the vegetables (if necessary, peeled and cut in large chunks), stir in the beans or rice, and add any aromatic flavorings plus salt. Pour in water or, if you want, stock. If you’re aiming for a soup, add more liquid; for a thicker stew, add less (do be sure to add the minimum amount your pressure cooker requires). Lock on the lid, bring the pot up to high pressure, and cook for 10 to 25 minutes, calculating the cooking time based on the longest-cooking ingredient, usually the beans; check the cooker’s manual for guidelines.

If you like the notion of using a pressure cooker but hesitate to start without a firm recipe, you’ll find plenty of help in the bookstore. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Express Cooking, by Barry Bluestein & Kevin Morrissey (HP Books);
  • Pressure Cooking for Everyone, by Rick Rodgers & Arlene Ward (Chronicle);
  • The Pressured Cook, Cooking Under Pressure, and Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure, by Lorna Sass (all from William Morrow).

Tips for better pressure cooking

  • Choose recipes that combine most of the ingredients at the start of cooking or else at the end. It’s simply not practical to release the pressure, add more ingredients, and then bring the pot back up to pressure again.
  • Depending on the type and amount of food, it can take from 30 seconds up to 20 minutes to reach full pressure. To speed things up, heat liquids before adding them to the pot. Interestingly, the amount of food in the pot has no bearing on the cooking time; ten potatoes cook as quickly as one.
  • High pressure is fine for most foods, but use low pressure for tender food, such as chicken breasts, so they’re less likely to overcook. Start timing the cooking from the moment pressure is reached.
  • Once the pot reaches full pressure, reduce the heat to maintain a constant pressure. For electric stoves, it’s helpful to set one burner to high and a second one to a lower heat. Bring the cooker up to pressure on the high-heat burner and then move it to the second burner for the rest of cooking.
  • The cooking time for most foods in a pressure cooker is one-quarter to one-third of the time it would take by conventional methods. When trying a new food or recipe, consult the manual for a recommended cooking time, or compare your recipe to a similar one.
  • Since no liquid is lost when using a pressure cooker, it’s a good idea to reduce the amount of liquid a conventional recipe calls for by about 20%.
  • For foods that overcook easily, like rice, use the quick-release feature or move the cooker to a sink, tilt the pot slightly, and let cold water wash down one side, away from the vents or regulator.
  • When cooking beans, potatoes, or other foods with skins you want to keep intact, use the natural-release method (take the pot off the heat so the pressure drops gradually). Use it also for beef, which toughens when pressure is released too quickly, and for cheesecakes.
  • In a pressure cooker, liquid doesn’t evaporate as food cooks, and that trapped steam can dilute flavor. To correct this, release the pressure a bit early and let the dish simmer uncovered over low heat. You can also stir in fresh herbs or other seasonings at this point to boost flavor.

What to look for in a pressure cooker

For this article, I tried many different styles and brands of pressure cooker with prices ranging from about $80 for a basic 4-quart pot with one pressure setting and no steaming basket, up to $160 for a 7-quart pot with all the fixings (see “Sources for pressure cookers,” below, for some major brands). They all worked well and consistently. Here are some things to consider when shopping.

Sources for pressure cookers

Look for the new “second generation” pressure cookers at kitchen shops and department stores. To learn more about a particular brand, contact the manufacturer directly.

Fagor
800-207-0806
www.fagoramerica.com

Kuhn Rikon
800-662-5882
www.kuhnrikon.com

Magefesa
888-877-9991
www.magefesa.com

Presto
800-877-0441
www.gopresto.com

T-Fal
www.t-fal.com

Size and material. A 4-quart pot is compact, manageable, and perfectly adequate for a small family, but if I owned just one pressure cooker, I’d probably stick to a more versatile 6-quart, which is just right for big batches of chili or marinara, for parties, and for bulky globe artichokes. Keep in mind that you can’t fill the cooker to capacity; usually the maximum fill line is one-half to two-thirds of the way up the side. As for material, I’d keep to stainless-steel cookers rather than aluminum.

A new design in cookers that I like is a pressure fry pan. Its shallow sides make it easy to brown meat, which can be awkward in the larger, deeper pots. It’s perfect for pressure-braising a couple of pork chops or for making a quick batch of jambalaya. If I were buying a second pressure cooker, this would be it.

Pressure cookers come in many shapes and sizes.

Quick release of pressure. I appreciate this feature, which lets steam escape rapidly so the pressure drops fast and food doesn’t overcook. Some are as simple as pushing a button or flipping a lever, while others require that you hold the valve down with either a fingertip or a long-handled spoon or spatula until all the pressure has been released. Without this feature, you must move the cooker to a sink and let cold water wash down one side to get the pressure to drop quickly.

Multiple and preset pressure levels. Most new pressure cookers give you a visual clue as to when high pressure has been reached—usually it’s a button that pops up—- but some models do more than that. I like those that let me set the pressure level in advance by turning a dial to the desired setting. Mostly, I cook on high pressure, but I sometimes use the lower setting for tender foods.

Depressing the valve on this model releases pressure quickly.
The red bands indicate different levels of pressure.

Two handles. I prefer models with a place to grip the pot on both sides, rather than by a single long handle, simply because they’re easier to carry to the sink to release pressure. Before choosing a cooker, practice locking and opening the lid on various models; some are more of a struggle than others.

Two handles can be better than one.
Trivets and steaming baskets are useful accessories.

Trivets and steaming baskets. These are handy for steaming vegetables or for keeping custard ramekins or cheesecakes above the water and removing them from the pan. (Yes, you can cook a cheesecake in a pressure cooker!)

A lid for conventional cooking. Pressure cookers can do double duty as a regular pot. Their heavyweight bases distribute heat evenly and keep foods from burning and sticking. Some models made by Kuhn Rikon include a conventional lid to use when the pot isn’t under pressure—a nice extra.

A good manual. While the new crop of pressure cookers have fewer parts and are fairly intuitive to use, a clearly written manual will help you learn the particulars. Just as important, it should list ballpark cooking times for nearly any food you might want to cook under pressure. Once you make your favorite chili in the pressure cooker a few times, you’ll be a pro, but until then, having some guidelines will eliminate a lot of guesswork.

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