In the past decade, home cooks and cutting-edge chefs alike have embraced the game-changing convenience of pressure cooking. Maybe you’re ready, too (and if you’re not, read this to see why all the fuss is justified).
But where do you begin? Investing in a pressure cooker can be daunting, and not just because pressure cookers don’t have the familiar contours of conventional cookware. There are stovetop and electric models, pressure cookers that hold well over ten quarts and diminutive ones that only hold a few quarts. It’s a bit like buying your first car: there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.
Never fear—after considering your cooking style, choosing the best pressure cooker for your kitchen will be a walk in the park. Here’s what you need to know.
No matter if you go the electric or stovetop route, a pressure cooker with a stainless steel interior is optimal: it won’t cause off flavors in acidic foods like tomato sauce or braises made with wine, it won’t discolor pale foods like risotto, and you can pop it into the dishwasher without any worries of it getting pitted and gray.
The best size will depend upon both how you cook, and how many people you cook for. “The most realistic size for a family of four is a 6- or 8-quart cooker,” says Jill Nussinow, culinary educator and cookbook author; her latest book is The New Fast Food: The Veggie Queen Pressure Cooks Whole Food Meals in Less than 30 Minutes. “If you live alone, a 4-quart cooker would suffice unless you attend potlucks often, or want to batch cook. If you cook for six or more, you need a 10-quart cooker.”
6- to 8-quart models are a versatile size for many cooks, because they’re large enough for a giant pot of chili, but not so big that it would be ludicrous for cooking a few cups of brown rice.
On the other hand, if you loathe leftovers, eat mostly grains and steamed veggies, and cook for only one or two people, a smaller pressure cooker should be just fine.
A number of manufacturers make sets that include a large and a small cooker, with one lid to fit both. That way you don’t have to haul out an 8-quart pressure cooker if you just need to cook three beets. Such sets can be a good investment if you’re really committed to the pressure cooking lifestyle.
The classic pressure cooker is a stovetop pressure cooker—that is, like your other pots and pans, you set it on a burner on your range. Meanwhile, countertop electric pressure cookers have surged in popularity in recent years. Which one is the best choice?
Once again, it depends. The advantage to stovetop models is that, if you like to first sear or sauté ingredients for soup or stew before adding the liquid, your stovetop pressure cooker will rock it. Most electric pressure cookers do come with a sauté function (Nussinow calls it “essential”), but I’ve found it’s not very powerful if you’re looking to brown your food, especially for getting a good sear on meat.
Do electric pressure cookers hold up to heavy use? “I believe that they do,” says Nussinow. “I haven’t had any issues with mine, and have used it many times each week. But if I were to say which will hold up better, stovetop or electric, I would choose the stovetop, as there are no electronics to break. I do know people who have used their [electronic pressure cookers] for a few years. That’s a long time for it to last.”
The features of electric pressure cookers vary from brand to brand, but they offer one huge plus: they’re programmable, so you can dump your ingredients in, press a few buttons, and run off to take a shower or go on a walk—something you should never do with a stovetop model. With an electric pressure cooker, “you do not have to adjust the temperature to have the pot maintain pressure,” says Nussinow. “The second most useful feature of electric pressure cookers is related—you do not have to be there when the time is up to shut it off.” For those very reasons, I call my electric pressure cooker my little cooking robot. You can think of it as a slow cooker, but waaay faster.
In fact, a good electric pressure cooker will come with a slow cooker option, too. (I hardly use the slow cooker function, though. As Nussinow says, “I’m a fast cooker.”) The model I have at home, an Instant Pot 5-quart, also comes with a yogurt making setting, which I adore. So really, it’s a number of appliances—a rice cooker, a yogurt maker, a slow cooker, and a pressure cooker—all in one device.
Cuisinart, Fagor, and Breville all make well-regarded electric pressure cookers, too. Read up on their features before taking the plunge—maybe you don’t care about a yogurt option.
My first pressure cooker was a Fagor Duo 8-quart, which retails today for around a hundred bucks. I still use it nearly every day—sometimes multiple times a day—and honey, I have put that thing through the wringer. Like a Toyota Corolla, it’s practical and durable. Some other solidly-performing brands include Magafesa and Fissler.
Swiss-made Kuhn Rikon pressure cookers are generally about twice as much as a Fagor and comparable brands; sleek and almost kinda sexy, they are the Mercedes-Bendz of the pressure cooking world. Would I love one? Sure! Has my pressure cooking life been happy and prolific without one? Definitely.
However much I love digging around in thrift stores, though, I heavily discourage dragging home a homely aluminum clunker that’s three decades old from the Goodwill. Modern pressure cookers have all kinds of massively improved safety features, and their gaskets are supple and new instead of brittle and cracked. When you buy a trustworthy new pressure cooker, you are investing in ease of use and dependable performance.
A generous return policy is vital, should you discover that you and your brand-new pressure cooker are not a match made in heaven. But I’m guessing that won’t be a problem.
Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Sara teaches cooking classes and spends a lot of time looking for weird fruit. Twitter: @Sausagetarian.