Save Time and Energy Pressure Cooking
The best-kept secret of time-challenged kitchen gourmets is within your reach.Posted Nov 1, 2016
When I was a child, my great uncle swore by his pressure cooker. In minutes he could transform a bowl of wizened, dehydrated apricots into a glorious, golden sauce suitable for topping the Queen’s ice cream or his own vanilla sponge cake. He did this while simultaneously preparing the rest of the meal and beating me at cribbage. The threat of wildly fluctuating temperatures or random kitchen explosions did not concern him one iota. Did I mention he was blind?
Later, while firmly ensconced in my decade-long vegetarian experiment, I purchased my own pressure cooker to help transform soggy meals of beans and rice into something more appetizing. The results were incredible.
Twenty years later, I still have the same pressure cooker. Each day this stainless steel workhorse gets hauled from the kitchen cupboard to prepare everything from rajma masala to pulled pork. The vegetarianism didn’t last, but the cooking method did. Here’s why pressure cooker enthusiasts stand by this time-tested method of getting dinner on the table.
Pressure Cooking Saves Time and Energy
Pressure cookers work by letting steam build up inside a sealed environment. Lids lock down, sealing all that steam inside the pot. As trapped steam builds pressure, cooking temperatures increase along with moisture levels. This combination cuts cooking times up to 70% and equals substantial energy savings. With less time on the stove and less moisture lost to evaporation, pressure cookers are the cooking equivalent to energy-efficient lighting.
Pressure Cooking is Safe
Today’s pressure cookers have built-in safety features lacking in models from years gone by. Some brands like the Fagor series have three safety valves that allow excess pressure to escape. An automatic self-locking mechanism, along with this triple valve safety system, prevents you from opening the cooker before all pressure is released, eliminating any chance of explosions. Today’s pressure cookers are also manufactured from high quality materials—most commonly stainless steel encasing a thin aluminum plate. This plate never comes into contact with your food. To ensure your pressure cooker is the highest possible quality, look for a stamp on the bottom indicating 18/10 (18% chromium, 10% nickel). While a pot only needs 10.5% chromium to be considered stainless steel, a greater amount adds durability.
Pressure Cooking is Good for You and Tastes Delicious
Any cooking method that seals in flavors and bastes ingredients in their own juices is bound to taste good. Pressure-cooking does both these things and more. By reducing cooking time, pressure cookers ensure that foods are less likely to lose color and flavor. Shorter cooking times also improve the retention of nutrients. One study reported in the US National Library of Medicine by the National Institutes of Health determined that pressure-cooking preserves more ascorbic acid and beta-carotene in select vegetables than other cooking methods. Another study from the Journal of Food Science showed that boiling and steaming broccoli caused significant vitamin C losses, while pressure-cooking helped retain more than 90%.
But that’s not all: cooking rice under pressure is also thought to decrease the presence of aflatoxin, a mold now considered a human carcinogen. According to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, pressure-cooking decreased the presence of aflatoxin (B1 variety) in rice by 78-88%.
How to Use a Pressure Cooker
Although each pressure cooker comes with its own operating instructions, there are some general guidelines to observe when cooking under pressure:
- Start your pressure cooker on high heat. When the cooker has reached the desired pressure, lower the heat to minimum or move to another, cooler burner. If pressure drops during cooking time, raise heat slightly.
- Use a timer to accurately measure cooking times. Pressure cookers are faster than other cooking methods and it’s easy to overcook items if you’re not keeping track.
- Start cooking times after your cooker has reached the desired pressure level.
- Familiarize yourself with your manufacturer’s instructions on safe volume level. Most pressure cookers should not be filled more than two thirds full. However, some models recommend filling only half way, especially when cooking ingredients that might foam or expand.
- Always add liquid to your pressure cooker. In most cases, the minimum is half a cup, although cooking times and ingredients will affect this amount.
- If desired, prevent meat or other ingredients from being immersed in liquid using a basket insert or trivet to raise them above the water level.
- Clean valves and gasket after each use with soap and water. Ensure these are clean before re-locking your pressure cooker.
- When your cooking time is complete, depressurize your cooker according to the recipe’s instructions or in one of three ways: run cold water over the lid, release steam from a valve, or remove from your heat source and let the cooker depressurize naturally.
- Never immerse your pressure cooker in water when under pressure.
What to Cook in a Pressure Cooker
From boiled rice to homemade chili, pressure cookers quicken and enhance a variety of recipes and foods. Here are some tips to consider when planning your pressure-cooked meals:
Rice and beans
Vegetarians take note: pressure cookers are known for substantially reducing the cooking times of dietary mainstays like grains and pulses. That means less time spent in the kitchen waiting for your pot of beans to soften and less energy expended heating those hard-to-cook ingredients. Recent studies also suggest that cooking grains and pulses under pressure helps break down lectins, those shifty ingredients thought to wreak havoc in some people’s guts. Although lectins are contained in many foods, they exist in higher concentrations in grains and pulses. Lectins have also been linked to gut permeability and some illnesses like colitis, Crohn’s Disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Pressure-cooking can tenderize even the toughest of meats, but there are a few rules of thumb to follow to ensure you get the best flavor along the way. First, brown your meat to help seal in the flavors and give the cut a roasted look. Next, add just enough liquid to help your cooker reach its boiling point. Since pressure cookers minimize evaporation, they don’t need the same amount of liquid used in traditional stovetop (or oven) cooking. Remember: meat releases its own juices when heated and these provide more flavor than any plain water bath. Finally, avoid adding starchy thickeners to your pressure cooker since these can burn easily and prevent the ingredients inside from reaching adequate pressure and cooking correctly. If you do want to thicken your sauces, do so after the pressure cooker is finished.
A hallmark of gut-healing diets, bone broth is a good source of dietary minerals and a fortifying beverage during the season of chills and ills. Steamy, nutrient rich bone-broths can take days to make on the stovetop. A pressure cooker reduces that cooking time to hours, and the flavors are as lovely as ever. When making bone broth in the pressure cooker, be sure to leave the correct headspace (check your manufacturer’s instructions). An 8-quart model is ideal for most bone broth recipes, although you can make this delicious and comforting food in smaller models as well.
Soups and Stews
Before pressure-cooking your soups, use your open pressure cooker like a normal pot to sauté onions, leeks, bacon, celery, or other starters. Next, add starchy vegetables, meats, grains, and pulses before sealing the pot, since these ingredients require more cooking time. Later, allow the cooker to depressurize and add ingredients that cook more quickly. This includes vegetables such as broccoli, chard, kale, and anything else that easily loses its firmness and color. Finally, add milks, creams, and any thickeners required by your recipe. Cook these final two stages with the pot open and unsealed.
A Final Word
The pressure cooker is a time and energy saver extraordinaire, well suited for meals that normally require longer cooking times or vegetables needing a quick steaming. As a pressure cooker enthusiast, this is something my great uncle understood well. And given that he died a few days before his 100th birthday, maybe he was onto something.
Shannon Cowan is an author, editor, and teacher who lives on six acres of land with her husband, daughters, and backyard chicken flock.