Most decent cooks could survive with nothing but a good stockpot, a skillet and a sharp knife. Let’s be honest: No one really needs a melon baller, apple corer or asparagus steamer. But an extra gadget makes itself worth your investment of money and space when it helps you eat healthier food in less time for less money. The pressure cooker is that gadget.
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If anyone really knows how to cook, it’s the French, and that’s who invented the amazing apparatus known as the pressure cooker—French physician Denis Papin invented the machine in 1679. Thanks to the laws of physics, water boiling in an open pan can never much exceed 212 degrees; pressure cookers speed cooking time by raising the boiling point to approximately 250 degrees. (For you scientific types, the boiling point rises because the cooker increases the internal pressure, meaning it requires more energy for the liquid molecules to escape the surface and become gas.) The end result of this scientific wonder? Foods cook up to 70 percent faster in a pressure cooker.
Those quick cooking times also mean less energy use. Pressure cookers became popular in the United States during World War II as a means of conserving energy. What was true then is still true today: You’ll save as much as 60 to 70 percent of the cooking time, which means you’ll use about two-thirds less energy. Unless you’re using a solar cooker, there’s almost no way to use less energy while cooking.
And energy savings translate into dollar savings. With so little energy needed, meals made in a pressure cooker can cost as little as one penny on your utility bill. Pressure cookers help save money in other ways, too. You can make less-expensive cuts of meat taste fabulous from the benefits of stewing. You can use dry, rather than canned, beans and vegetables. And you can cook fantastic meals with inexpensive staples such as pasta, whole grains, and dried fruits or mushrooms. Kuhn Rikon, a pressure cooker manufacturer, estimates you can save more than $325 a year with a pressure cooker—and most pressure cookers last 20 years or more!
Finally, pressure cookers help make foods taste better. Many foods’ flavors benefit from slow cooking and stewing, which is essentially what you achieve in a pressure cooker in much less time. Some people find that they use less seasoning when pressure cooking, because roasting brings out more intense flavors. Dry beans and grains are infinitely better than their mushy, oversalted, canned counterparts, and a pressure cooker lets you prepare them just as quickly.
The bottom line is that any meal that begins with fresh, whole foods will taste better than meals that begin with processed ingredients, which you likely use to save time or money. With a pressure cooker, you can save time and money, but still start with whole, fresh foods, resulting in healthier and tastier meals.
Choosing a Pressure Cooker
For most home uses, a standard-size, 6-quart pressure cooker is suitable. You’ll want to choose heavy-gauge stainless steel or enamel-coated carbon steel rather than aluminum, because aluminum can interact with foods and create off flavors. It’s also helpful to choose a model with a helping handle opposite the main handle for easier lifting. Modern pressure cookers are much safer than the first-generation models of the 1930s and ’40s, which lacked safety features and had many complicated parts. Modern versions include a valve that releases excess steam, preventing accidents, as well as a locking feature that will not let you remove the lid until the pressure is reduced. In addition, the new models seal in steam better, so less liquid is required. If you live above 3,500 feet, always increase cooking time by 10 percent.
You’ll want to read the manufacturer’s manual and familiarize yourself with your pressure cooker’s main features.
Pressure Cooker Cooking Times
Most units offer low, medium or high pressure, which correlates to about 5, 10 or 15 pounds of pressure at about 220, 235 or 250 degrees.
• Low pressure is used for most vegetables, fruits and custards.
• Medium pressure is ideal for denser vegetables and fruits and for fish and poultry.
• High pressure is recommended for beans, rice and pasta; dried veggies, fruit and mushrooms; and tough cuts of meat or wild game.
• Here are some sample cooking times:
Potatoes: 5 minutes
Winter squash: 5 minutes
Artichokes: 10 minutes
Brown rice: 15 minutes
Stew meat: 15 minutes
Dry beans: 15 to 25 minutes
For a complete chart of cooking times and the recommended pressure for specific foods, check out "Pressure Cooking Resources". You will also find additional delicious pressure cooker recipes, pressure cooker brand and model recommendations, a detailed guide to understanding your equipment, and more.