Are you intimidated by tales of a pressure cooker exploding all over your grandmother’s kitchen? Don’t be! Pressure cookers are fantastic tools that are surprisingly simple to use—with safety features that have come a long way since their somewhat-volatile predecessors.
What is a Pressure Cooker and What Does It Do?
A pressure cooker is a sealed pot with a valve that controls the steam pressure inside. As the pot heats up, the liquid inside forms steam, which raises the pressure in the pot. This high-pressure steam has two unique effects:
- Raises the boiling point of the water in the pot: When cooking something wet, like a stew or steamed vegetables, the heat of your cooking is limited to the boiling point of water (212°F). But with the steam's pressure now the boiling point can get as high as 250°F. This higher heat helps the food to cook faster.
- Raises the pressure, forcing liquid into the food: The high pressure also helps force liquid and moisture into the food quickly, which helps it cook faster and also helps certain foods, like tough meat, get very tender very quickly.
The appeal of a pressure cooker is the polar opposite of slow cookers: Pressure cookers can produce a savory pulled pork, short ribs, or stews in record time. While you might enjoy having both appliances on hand, there are a few situations in which pressure cookers clearly come out on top:
- If you want meals without planning ahead: The biggest difference between pressure cookers and slow cookers is straightforward: one is slow, and one is fast. With a pressure cooker, you can be unprepared until 6:00 pm, when you come home with a nice cut of beef for fork-tender pot roast, and still eat a delicious dinner an hour later. With a slow cooker, no such luck.
- If you frequently make vegetable-heavy meals: Slow cookers require extra steps to prevent vegetables from turning mushy. Pressure cookers, on the other hand, are known for cooking difficult, starchy vegetables and legumes quickly and to perfection. The high temperatures inside the cooker promotes browning and caramelization, reactions that create flavors you can’t otherwise get in a moist cooking environment.
- If you’re really tight on space in the kitchen: A stovetop pressure cooker is also just a really big pot that can be used for many other things—simply don't tamp down the lid. A slow cooker insert, on the other hand, usually shouldn't be used for anything other than slow cooking. Also, while browning of ingredients is important for flavor in many slow cooker and pressure cooker recipes, a pressure cooker lets you brown and sauté right in the pressure cooker itself.
- If you live at a high altitude: Cooking at high altitude can be tricky, since the boiling temperature of water goes down the higher up you go. Especially when cooking dense foods, such as beans or tough cuts of meat, a pressure cooker can be a big help.
Fissler Vitaquick 8½-Quart Pressure Cooker. Image: Fissler
What Foods Can You Make in a Pressure Cooker?
Almost anything! Pressure cookers make rice in just a few minutes, and can cook tougher things like beans and chickpeas in much less than an hour. They’re also great for foods that need to be tenderized, like braised meats and roasts. But, don’t think you’re limited to veggies and meats—people even made hard-boiled eggs (apparently the shells pop right off).
What’s Tricky About Cooking in a Pressure Cooker?
Since using a pressure cooker is a whole new way of cooking, doing so to your taste involves learning a few new processes. For example, you usually need to wait for a for a pressure cooker to heat up before adding the food and the lid.
How long food cooks for, and at what pressure, also takes some getting used to. To start, it’s handy to reference pressure cooker timetable charts. Deciding whether to release the pressure slowly or quickly also depends on the recipe and your own tastes.
And, unlike sautéing, boiling, or slow cooking methods, food is sealed inside a pressure cooker—meaning that you can’t touch or taste it as it’s cooking. In that way, successful pressure cooking means making a few mistakes to acquire a new bank of kitchen knowledge.
Stovetop vs. Electric Pressure Cookers
If you’re new to shopping for a pressure cooker, the first question that might cross your mind is “What is the difference between stove top and electric pressure cookers?”
Not as much as you might think. Whether they’re old, new electric, or stovetop, they can all pressure cook food. The main difference comes down to, while electric pressure cookers require almost no monitoring to bring, maintain, and release pressure, it takes more time to get them there.
Emeril 1,000-Watt 6-Quart Electric Pressure Cooker by T-fal. Image: Emeril
Electric pressure cookers are best for:
- Those who are nervous about fiddling with heat settings, since an electric pressure cooker will do it automatically
- Replacing other appliances, like a rice cooker and yogurt maker
- Busy families who need to schedule dinner to be ready when they walk in the door, If this sounds like you, you’ll appreciate the cooking delay timer available in some models, which can start dinner before anyone is home
- College students with limited kitchen space—the electric pressure cooker is a complete cooking tool and can even keep the food warm
- Elderly or otherwise abled persons, since there’s no need to remember if the gas is on, plus the cooker can be placed at any height
- Expert cooks who already moved all of their cooking to pressure and often have more than one cooker running—an electric is a great addition to your kitchen ensemble.
The downside of electric pressure cookers? These bulky models can be difficult to store, while generally only coming in internal capacities of six to eight quarts. Additionally, unlike the sturdy steel stovetop versions, electric pressure cookers cook food inside a small liner pot, like that of a rice cooker. These pots are often flimsier and feature a nonstick coating that can become unsafe with wear. Finally, liner pots rarely have sturdy enough handles to make one feel safe while pouring out steaming liquid.
Fagor Duo 8-Quart Stainless Steel Pressure Cooker. Image: Fagor
Stovetop pressure cookers are best for:
- Those who want maximum speed and power, since stovetop pressure cookers reach higher heat and pressure than electrics
- Those who value durability over convenience, as stove top cookers can last decades
- Cooks who want to try advanced pressure cooking techniques, many of which require the higher pressure and lesser evaporation of modern stove top cookers
- Cooks who like to tinker and supervise their cooking, since the pressure releases faster than electrics
Choosing a Pressure Cooker: Size & Shape
When picking out a pressure cooker, size is the most important consideration. Not just for how many mouths your pressure cooked meal can feed, but because you must never fill a pressure cooker more than two-thirds of the way (lines indicate the maximum level), which limits the available space for ingredients.
For stovetop versions, the shape of the pot is equally important. Low, wide cookers provided a generous cooking surface, helping to brown food thoroughly and efficiently before closing the pot. While you can find pressure cookers as narrow as 6 ⅛ inches, reviews state that the ideal size has an interior cooking surface of 9 inches in diameter.
America’s Test Kitchen points out that shape plays another role when picking a pressure cooker: Stovetop versions are made with a thick metal disk base (an aluminum disk covered by stainless steel, attached to the pan bottom) to retain and regulate heat. Every manufacturer warns that you must keep the heat source directly under that disk—since flames licking up the sides of the pot will damage the locking mechanisms in the handles and the sealing gasket around the rim.
However, America’s Test Kitchen reviewers found that, because that disk base is expensive to make, many models have a disk that’s smaller than the base of the pot. This makes for a pot shape that balloons out over the burner. The reviewers found that pressure cookers of this shape routinely scorched food in areas where the base did not shield it from direct heat. Additionally, the scorched food took extra time to clean.
Bottom line on choosing a stovetop pressure cooker size and shape? Go for the biggest pot you think you might need in a shape with straight sides and a broad bottom disk.
Additional Points to Consider When Choosing a Pressure Cooker
Here are a few things that your new pressure cooker should have:
Spring-Valve for Stovetop and Float-Valve for Electrics
Spring-valve non-venting cookers have the latest pressure-regulating technology, and they won’t fill your kitchen with the sounds of steam engine pistons firing (like old-style venting cookers) or drive you nuts with the clinging and clanging of a jiggling metal weight. Modern spring-valve cookers make very little noise while cooking and need less energy, too. Electrics have a weighted “float-valve,” which is equally quiet and energy-efficient.
Stovetop cookers should be made of stainless steel because cheaper aluminum cookers are not only soft and easily deformed, they are ‘reactive’—meaning that they change the flavor of acidic ingredients (tomatoes, lemon, wine, etc.).
No Non-Stick Coatings
Avoid non-stick coatings, as they can scratch and be easily damaged by utensils, the sharp end of a bone, or even a metal steamer basket. This exposes the aluminum underneath, causing it to be in contact with food.
Two Pressure Settings
A pressure cooker should have at least two pressure settings: “high pressure” for meats, legumes and anything dense that needs a long time to cook, and “low pressure” for fish, eggs, and al dente veggies and pasta. Some pressure cookers have a switch on the lid to select the pressure settings; others will do so by displaying a certain number of rings, while electric pressure cookers let you choose the pressure at the touch of a button. And don’t be dazzled by new pressure cookers that have 10 or more pressure settings—no recipes have actually been written for all those extra settings.
All pressure cookers will have some parts that eventually wear and will need to be replaced. For example, the sealing gaskets (the silicone ring in the lid) usually last about 18-24 months. By purchasing your pressure cooker from a longstanding company with a good reputation and solid customer service, you’ll be able to track down and purchase these parts when needed. And don’t stock up on these parts in advance, as they age even while not being used.
Can I Use a Vintage Pressure Cooker?
As romantic (and thrifty) a notion it is to use grandma’s pots and pans, pressure cookers made over 20 years ago lack the fool-proof modern safety features of today’s equipment, such as locking lids and back-up safety valves.
Not quite sure how old a pressure cooker is? Take a look at the manual, which should contain a list of its safety features.
Tips & Tricks For Using Your Pressure Cooker
While pressure cooking no longer puts you at risk of having to scrape spaghetti sauce off your ceiling, following these tips will ensure you make an enjoyable meal:
1. Before Cooking, Check Your Equipment
Always check the rubber gasket (the ring of rubber that lines the lid of the cooker) to make sure it isn't dried out or cracked. Also, check to make sure that there is no dried food on the rim of the pot, which could break the seal.
2. Don't Overfill the Cooker
We know we’re repeating ourselves, but this is important! For most foods, don't fill the pressure cooker more than two-thirds full, to avoid the possibility of food blocking the vents. Foods like beans and grains, which tend to swell as they cook, should only fill about half of the cooker.
3. Use enough Liquid
A pressure cooker needs liquid to create the steam that cooks the food. A good recipe will take this into account, but if you're creating your own, you'll need at least 1/2 cup of water or other liquid. If the steam doesn't seem to be building with this amount, open the cooker (releasing any steam first) and add a little more until you reach pressure.
4. Take Care When Cooking Foods That Froth
Frothing can block the steam valves and the pressure release vents. Foods that froth include pasta, rhubarb, split peas, oatmeal, applesauce, and cranberries. If you do want to cook these foods, follow a trusted recipe and make sure that the quantity in the pot is well below the recommended maximum fill line.
5. Don't Pressure Fry
Using more than a tiny amount of oil in your pressure cooker can be very dangerous and could melt the gasket and other parts.
6. Release Pressure in a Safe Way
You can release pressure in three ways: by just removing the cooker from the heat and letting it sit until the pressure goes down (natural release), running cold water over the lid of the closed pan (cold water release), or using the pot's steam release valve to expel the steam (quick release). Make sure to protect your hands with pot holders as you're handing the cooker, and if you're using the quick release method, be sure that your face, hands, and body are away from the steam vent. When you open the cooker after the steam has been released, hot steam will still escape from the pan. So, as you open the pan, tip the lid away from you and hold it over the pan so that the hot condensation doesn't drip onto you.
7. Clean Your Pressure Cooker Properly
Remove the gasket and wash it separately, along with the lid and the pot. Clean the valve with a wooden toothpick, making sure it moves freely and isn't stuck. Store the cooker with the lid upside down on the pot, rather than locked in place.
Top Pressure Cooker Models
Starting with stovetop pressure cookers, Cook's Illustrated tested 12 models, ranking them from ‘winner’ to ‘not recommended.’ Based on their findings, the Fissler Vitaquick 8½-Quart Pressure Cooker came out on top. However, that model is a steep $259.95 on Amazon. Next on the list as both their ‘best buy’ and ‘highly recommended’ option is the Fagor Duo 8-Quart Stainless Steel Pressure Cooker for $89.95. Coming in third and at the lowest price point, the Presto 8-Quart Stainless Steel Pressure Cooker is available for $68.95.
Because of their extensive (and scientific) testing, I’ve deferred to Cook’s Illustrated for electric pressure cooker recommendations as well. To learn more about their testing of the electric models—and why they recommend them ‘with reservations—you can watch their short video. The winning model? The Emeril 1,000-Watt 6-Quart Electric Pressure Cooker by T-fal for $134.99.
The Kitchn dives a little deeper into the world of electric pressure cookers, comparing the Cuisinart CPC-600 Electric Pressure Cooker ($99.95), the Fagor Electric Pressure Cooker Plus ($89.95), and Breville’s The Fast Slow Cooker in this extensive side-by-side comparison that highlights the best and worst of each.
Pressure Cooker Recipes & Resources
Despite being a relatively simple process, it can be comforting to have a little extra know-how when starting off pressure cooking. Here are some of our favorite resources from around the web:
- This Dummies.com pressure cooker cheat sheet is great to have on hand! Print one out and keep it on the fridge for quick referencing.
- This video by Delectable Planet that clearly explains how to get started using a pressure cooker.
- Dubbed the Queen of Pressure Cooking, Lorna Sass's pressure cooking methods and recipes are meticulously developed and researched.
- The Veggie Queen is full of information and videos dedicated to healthy, vegan pressure cooking.
- Dad Cooks Dinner covers both standard and creative pressure cooker recipes, taking on easy-make chicken or caramelizing peeled garlic.
- And if you need any more inspiration, Youtuber J. Donnelly provides a playlist of over 22 electric pressure cooker video recipes, each with step-by-step instructions.
Do you have any favorite pressure cooker tips or recipes? Please share in the comments below!
- “Choosing and Buying Pressure Cookers”, About.com
- “Electric Pressure Cookers”, Cooks Illustrated
- “Stovetop Pressure Cookers”, Cooks Illustrated
- “Does pressure cooker size matter? Of course!”, Hip Pressure Cooking
- “Cuisinart, Fagor, and Breville: Which Electric Pressure Cooker Is Right for You?”, The Kitchn
Main image credit: baloon111 / Shutterstock.com