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What is a pressure cooker, and what does it do?

A pressure cooker works on a simple principle: Steam pressure. A sealed pot, with a lot of steam inside, builds up high pressure, which helps food cook faster.

When was the pressure cooker invented?
It was invented in the 1600s by a Frenchman by Denis Papin, who wanted to translate new discoveries in physics about pressure and steam into cooking. He called his pot the “Digester” but it took quite a while before better manufacturing standards and technology could make these high pressure pots safe.

How does a pressure cooker work?
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 major effects:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 extra-high heat of the pressure cooker also promotes caramelization and browning in a surprising way — we’re not used to food caramelizing when it is cooking in liquid. But the flavors created in a pressure cooker can be really deep and complex — unlike regular steamed foods.

What can you cook in the pressure cooker?
Almost anything! It cooks rice in just a few minutes, and it cooks tougher things like beans and chickpeas in much less than an hour. It is very good for foods that need to be tenderized like braised meats and roasts. But people have cooked all kinds of other things in it too. I’d say the two most surprising to me is how well hard-boiled eggs & rice turn out! The rice is perfect overtime and the shells almost fall off the eggs.

What’s tricky about cooking in a pressure cooker?
It’s a whole new way of cooking, with its own language and processes. You add the food, some cooking liquid and the lid, then wait for a pressure cooker to heat up (“come to pressure”), then let it cook for a certain amount of time. Then you let the pressure release – sometimes fast (“quick pressure release” [QPR]), sometimes slow (“natural pressure release” [NPR]) — depends on what you’re cooking!

How long? There are many pressure cooking charts that show you how long certain foods should cook — I have found that there can be conflicting cook times out there, so it’s not surprising that this can be a source of confusion. We’ll have our versions of pressure cooking charts soon!

In all of this, your instincts as a cook are not always helpful. We know how to sauté, how to brown meat, how to boil potatoes. But a pressure cooker is a sealed box — you can’t touch or taste the food as it is cooking, and successful pressure cooking relies on a new bank of knowledge that most of us have to acquire.

What’s pretty great about the pressure cooker?
The pressure cooker is highly efficient — it uses far less energy than many other appliances, since it cooks so quickly and leverages the pressure powers of steam. Last week I made the most tender, fall-apart pot roast I’ve ever had, with the flavors of the spices and aromatics saturating the meat in only an hour! I’ve also made other tender cuts of meat, 15 bean soup from scratch in 35 minutes, rice in 4, delicious steel cut oats in 12, one pot pasta dishes in under 10 minutes…the list goes on!

The pressure cooker really should be called the fast cooker — it’s a fascinating tool and good for many, many dishes in the kitchen. Whether you’re single, married, have children at home… the Instant Pot or other electric pressure cooker can be your new favorite gadget!

Here’s the Instant Pot we recommend.

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Jessica Russo Miller of Food Under Pressure is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by and linking to amazon.com. We are also affiliated with Adsense and other potential affiliate programs.