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.