Cooking Under Pressure For Fun and Profit
For the last year, we’ve had a useful new tool in our food preparation arsenal: an electric pressure cooker. The pressure cooker has upped our food making game, increased the variety of delicious dishes we can make at home, and decreased the time we spend cooking. It even helps reduce our food bills (which some of you asked about), since we can rely on whatever ingredients are on sale at the time to reduce our use of last minute takeout & convenience foods. It’s not a magic bullet (that’s a different kitchen gadget altogether, and also a well named sex toy), but has proven to be versatile and handy in quickly preparing tasty meals from cheap ingredients while fitting into our
lazy busy lifestyles.
I have a weakness for gadgets, and somehow, a pressure cooker made its way onto the list of new toys to try out. I was stuck deciding between an electric pressure cooker (user friendly, more convenient, less scary for the novice) and a conventional stove-top model (cheaper, more versatile, higher pressure and faster cooking times). The dilemma was solved when a higher power intervened: The wife found a brand new electric pressure cooker on Craigslist for $30. After a slight learning curve (it took a couple tries to figure out the locking lid), it has been smooth sailing and a bit of a love affair. Normally, with new gadgets we follow a catch and release model: if something doesn’t add sufficient value to our life, it is released back into the wild (resold on Craigslist). This is one gadget that is not going to be resold very soon.
To understand what makes a pressure cooker great, it’s helpful to compare to a slow cooker. A slow cooker makes food tasty by cooking for a long time at low temperatures. A pressure cooker does the opposite: the sealed cooking vessel builds up higher than atmospheric pressures, which in turn raises the boiling point of water (or oil but don’t try that at home) allowing you to cook food at higher temperatures than you could otherwise. The upshot is that foods cook 70-90% faster in a pressure cooker compared to traditional stove-top methods. Using a pressure cooker not only saves you time, it’s also more energy efficient.
Shorter cooking times are what first made the pressure cooker an everyday tool for us. We’re lazy, and we rarely (if ever) plan our meals ahead of time. We’ve had a slow cooker for years but it has mostly collected dust. I’ve wanted to like it and use it as much as the internet tells me I should, but we weren’t organized enough to start cooking our meals hours before we were ready to eat. With the pressure cooker, we can quickly prep and throw in the ingredients we have on hand, and in relatively quick fashion end up with tasty food. If you want, you can even pressure-cook frozen meat, but while it works, it’s not recommended for optimal taste or texture; frozen veggies turn out lovely though.
It gets better: Food doesn’t just cook quicker, it’s often better tasting. Cooking at higher temperatures unleashes the power of the Maillard reaction, the same thing that makes toast, seared steaks, and toasted marshmallows so tasty and addictive. Without a pressure cooker, you can only get high enough temperatures to bring about the reaction with dry, high heat cooking methods. In the sealed environment of a pressure cooker, however, you can exploit the Maillard reaction in a wet environment, bringing an entirely different set of aromas and flavors to food. A dish as simple as veggies sauteed in coconut oil and then steamed under high pressure for a couple of minutes turns out delicious and seems to have richer and deeper flavors than can be achieved by conventional steaming (granted, the copious amounts of coconut oil probably helps).
Overall, I’ve been really impressed with the electric pressure cooker. Now that I’m a bit more confident, I’m tempted to add a small stove-top model to our arsenal when the right occasion comes up. The electric model is convenient, and very set-it and forget-it, but a stove top model would add more flexibility, cook at even higher pressure, and allow us to make small dishes even faster. As an alternative to the model we have, the Instant Pot also seems to come highly reviewed and recommended. Perhaps it’s a better choice if you value the extra features it provides, but for us at the time it seemed a bit gimmicky (nor did we chance upon one on Craigslist). One upgrade I might make with our model is to replace the non-stick insert with a stainless steel cooking pot, when the lining inevitably wears out.
In the list of good to have problems, the pressure cooker has almost made it too easy to quickly and cheaply make pretty darn tasty meat dishes. We try to reduce our meat consumption, for a variety of reasons, but when you know that you can pick up whatever is on sale and find a suitable quick recipe, it makes meat consumption pretty easy (and tasty).
Here’s just a small list of recipes we found that are really quick, easy, and usually pretty cheap:
“BBQ” ribs with the meat falling off the bone: 12 minutes in pressure cooker, finish for 10-15 minutes under broiler.
Simple version, slightly more fancy version. Compare to 1-2 hours on the BBQ, or 6-8 hours in the slow cooker.
Five-minute eggplant curry? Yes please.
Easy and tasty chicken soup from what would have been garbage: take a really easy turkey soup recipe, and replace the turkey with the carcass of a grocery store rotisserie chicken after you’ve put the meat to other uses.
I could go on, but the list would be quite long. Suffice it to say, pressure cooking is awesome.