With their funky handles and clamps, pressure cookers don’t exactly look welcoming, but don’t let their unfamiliar form keep you from exploring their many assets. Pressure cooking may seem foreboding at first, but it’s no exaggeration to claim that this speedy and useful device can significantly change the way you cook at home.
“The pressure cooker saves time, money and energy,” says chef-educator Jill Nussinow, whose site The Veggie Queen has become my go-to for all things pressure cooking. She’s authored numerous cookbooks on pressure cooking, the latest of which is The New Fast Food: The Veggie Queen Pressure Cooks Whole Food Meals in Less than 30 Minutes. “Pressure cooking produces food with amazing flavor, color and texture. It will become your favorite kitchen tool.”
I was once a skeptic, too. A background in professional kitchens instilled in me the importance of contact with food as it cooks—sniffing it, poking it. Chefs are hands-on, and it’s hard to be hands-on when the food you’re cooking is at 15 psi (pounds per square inch) and locked tightly under a lid that vaguely resembles something from a mad scientist’s lab.
What switched me? I worked at a store that sold the things, and when customers asked me questions about them, I was always stumped. So I borrowed the store’s demo model, got hooked, and quickly became their resident pressure cooker advocate. I’ve since found that pressure cooking can only enable your happy relationship with food. Here’s why.
Those stories you hear from your grandmother about old-time pressure cookers blasting a crater in the ceiling are pretty hair-raising. But sleek and straightforward modern pressure cookers are a whole new ballgame, with multiple safeguards to make dramatic explosions all but impossible. You’d have to try very, very hard to blow the lid off of one. I read about such an incident occurring in David Chang’s Momofuku test kitchen in a Forbes article last year (“The top cracked in half—lima beans were going at 1,000 miles per hour. It looked like a grenade went off,” Chang confessed), which means to me that whoever was using the pressure cooker that day seriously neglected to keep tabs on the thing—maybe they went on a two-hour walk or something. Consider: in eight years of pressure cooking I haven’t incited any explosive incidents myself, and I can be quite scatterbrained.
A lot of older pressure cookers have an aluminum interior, which can discolor pale foods and create tinny flavors in acidic foods, so it’s best on all fronts—safety, performance, and ease of use—to buy a trusty new pressure cooker, one with a stainless steel interior.
“Food cooks at least 50 percent faster than with other conventional cooking methods,” says Nussinow. At least 50 percent; with some foods, it’s even faster. It takes only 15 minutes to steam a whole artichoke, as opposed to an hour or more of boiling. It can take only 30 minutes to cook a batch of pinto bean chili. “Soup, stew, braises, whole grains and legumes cook quickly and easily,” Nussinow continues.
I make large batches of stocks, soups, and vegetables ahead of time for use in meals throughout the week. Another plus: the lid of the pressure cooker locks in flavor and aroma.
You’ll eventually recoup the initial investment of a decent pressure cooker if you use it frequently to cook whole foods. I’ve all but stopped buying canned beans, since I cook up lots of inexpensive dried beans and legumes and freeze them for later. Same goes for stock. And because pressure cooking speeds up the cooking process so much, it’s easier to make off-the-cuff meals in that narrow little window between coming home from work and end-of-the-day hunger demanding you throw in the towel and order a pizza. More home-cooked meals translates not just to better nutrition, but leaner food bills.
Also, you can use the cooker (the base of the pressure cooker) as a regular saucepan or stockpot if you don’t lock on the lid—some pressure cookers come with standard lids, too, just for this purpose. So your pressure cooker is a more versatile piece of equipment than you might have guessed.
Vegetables retain more nutrients when steamed in the pressure cooker, because they’re not exposed to heat as long as traditional cooking. And the speed of pressure cooking makes including more beans, whole grains, and vegetables in your daily routine easier than ever.
Drastically reduced cooking times require less energy. True, even if every American embraced pressure cooking, it wouldn’t solve our global energy crisis, or even make much of a difference in your own monthly utility bills. So look at it this way: it’s an extension of a mindset that’s respectful of resources. Not just energy, but time and food, too. That no-frills pressure cooker represents intentions to create a life of grateful abundance.
On a more nitty-gritty front, because pressure cooking keeps steam and heat locked in the cooker, it doesn’t heat up your already-sweltering summertime kitchen. Come August, you’ll see what an asset that is.
Pressure cooking isn’t for stubborn sensualists (I still occasionally pull out my Le Creuset French oven for those lazy, all-day conventional braises, just for old time’s sake), but its convenience unlocks a world of culinary possibilities. For curious cooks, converting favorite conventional recipes to make them pressure-cooker friendly is an alluring creative challenge (and a pretty low-effort challenge, at that). Polenta, steel-cut oatmeal, dal, tamales, steamed puddings, braised oxtails, stuffed grape leaves—I’ve made them all in my pressure cooker, and am always on the lookout for new ideas.
If you’re excited but still intimidated, seeing a pressure cooker in action is a great place to start. I initially learned the ropes from watching Nussinow’s DVD Pressure Cooking: A Fresh Look, but an in-person class, whether hands-on or a demo, can be invaluable. If you don’t have any classes in your area, a good web resource is Laura Pazzaglia’s Hip Pressure Cooking, where you can find videos, forums, and e-books. Whatever path you take to the world of pressure cooking, it’s a journey worth beginning.
Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor and a chef-educator. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, she owns three pressure cookers, and is on the prowl for a fourth.Follow her on Twitter @Sausagetarian.