Under Pressure: A Primer on Using a Pressure Cooker

by Alison Ashton

Whenever I pull out the pressure cooker to whip up some bean soup, I wonder why everyone doesn’t have one. You may remember these stove-top appliances from your grandmother’s kitchen. Before there were microwaves there were pressure cookers, and Grandma relied on hers to get dinner on the table fast. Problem was, her cooker tended to rattle menacingly and even explode on occasion. Then microwaves came along and pressure cookers went the way of the hoop skirt, as an editor of mine used to say.

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Now pressure cookers are making a comeback, along with other traditional techniques, like canning or cooking with offal, that stretch tight food budgets. A pressure cooker is simple–it looks like a big stockpot, except the lid has a gasket and a lock to create high pressure that cooks foods up to 70 percent faster than traditional techniques. That’s good news if you want to enjoy healthy, inexpensive fare like dried beans and whole grains, as well as tough cuts of meat, but don’t care for the long cooking times these ingredients often require. Dried black beans cook in about 20 minutes, and hearty grains like wheat berries are ready in 30 minutes instead of an hour–or longer. Pressure cookers are planet-friendly, too; because they do the job so quickly, they require less energy.

New models have foolproof safety features, like locking lids that can’t be opened until the pressure is released and automatic-release functions so you don’t have to drag a hot, heavy cooker to the sink and run cold water over the rim to cool it down. The automatic release function is helpful, too, when you want to stop cooking partway through to check the doneness of ingredients.

A 6- or 8-quart cooker as a good all-purpose size (pressure cookers should never be filled more than two-thirds high and only halfway for ingredients that expand, like beans and grains). I like stainless steel, too. It costs a bit more than aluminum, but you can use a sturdy stainless-steel pot to brown and sear ingredients before adding liquid and capping the pot with the lid. Stainless-steel pressure cookers with automatic release functions retail for about $120, but you can find one on the Internet for much less.

It’s easy to adapt existing recipes to use a pressure cooker. Soups, stews, braises, and steamed dishes lend themselves well to the pressure cooker; start with half the called-for cooking time. Lia’s recipe for Braised and Glazed Five Spice Short Ribs would be an ideal candidate for the pressure cooker. If you give it a try, let us know how it goes. In the meantime, make my recipe for black bean soup–it’s a wonderful midweek treat on a chilly fall evening.

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A longtime editor, writer, and recipe developer, Alison Ashton is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef. She has worked as a features editor for a national wire service and as senior food editor for a top food magazine.
Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, and Natural Health as well as on her blog, Eat Cheap, Eat Well, Eat Up.

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24 Replies to “Under Pressure: A Primer on Using a Pressure Cooker”

  1. I have an old one given to me by old friends from Austria, now long since gone. They brought it with them fleeing Nazis. I can’t find a piece or two but I can’t part with it either.

    I really should invest in a new stainless steel one with that automatic release, too. I think many of us forget to soak dried beans or grains, then think “well, they just take too long.” This article is very encouraging. I had forgotten how easily you can make a rich and satisfying meal with a pressure cooker.

    Good stuff. Thanks!

  2. Wow, Jackie, what a history behind the pressure cooker. And you’re right, it’s great to remember what a boon PCs can be for dispelling that thought of “oops, forgot to soak the beans.”

  3. Excellent question, Marisa. I’m glad you asked. The two are basically at the opposite ends of the cooking spectrum. The pressure cooker traps heat and steam in a small area at very high pressures to cook foods that we normally think of as “slow cook” foods super-fast.

    A crockpot, or slow cooker, also traps heat and steam, but does so at much lower temperatures. A crockpot uses essentially the same principles as a Dutch oven at a very low heat. It takes a much longer time, but can also be convenient in that you can set it and go.

    So pressure cookers and slow cookers can both, in essence, make life easier . . . just in different ways, in their own time.

    Make sense?

    • This post on my Pressure Cooking blog points out the differences between a slow cooker and a pressure cooker. http://bit.ly/9WdLHr I explain it like this, “If you’re a person who can think hours in advance about dinner, then a slow cooker is probably fine for you. If you are like me, and think, gee it’s 5 o’clock, what am I making for dinner?, then a pressure cooker is perfect for you. The food also remains much more distinct, with better flavors, in a pressure cooker than in a slow cooker.

      I swear by mine, and can’t help but sing its praises. It’s changed my cooking life — for the past 14 years.

  4. Yep! Sounds like I want the pressure cooker. I have issues with dried beans!! Never good at anticipating when I’ll want chili.

    • Been getting lotsa good feedback on that chili! Watch for a great holiday wild rice recipe soon. Hey Alison – what about cooking wild rice in a pressure cooker?

  5. Presure cookers are also great for home canning low acid foods such as soups, chilis, and most items other than fruits. We live in a n area where we have discovered we need to can our left over soups and ect. They take too much room in the freezer. This is the way our grand parents took care of their families and it gauranties what is in our diets. we must always be mind full to clean the presure valve and follow all the safety instructions.

  6. Anne-Liesse . . . you ask for that “slow-cocotte” ;-). I’ve always loved that word, cocotte.

    Connie . . . What an excellent idea! There was quite a bit of talk about preserving with pressure cookers when I was canning those 1000 pounds of tomatoes with that awesome bunch of ladies. I’ve never tried it, and I’ll admit to being intimidated by canning. I would love to see this explored in a set of articles and a video or two, so stay tuned . . . I’ll be coming to you for tips!

  7. I am a huge proponent of pressure cooking and have a website http://www.pressurecookingonline.com and blog http://www.pressurecooking.blogspot.com devoted to the art of using the pressure cooker. The PC is wonderful for those who wonder at 5 pm what they are making for dinner. You can even do beans then.

    My first, and most requested, recipe was for Shane’s Fabulous Lentil Soup. I made it for my 3 year year old son and it literally takes 20 minutes from start to finish. It helped me be the best mom in the world.

    I cook in PC almost every day — everything from steel cut oats to bean stews to risotto — both sweet and savory. Also, excellend for whole grains.

    Thanks for this post.

  8. Jill . . . I’m so glad you chimed in here! Alison and I talked about you being not only the Veggie Queen, but the Pressure Cooker Queen as well. So thanks for the resources. I’ve got a recipe coming up for steel cut oats, so I’ll check out your site for tips on quickening them up in the PC. Thanks!

    • I use my pressure cooker for steel cut oats all the time. Here’s the link to my recipe http://bit.ly/cJ4RTb. Funny thing, though, this last batch of oats that I bought is taking 5 minutes at pressure, instead of the usual 3. And that’s the real deal — every batch of beans or grains may require different amounts of time, depending upon the batch.

      Thanks for thinking of me and pressure cooking. My mentor is Lorna Sass, she’s the real queen. I am a protege, and proud of it.

      I think that everyone could benefit from using a pressure cooker — any time of year.

  9. PS — I used the pressure cooker to make both the rice and the beans for our Thanksgiving meal and they turned out GREAT! You’ve turned over a whole new leaf for me. Next up, braises.

  10. I enjoy cooking with a pressure cooker. I currently have 4, and I plan on purchasing a larger one soon (10 qt) for canning. I used one today to make a bean soup! My husband looked very confused when I walked into the family room with a bowl of steaming hot beans and a slice of cornbread! He saw the beans soaking on the counter when he came in and presto, 20 minutes later everything was ready! He actually asked me what I was eating 🙂

  11. In college when I had the spare time (?) I used to love cooking and eating wheatberries. I had no idea a pressure cooker could have the time it takes to prep this wonderful grain.

    Mental block: I still have this nightmarish childhood memory of the time our neighbors pressure cooker exploded starting a minor kitchen fire. Firemen from the local station arrived in no time as all the neighbors gathered on the sidewalk. I recall my physician father saying that this was why we had no such thing in our house!

    Now that the technology has been updated and made safer I’d consider buying one.

  12. I was reading about the history of pressure cookers in Miss Vickie’s Big Book of Pressure Cooker Recipes, and learned that pressure cookers really got a bad rap after WW II when the demand for pressure cookers increased. Unfortunately, as demand increased, so did shoddy and cheaply made pressure cookers that are infamous for exploding. Naturally, people eventually stopped buying and using them. The pressure cookers available on the market today are usually foreign imports with improved pressure valves and at least three different safety mechanisms.

    I remember when I got my first one and put it through a trial run with just water. My heart was in my throat the entire time! 🙂

  13. Alexandra . . . I had a very similar mental block for years! And I still go through a mild panic whenever it hisses a bit. But they’ve apparently gotten much more reliable. Thanks for the history, Pamela . . . very interesting. Makes me happy I have a Kuhn Rikon ;-).

  14. Alison and Lia- I was the lucky recipient of a pressure cooker for Christmas, so I came here for some great recipes to try! Also, if I were going to purchase one cookbook on whole grains, what would you suggest? -Karen

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