Ask any of your middle-aged friends or relatives about pressure cookers, and they’ll likely conjure up a scene straight out of “Pulp Fiction.” While pressure cookers were at their most popular between the 1950s and 1970s, the rubber valves in those early versions could explode in your face pretty easily if the pressure got too strong, and many of us are still scarred by our childhood memories.
Scared to death of scalding myself, I resisted buying one until well into my late 30s, when the stress of balancing work and motherhood made me decide that making a rich and full-bodied stock in 45 minutes or a stir-free risotto in 7 was worth finally facing my fears. After all, the staff at my neighborhood Williams and Sonoma assured me that modern pressure cookers will not release pressure unless properly locked, will release excess pressure easily, and will not randomly blow up in your kitchen (on the other hand, one food blogger last summer was visited by an anti-terrorism task force after Googling “pressure cookers,” which did make me wonder).
But, how do they work? Water normally boils at 212°F at sea level. At lower pressure, for example in the mountains, the boiling point drops to a lower temperature. On the contrary, by sealing the liquid inside the pressure cooker, then boiling it, we create steam that raises the pressure in the pot, which in turn raises the boiling point of the liquid up to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. The high temperatures and the steam make the food cook much quicker. Unlike microwave ovens, which can dehydrate and toughen certain types of foods and cook others unevenly, pressure cookers preserve moisture, flavor and most of the nutrients, while killing any parasites or bacteria. Hello, perfect braised ribs!
Despite of all their advantages, pressure cookers might still have too many drawbacks for the very accident-prone. Enter the crock pot, an appliance as all-American as apple pie (as a matter of fact, I’d never even heard of them until I moved to the US). Like the pressure cooker, the crock pot was buoyed by the post-war social changes which had brought many women to work outside the home. For an added touch of romance, the idea was inspired to Naxon (the owner of the original company, later sold to Rival), by his Bubbe’s cholent. The great innovation of the slow cooker was that it could be safely left unattended all day, putting the ingredients in before going to work and adding the last touches when returning from work. The slow cooker frees your oven and stovetop for other uses, or allows you to start cleaning those areas while still cooking part of your meal – which makes it a brilliant option for large gatherings and multi-course holiday meals.
However, speed is not the only reason to use a crock pot: there are plenty of other advantages to this method of cooking. For example, cheaper and tougher cuts of meat are tenderized through the long cooking process, which also allows better distribution of flavors – and once they are ready, they are kept warm until it’s time to eat. But the moist and gentle heat is also perfect for classic cheesecakes. At these low temperatures, the chance that the food will burn or stick to the bottom of the pot is practically zero. Which brings me to the main advantage offered by both the slow cooker and the pressure cooker, through opposite means (respectively, very low heat and very high heat): their ability to cook effortlessly and without stirring foods like risotto or polenta, that would otherwise require lots of babying. Foodie snobs might frown, but there are some days when you have better things to focus your energy on than your wooden spoon, and I dare your family members to tell the difference.