Cooking Under Pressure

My mother had a first-generation pressure cooker in the 1970s. It was a stovetop model that rattled madly, and when it was done cooking and time to open the lid, we kids had to leave the kitchen in case the entire contraption exploded. (It never did and my mother lived to put dinner on the table every time.) I swore I would never cook with “one of those.”

I understand why they were a popular choice at the time. The cooker is a sealed vessel that’s able to cook food much more quickly than any conventional method, thanks to a combination of pressure, steam and high temperatures. The higher the heat gets in the unit—rising to 242 degrees—the higher the pressure becomes. Nothing escapes because the cooker is sealed tight, and the cooking liquid is forced into the food. The combination of high cooking temperature and pressure leads to some pretty impressive results. Yet, many of us are still terrified to use one.

Enter the Instant Pot, a third-generation pressure cooker that’s electric and contains a microprocessor that greatly improves cooking results and, fortunately, enhances safety.

While there are a multitude of pressure cookers currently on the market, the Instant Pot is different. Not only is it a pressure cooker, it also functions as a slow cooker, rice cooker, steamer, yogurt maker, sauté pan and warming pot—taking the place of seven different kitchen appliances vying for valuable countertop and cupboard space. Perhaps this is a big part of the reason for the Instant Pot’s stratospheric explosion in popularity. It also costs less than its competitors.

The Instant Pot is a retailer success story. The Canadian company was founded in 2009, but sales didn’t start to climb until 2014. On Amazon Prime Day in 2016, the Instant Pot skyrocketed to the top-selling item with more than 215,000 units sold. It remains a top-seller to this day, despite zero advertising dollars—instead relying solely on word of mouth, social media and hype.

I was pretty psyched to try an Instant Pot, and a little intimidated, too. The 6-quart model is heavy and sleek, with a multifunction sensor pad. Where to start? This appliance demands a careful read through the instruction manual as safety precautions must still be observed. As far as what to cook, there are myriad Instant Pot recipes online for anything you crave, from bone broth to cheesecake. Accolades abound for the way it cooks fall-off-the-bone tender meats—hence its popularity with the Paleo contingent—but I wanted to try something more divergent. I was intrigued by a recipe for hard-boiled eggs, which in a pressure cooker, actually involves steam. Why would one do this? It turns out, for the ease of peeling; 12 eggs were done in five minutes cook time with minimal cleanup, and the shells slipped right off. Impressive.

Next, I fished out a bag of Umbrian chickpeas that had been languishing in the back of my pantry. (Dried beans require too much time, effort and forethought for my spur-of-the-moment cooking style, so I usually just use canned. Please don’t judge me—Jacques Pépin does too.) Instead of soaking and hours of simmering, I rinsed the chickpeas, covered them with water and pressed the “beans” button on the pot. No stirring, skimming or wiping down the cooktop. After the 35-minute cooking time and 10-minute steam-release period, I found those babies tender yet firm to the bite and far superior to canned.

I was on a roll. A quick wash of the stainless-steel interior pot, and in went a package of chicken (you can cook it thawed or frozen). Although the Instant Pot also functions as a slow cooker, it operates on the opposite principal: fast and furious. A major advantage is the sauté option to brown meat. After browning the chicken for eight minutes, I switched over to the pressure-cook function for the recommended one—yes, ONE—minute cook time, and achieved perfect results that challenge even the best slow cooker. Then I whipped up some brown rice to boot in 15 minutes. There’s no doubt in my mind that with this appliance, you can start cooking at the dinner hour and be ready by the dinner bell.

But is it healthy? According to certified food scientist Dr. Kantha Shelke, pressure-cooking can reduce heat-sensitive nutrients, such as vitamin C and folate, especially in fruits and vegetables, but these are susceptible to degradation during most types of cooking. Consuming the cooking water can help restore some of these losses. With grains and legumes, however, there is a positive nutritional gain as macronutrients and essential minerals become more bioavailable from the pressure-cooking process. Meats retain their iron content, but lose some unsaturated (healthful) fat. However, pressure-cooking does not create any of the unhealthful chemical reactions associated with grilling or baking. Of course, there are the advantages to preparing your own food and eating a home-cooked meal. I am the newest Instant Pot convert.

Note: All times are for the Cook Function only. The Instant Pot requires approximately 15 minutes to build up pressure prior to cooking, as well as a pressure release period afterward.

By Michele Jacobson• Photography courtesy of Sur La Table