Pressure Cooker Basics
A pressure cooker is a cooking vessel with a lid that locks on and prevents steam from escaping. As a result, the steam builds up pressure in the pressure cooker – about 12 to 15 pounds per square inch of pressure (psi) – and the temperature inside the cooker increases. At sea level, water boils at 212º F before it is converted into steam, and it cannot get any hotter than that, regardless of the heat source below it. In a pressure cooker, with 15 psi of pressure added, water boils at 250º F before being converted into steam. That means that we are able to cook foods inside a pressure cooker at higher temperatures, and they are therefore finished sooner – in about one third of the time it would take to cook on a regular stovetop. The time saved by using a pressure cooker is obviously a huge benefit, but that is secondary to how your foods taste out of the pressure cooker.
In a pressure cooker, the lid is sealed onto the pot letting nothing escape, and the flavors of the foods have nowhere to go but to mingle with each other. With flavor infused throughout, soups, stews, chilies, everything is intensely flavorful. Cuts of meat that usually need a long cooking time in order to become tender are transformed into spoon-tender, succulent meals. Because the lid prevents steam from escaping, foods remain moist too. The results of pressure-cooking are juicy, tender, moist and flavorful meals. All of that in one-third of the time it would normally take. You can’t beat that!
There are also health benefits to pressure-cooking. The main cooking medium in pressure-cooking is liquid rather than fat. When pressure-cooking, you can choose to almost eliminate fats, creating lean meals. Vegetables can be steamed quickly, retaining their crunch, color and nutrients.
Because it saves time and cooks foods faster, pressure cookers use up less energy than traditional methods of cooking. Also, because the steam and heat are trapped in the pressure cooker, you will find that your kitchen remains cooler. I love this for the summer months. With a pressure cooker, you have the versatility to cook foods all year round that you might otherwise reserve just for the winter.
Safe and Easy to Use
Pressure-cooking is also safe and easy. Most recipes call for you to start by browning foods either in the cooker itself or on the stovetop. Then, you combine the food with at least one to one and a half cups of liquid (check your pressure cooker manual for the minimum liquid requirement), lock the lid in place and set a timer. Electric pressure cookers do all the monitoring of time and temperature for you, so all you have to do is wait for the time to expire. There are safety valves built in to control for any unplanned occurrence and the locks on the machines prevent you from making a mistake and opening the unit when there’s pressure inside. The horror stories of pressure cookers blowing up are truly tales of the past.
One of my favorite aspects of pressure-cooking is waiting for the timer to ring. I always have enough time to clean up the kitchen and set the table, which means that after dinner, I only have one pot and a few plates to clean.
Combining Pressure-Cooking with Other Cooking Techniques
Pressure-cooking can be your sole cooking method, or it can just speed up the process of making a meal combined with a different cooking technique. Ribs, for example, can be cooked in the pressure cooker and then popped onto the grill and brushed with BBQ sauce with an excellent result. Hams can be cooked in the pressure cooker and then glazed under the broiler for easy and beautiful browning.
For visual appeal as well as for flavor, it’s important to brown your foods either before pressure-cooking, or after the food has been cooked. Many electric pressure cookers now have BROWN settings, which will allow you to sear foods before you add the liquid required for cooking. If your electric pressure cooker does not have a BROWN setting, you can often use one of the pre-programmed buttons in order to brown. Turning the pre-programmed button on will engage the bottom element and as long as you don’t put the lid on, you can brown in the pot. Alternatively, you can simply brown the foods on the stovetop in a skillet first, add the liquid to the skillet to deglaze the pan and scrape up any brown bits that have formed on the bottom from searing the meat, and pour the entire thing into the pressure cooker along with the remaining ingredients. It’s a small step that does take a little time, but it is important to the final result.
There are two ways to release the pressure in a pressure cooker. The first way is called the natural release method. This involves simply turning your electric pressure cooker off. The temperature will slowly decrease in the cooker and the pressure will come back to normal. Understand that a natural pressure release can take as long as fifteen minutes, so account for that time in your meal planning. Use the natural release method for meats in order to obtain the most tender results, for beans whose skins tend to burst otherwise, and for dishes with a lot of liquid where the liquid might spit out of the pressure release valve.
That alternative method to release the pressure in a pressure cooker is called the quick-release method. Electric pressure cookers have a release valve that you can turn to release the pressure manually. Steam will escape out of the valve until the pressure has returned to normal. Use the quick-release method for foods that are easily over-cooked, like grains, seafood or vegetables.