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Test Drive: Pressure Cookers

Craving beef stew on a Tuesday? Use a pressure cooker to turn slow-cooking dishes into weeknight dinner options. Here are our top picks.

by Nicki Pendleton Wood

fromFine Cooking
Issue 109

It’s been a generation since pressure cookers were the sputtering, spewing monsters of the kitchen. Today’s models are nearly foolproof, quiet, and easier than ever to use. These clever pots trap steam, which in turn builds pressure, creating higher cooking temperatures and reducing cooking times by up to 70 percent. You can use them for almost any recipe that’s based on moist heat, like a braise or a soup. A pot roast is ready in 35 minutes; dried beans in 20 minutes or less.

The pressure cooker is certainly making a comeback, and this time, we hope it’s here to stay. Here are our four favorites.

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Cuisinart Electric CPC-600, 6 quarts
$100 at cuisinart.com

Unlike most pressure cookers, this is a plug-in countertop appliance, not a stovetop pot. It maintains pre-set pressure levels on its own and switches to warm when done cooking, making it a breeze to use and a great option for cooks who don’t want to monitor a stovetop alternative.

It resembles a slow-cooker in design, with a touch-pad display (it has six settings—two for pressure cooking and the rest for nonpressurized cooking, like sautéing and simmering) and a heavy domed lid that latches securely into place and locks once pressure is reached.

This cooker comes to pressure more slowly than stovetop models, but its high pressure setting is great at tenderizing beans and tough meats: Beans cook in 20 minutes; chunks of beef chuck in 35. A trivet is included, and the cooker comes with a three-year warranty.

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Fagor Futuro, 6 quarts
$140 at williams-sonoma.com

The pressure settings on the Futuro can be pre-set (as on the Cuisinart model at left), making it a good pick for those who want a cooker that can maintain a certain pressure level by itself.

Its lid has a big, easy-to-read dial with settings for low and high pressure, steam release, and regular cooking (without pressure, the cooker performs like a normal pot). After latching the lid into place, use the dial to select a pressure level, and place the cooker over heat. As pressure builds, the cooker self-locks and maintains the selected pressure setting.

Chunks of beef chuck cook in 15 minutes; wheatberries are tender in 22. The stainless-steel, pot-belly-shaped Futuro comes with a steamer basket and trivet, and with short, rounded handles, it’s a cinch to store. Fagor offers a 10-year warranty.

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Magefesa Mageplus, 4.2 quarts
$175 at cookware.com

This pot functions like a traditional pressure cooker, meaning its two pressure levels must be manually maintained by the cook. But it’s easy to do—a gauge indicates when the pot reaches low or high pressure. To maintain either setting, simply adjust the heat under the cooker. Wheatberries and beans are tender in less than 20 minutes; a whole chuck roast in 35. The Magefesa comes to pressure faster than other models and when finished cooking, can return to normal pressure in just 40 seconds (which helps prevent overcooking).

This cooker is also made with extra attention to detail: It has a hefty stainless-steel body, a heavier-than-usual sealing ring (which holds in the pressurized steam), and a lid that automatically snaps into pressure-cooking position when attached. The Mageplus comes with a steamer basket, a trivet, and a two-year warranty.

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WMF Perfect Plus, 4.5 quarts
$229 at bloomingdales.com

The Perfect Plus has the sturdiest construction of all. It’s made of thick stainless steel, with a lid that has a nice heft and slides into place better than other models. The ergonomic handle is wide and comfortable and has a sliding control that enables pressure cooking when set to one position and regular cooking when set to the other.

Like the Mageplus, the Perfect Plus requires the cook to adjust the heat to maintain the desired pressure level (either high or low). Wheatberries become tender-firm in 15 minutes, beans in 16, and a whole chuck roast slices easily after 35 minutes. The cooker comes with accessories for canning, multilevel cooking, and pressure steaming and is under warranty for three years.

What to Consider

Keep these things in mind when shopping for a pressure cooker:

Material Opt for corrosion-resistant stainless steel. Cookers with a thick, heavy bottom prevent foods from burning.

Pressure settings Most settings are measured according to psi, or pounds per square inch. Look for cookers that offer a low pressure setting of 8 to 9 psi (ideal for delicate foods such as fruits, vegetables, and seafood) and a high pressure setting of 15 psi (for meat and grains). Most instruction booklets will indicate pressure settings and cooking times.

Handles Long handles keep hands far from a hot pot; short or rounded handles use less stovetop and storage space.

Pressure monitoring Some pots are self-regulating and allow the cook to pre-set the pressure level, so the heat needs adjustment only if the steam released by the pot seems excessive. Other pots need monitoring as they reach the proper pressure, and then require the cook to adjust the heat to maintain the desired setting.

Size A four-quart cooker is sufficient for a batch of brown rice or some beans. A six-quart cooker holds large pot roasts.

How we tested

We tested eight four- to six-quart cookers by preparing wheatberries, dried beans, and beef chuck, noting how effectively the pots cooked each. We evaluated the cookers on how intuitive they were to use, how long they took to reach pressure and to cook food, their ability to distribute heat evenly, their pressure release and safety features, and the quality of materials used.

Photos: Scott Phillips

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