Introduction: How to Use a Pressure Cooker (and Choose Which One to Buy)
Pressure cookers are one of my absolute favorite kitchen tools! They have a bad reputation for being kitchen and dinner destroyers - but like every other tool they're perfectly safe as long as you use them correctly. These days pressure cookers are much safer and much more reliable - as long as you follow a few basic rules there's really a minuscule chance of food exploding all over the walls and ceiling. ;)
In this instructable I'll explain how to choose which pressure cooker to buy, as well as give you the basic rundown on how to use one.
P.S. Please keep in mind that a pressure cooker and a pressure canner are two totally different tools. I won't be covering pressure canners here - only pressure cookers!
Here's a list of the pressure cooker recipes I have up - more to come!
Step 1: Why You Should Own a Pressure Cooker
Pictured above: pressure cooker pulled pork
A pressure cooker is amazingly versatile, and can cook food up to 70% faster than traditional methods!
Many folks turn to slow cooking or frozen meals for convenience, but as far as I'm concerned you really cannot beat a pressure cooker for fast and tasty homemade food. :D (And honestly, I don't think I've ever had a great meal from a slow cooker. Mine sits mostly abandoned after lots of bland and watery meals.)
Pressure cookers also have the added convenience of being able to brown meat and sauté vegetables in the cooking pot which means you can build loads of flavor. And if you don't lock the lid on, you essentially just have another awesome pot to cook with if you need it! I use my stovetop pressure cooker to boil pasta alllllll the time.
In addition, if you live at a high altitude, a pressure cooker is incredibly helpful. Because the boiling point is lower, food can take much longer to cook. But even at 8,000 feet, I can still cook things in a 1/3 of the time with a pressure cooker. :)
Step 2: Choosing a Pressure Cooker
There are quite a few things to consider when choosing a pressure cooker to buy. These criteria apply to all pressure cookers - but I've broken down the pros and cons of electric and stovetop pressure cookers on the next two steps.
Things to consider when choosing a pressure cooker:
- What size do you need? - At the most, you can only fill a pressure cooker 2/3 of the way full. Think about how many people you'll be cooking for and how many servings you'd like from each meal. 6 and 8 quart models are the most common - I use a 6 quart.
- Double duty or just another appliance? - Do you want the pressure cooker to also function as a standalone cooking pot? If so, go for a stainless steel stovetop model. If you have space for a countertop appliance, electric can be a good choice!
- Durability - how often will you be using the pressure cooker? Nearly all electric models come with a non-stick cook pot, which can discolor and take on smells over time. Aluminum stove top models are the same. Stainless steel is more durable and will last longer.
- Are replacement parts reasonably priced and easy to get? When I bought my electric pressure cooker years ago I did not factor this in. The cooking pot and rubber gasket started to go and it would have cost me nearly $60 to replace them - over half of the cost of the pressure cooker originally!
There are two things I cannot recommend you do, however:
- Buy a pressure cooker second hand. You will never know how well it was taken care of or if it's been sitting for years and the parts have degraded. Or maybe it was broken entirely but donated instead of discarded. Buying a second hand pressure cooker means you are upping your chances of something going wrong before you've even started! When pressure cooker parts fail it can be a VERY dangerous and messy situation.
- Buy an aluminum pressure cooker. Sure, they may be cheap, but they're also incredibly flimsy. If you ever drop it or damage it in some way, it will most likely be unable to come up to pressure again. Even if you do baby it and keep it in good shape, it will discolor and stain with age very badly. This doesn't impair the cooking ability, but it can sometimes leads to scent retention. (Which is gross, frankly :P)
Step 3: Electric Pressure Cooker Pros and Cons
Electric pressure cooker PROS:
- Extremely easy and safe to use - you essentially have tiny computer co-pilot to help make decisions and monitor the cooking. You will not have to spend as much time monitoring it as you would with a stovetop version.
- Programmable cooking temperatures allowing you to brown meat and saute vegetables in the pot.
- High and low settings - nearly all electric pressure cookers allow you to cook at two different pressures, which can be helpful for more fragile things like vegetables or fish.
- Built in timers - like a slow cooker, many electric pressure cookers will shut off automatically and go to a "warm" setting when cooking is done. This will allow the pressure to begin to release naturally even if you're not right there!
- Portable - You can really set an electric pressure cooker up anywhere, so it can be useful when you're serving a huge crowd and the stovetop is already full. Most also have a "warm" setting so it can double as a serving vessel.
Electric pressure cooker CONS:
- Much more expensive replacement parts. In general, I find the lids and cook pots to be much steeper in price.
- Not as durable - there are more pieces that can fail.
- Large countertop footprint - most electric pressure cookers are huge, honestly. I had to store mine on top of the fridge because it wouldn't fit in any of my cabinets!
- Less control over temperature - you're stuck with whatever's programmed into the pressure cooker.
- Cooking pots are normally non-stick - You may think this is a pro, and sometimes you'd be right. But with extensive use, non-stick cook pots will start to become damaged and take on flavors and smells you don't want carrying over into the next thing you make. If you plan on using your pressure cooker fairly often, you will most likely be replacing the cooking pot pretty soon.
- Slower to come to pressure, and often cooks at a lower pressure overall. This means slightly longer cook times.
Step 4: Stovetop Pressure Cooker Pros and Cons
Stovetop pressure cooker PROS:
- More durable - most stove top pressure cookers are made of stainless steel with an aluminum or copper core in the base. (if you don't count aluminum versions at least - I'm not because you shouldn't buy one, dangit!)
- More precise temperature control - because you'll be the one controlling the stove top temperature, you can brown and saute more efficiently and raise and lower the heat as necessary to keep the right amount of pressure.
- Ability to be used as a standard cooking pot - most stovetop pressure cookers are taller than they are wide, which makes them an excellent pot for boiling pasta, cooking sous vide or simmering soup or stock. Mine has essentially replaced my stock pot for many things.
- Cheaper replacement parts - in general I've found these replacement parts are much cheaper to buy and also easier to find since there are less pieces to worry about.
Stovetop pressure cooker CONS:
- They have a steeper learning curve - you'll need to do a little trial and error with cooking times and stovetop temperatures.
- More hands on - you'll want to be nearby as it pressurizes and during the cooking process to make sure it doesn't lose pressure.
- More metal pieces mean more chances of rust - this is not a concern as long as you're good about cleaning and drying the cooker in a timely manner.
Step 5: The Pressure Cooker Type I Recommend
For what it's worth, I recommend buying a stove top stainless steel pressure cooker with an aluminum or copper core in the base.
A pressure cooker like that will last for years and years to come, and you'll only need replace the gasket and perhaps some other small parts. They're more reliable and cheaper in the long run.
I am currently using a Fagor Splendid 6 quart pressure cooker and I love it. It heats evenly, retains pressure very well, and I love that the handles make it easy to carry to the sink if I need to release pressure super quick! It also has pretty dang cheap replacement parts.
Major brands of stainless steel stovetop pressure cookers include:
- Kuhn Rikon - most expensive, top of the line pressure cookers that are extremely safe.
- Fagor - middle of the road on pricing, nice and sturdy, my personal favorite brand.
- Presto - slightly cheaper than Fagor, great if you don't want to drop a lot of money to try out pressure cooking.
Step 6: Pressure Cooker Anatomy
Make sure to have a look through the manual for your pressure cooker so you're familiar with all the important parts before you start cooking. Here's a basic rundown of what to look for.
Lid lock / lid lock indicator:
Some pressure cookers (like mine!) have a locking mechanism you have to use to pressurize the cooker. Others just let you know when the pressure cooker has come to pressure and lock automatically - many electric pressure cookers do this!
Every pressure cooker will let you know when the pressure is reached. On my current stovetop pressure cooker, the pressure indicator is a little yellow button that pops up. On the electric pressure cooker I had, the red middle of the steam release valve popped up.
Steam or pressure release valve:
The steam release valve is one of the most important parts of the pressure cooker. This is the way you tell the pressure cooker to build pressure and also how you release pressure. Most models allow you to turn the valve to build or release pressure. The steam release valve is how you'll quickly release the pressure if a recipe calls for that.
Steam release points:
As your pressure cooker comes to and stays at pressure, you will see steam escaping. The major place steam exits the pressure cooker is called the steam release valve, which sometimes doubles as the pressure indicator. It's super important to keep this clean - I always wash this part of the lid first!
Most stovetop cookers also have areas around the edge of the lid where steam can escape, and electric pressure cookers tend to have a large area on the back of the pressure cooker. Sometimes you'll see a bit of condensation around these areas, too.
The gasket is the rubber/silicone/plastic ring that goes inside rim of the lid. The gasket should be treated with utmost care - without this thing you're not going to be able to cook at pressure!
Check your manual for care details.
Check the inside of the cooking pot. Every modern pressure cooker I've ever used has fill lines on the inside - maximum and minimum. These will tell you at a glance how you're doing fill-wise.
Step 7: Pressure Cooker Basics (aka How to Use One Safely!)
As I've stated before, pressure cookers these days are extremely safe. But there are steps you need to take to make sure you're being safe while using them as user error is the most common cause of pressure cooker problems!
Here are some basic guidelines for using, storing and cleaning your pressure cooker:
- Never fill the pressure cooker more than 2/3s of the way full. Any fuller than that and you will not have enough room to build pressure properly, and you also run the risk of clogging the steam vents with allow the pressure cooker to release pressure.
- If you're cooking rice, beans, or other grains that foam and expand while cooking, do not fill the pressure cooker more than 1/2 way full. Beans and grains can very easily block the pressure from being able to release.
- For cooking times less than 10 minutes, always make sure the pressure cooker has at least 1/2 cup of liquid in it.
- For cooking times more than 10 minutes, you need a minimum of 2 cups of liquid.
- Check your manual to see if you need to oil your gasket or not! My Fagor pressure cooker recommends that I do. After cleaning the gasket and drying it, apply a very small amount of cooking oil (canola or vegetable are best!) to the gasket before putting it back into its place. You just want a very light film - never use more than 1/4 teaspoon oil.
- Don't store the lid so the gasket gets crushed - I like to store my lid upside down on the pressure cooker base so the gasket keeps it's original shape. You can also store the gasket separately.
- Always make sure the steam release valve is point towards the back of the stovetop - don't let it expend pressure facing the front of the stove - you could get some pretty nasty burns!
- Never, ever try to force open the lid while the pressure cooker is pressurized. If you desperately need to open the pressure cooker, check your manual to see the steps you should take. With stovetop pressure cookers, you can bring them to the sink and run cool water over the top to help release pressure quickly. Electric pressure cookers will need slightly more time - you can open the steam release valve and wait for it to escape.
Step 8: How to Cook in an Electric Pressure Cooker
Electric pressure cookers are ridiculously easy to use, so I'll keep this one brief.
- Use the browning/saute/simmer settings to brown and cook any ingredients you need to in the cook pot.
- Once you've finished the initial steps, add the required amount of liquid.
- Lock the lid onto the cooker and turn the pressure release valve to the correct position to build pressure. (Check your manual for more information - nearly all lids require them to be put in a specific starting position to lock properly)
- Set the pressure cooker to the "HIGH" or "LOW" setting.
- Set the timer. Most electric pressure cookers have timers that will automatically count down once the proper pressure is attained - if yours does not, you should set a timer once the pressure indicator pops up.
- Wait for the pressure indicator valve to pop up - once it's up you're good to go!
- Once the cooking time is up, you'll need to release the pressure naturally or quickly. To release the pressure naturally, turn off the pressure cooker and wait 15-20 minutes until the pressure indicator falls. To release the pressure quickly, use a wooden spoon or something else long handled to push the steam release valve to the "quick release" setting. I say to use a utensil because steam will come shooting out immediately and you don't want to burn yourself!
- When the pressure indicator falls, you can open up the pot.
Step 9: How to Cook in a Stovetop Pressure Cooker
Stovetop pressure cookers do require more time spent checking up on them, but after the first few times you use yours, it'll be like second nature. :)
- Do all your pre-cooking in the cook pot on the stove such as browning of meat and sautéing of veggies.
- Add in the amount of liquid you need.
- Make sure the gasket is well seated and lock the lid onto the pot. (Check your manual - you will probably need to seat the lid in a specific area to get it locked!) You may need to lock it manually with a switch as well.
- Set the pressure release valve so it's closed and the cooker can release pressure.
- Turn up the heat to medium/high and let the pressure build. You will see steam start to come out of the top vent(s) if things are going right. You may also see some condensation.
- Once the pressure indicator is up, reduce the heat. On my electric stove, I normally keep my heat set at 2. You'll have to play around to find the best level of heat for you!
- Set a timer and monitor the pressure cooker. If the pressure indicator falls, you don't have the heat high enough. Adjust it and try again! If there is a TON of whistling and sputtering, chances are your heat is a little too high, so turn it down little by little.
- Release the pressure, either naturally or quickly. To release the pressure naturally, take the pressure cooker off the burner and let it sit 15-20 minutes, or until the pressure indicator falls. To release it quickly, turn the steam release valve to the "open" setting using a towel or a long handled utensil to avoid burning yourself.
- Once the pressure is released, the pressure indicator will fall and you can open the pot.
The last important note here is that if you don't see steam coming out of the vents/valve and the pressure indicator hasn't moved after about five minutes of trying to bring the pressure cooker to pressure, chances are you've got the lid on slightly wrong. In this case, I always take the pot off the heat and open the top carefully (point it away from you!) and then lock it back on the pot. Sometimes the gasket just doesn't like to sit right the first time. :)
Step 10: Cleaning Your Pressure Cooker
Try to always wash the pressure cooker soon after cooking to avoid foods drying and clogging the parts. It is especially important to clean the pressure indicator/valve and steam vent(s) to ensure everything goes well the next time. I always try to rinse the underside of the lid right away since all the important bits live there.
If you are the type of person that tends to let something "soak" in the sink forever, try not to do that with your pressure cooker. Yeah, I am one of those people. :D
Check in your pressure cooker manual for specifics, but you can typically wash the cook pot in a dishwasher, while the lid and gasket should be washed by hand.
Never clean your gasket in the dishwasher or with extremely hot water - this can deform the gasket! Be gentle when cleaning it - take care not to pull it or tear it in any way. If your gasket has small cracks, feels harder than normal or very sticky to the touch, you should replace it with a new one. These are all signs of a defective gasket.
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