What is round, eco-friendly, and full of hot air? Not Al Gore. A pressure cooker! A pressure cooker is a pot with a locking lid that creates an airtight seal to suppress the steam created when food heats up. It allows liquid to boil at 250°F rather than the usual boiling point of 212°F. The higher temperature reduces the cooking time for most foods and the steam tenderizes the ingredients making it an ideal cooking method for soups, stews, rice and beans.
I’ve heard pressure cookers are a convenient cooking tool, but I didn’t know much about them. I also heard scary stories about exploding pressure cookers! Last year, at a nutrition workshop, I met a colleague who was raving about her pressure cooker. It was easy to use, cooked foods in half the time and safe, she explained. It was time to investigate. I learned that the stories of pots exploding were decades old, when manufacturers used inferior materials to save money. The days of exploding pressure cookers are over, the modern pressure cooker is filled with safety mechanisms that provide all the advantages of pressure cooking without the risk of sauce on the ceiling.
The pressure cooker provides many advantages over traditional cooking methods. For the busy home cook working under pressure (I couldn’t resist), the main advantage is that food can be cooked in a fraction of the time. A thick pea soup in just 20 minutes, a richly flavored chicken soup in half an hour, corned beef in 45 minutes (instead of 4 hours), dry beans in less time than an episode of The Office and risotto in 20 minutes (without stirring)!
Since the food is being cooked for a shorter period of time, it is less likely to lose vitamins and minerals and will retain color and flavor better than a microwave or slow stovetop cooking. The pressure cooker will save you up to 70% cooking time and with three kids, I can use all the extra time I can get. Less time with the stove or oven on also means a lower gas or electric bill and a cooler kitchen. The pressure cooker is particularly popular in countries where the cost of fuel and electricity is very high, and judging from my last bill, we qualify!
I went to the store and the choice was between two well reviewed models, the Cuisinart CPC-600 1000-Watt 6-Quart Electric Pressure Cooker and the Fagor Splendid 6-Quart Pressure Cooker. I selected the Fagor and I have been very happy with my purchase. Some models have more than one pressure setting, meaning the cooking temperature reached inside will vary depending on the pressure setting. The amount of pressure is measured in (psi) or Pounds of Pressure Per Square Inch. I typically use the high setting, because I want to cook everything as fast as possible, but depending on what you are cooking you can adjust the setting easily. The Fagor also features a triple safety system, which includes a safety locking handle to prevent accidental opening under pressure, a dual pressure control valve, and two independent over pressure release valves to avoid pressure build up. The pot is even dishwasher safe making clean-up a breeze.
Because a pressure cooker needs space for steam to be created and room for the pressure to build, never fill your cooker more than two-thirds full. First, bring the contents of the pot to pressure and then cook the allotted time. Most models (like the Fagor) have an indicator that shows when the pressure is up and automatically locks into place. When the time is up you can let it come down naturally by turning off the heat or you can switch to the fast release method, which lets out all the built up steam and pressure in an instant, like a tea kettle or Mel Gibson.
The pressure cooker is great for quick meals that taste like they took hours to make. Healthy dinners filled with beans and vegetables and/or meats and poultry that you can throw into a pot and let the pressure cooker do the work. It can even be used to steam vegetables or potatoes. Although I use a rice cooker for rice, a pressure cooker can make an amazing risotto, without the constant stirring that makes my head spin and my hands ache. I am tempted to buy a second pressure cooker just for dairy, if only to make risotto with Parmesan cheese. I bet it will also make a fantastic alfredo sauce and a delicious cream soup.
The pressure cooker does magic with dry beans, which are much lower in sodium than the canned version. Beans are a healthy high fiber food that can be cooked in so many different ways. Now, I make all my beans in the pressure cooker and I freeze leftovers. I soak the beans the night before (which helps remove dirt and other impurities and reduces the GI effects) and then boil for 10 minutes. If you forget to soak the beans, just cook for an hour. Generally, the rule of thumb is three cups of water for every one cup of beans. Do not add salt in the cooking process, you can add salt later, but a bay leaf, garlic or onion packs a savory punch. I didn’t believe it at first, but it really works. Twenty minutes later and my Heart Healthy Veggie Chili was ready to serve.
If you haven’t opened the pressure cooker you got for your wedding or are ready to take a chance and buy one, here are a few of the recipes that I made with my pressure cooker that I think you will love: