How would you like to make risotto with butternut squash and sage in half the time it normally takes—with almost no stirring? Or lamb shanks with garlic, rosemary and white wine in one-fourth the time? Or black bean soup with cumin and coriander faster still—without soaking the beans overnight? No, not in a microwave oven or some wacky gizmo shilled on late-night television. In a pressure cooker.
If your only contact with a pressure cooker was watching mom or grandma dealing with a clunky, hissing, and scary looking pot that only cooked split pea soup, you’re in for a surprise. Today’s pressure cookers are as sleek as espresso makers and as safe and silent as toaster ovens.
“Pressure cookers have moved from being a contraption to a very smooth running machine,” says Victoria Wise, author of The Pressure Cooker Gourmet (The Harvard Common Press). Wise, a former restaurant chef (at Chez Panisse) and the author of numerous cookbooks, had never used a pressure cooker until she wrote her pressure cooker book. “I had no preconceived notions but I was very curious. Now I use it a lot,” she says, adding that “my French friend says everyone in France has one and she doesn’t understand why Americans don’t use them more often.”
Pressure cookers trap steam inside a pot sealed airtight by a rubber gasket that lines the inside of the lid. Trapped inside the cooker, the steam builds pressure, up to 15 pounds per square inch at full throttle. The increased pressure raises the boiling point from a normal 212 degrees to 250 degrees. The ability to reach this higher temperature is what enables the pressure cooker to cook foods faster.
It’s not just raw heat, though. The combination of increased temperature and steam allows pressure cookers to break down sinewy cuts of meat and soften hard, dried beans. For this reason, pressure cookers need liquid, usually at least a cup.
The early stages of using a pressure cooker are the same as with a conventional pot. You still need to sauté the onions, brown the meat or let the wine evaporate Then you add everything else at once, secure the lid, and turn up the heat until you reach the desired pressure. Modern pressure cookers have a calibrated rod with settings for high and low pressure, depending on what the recipe calls for, and a pressure regulator built into the cover that replaces the old fashioned weighted regulator that used to jiggle on top of the lid. That’s what makes them quiet. Pressure cookers also come with a trivet that holds pans for such things as meatloaf and cheesecake. Yes, cheesecake!
What do pressure cookers do best? “Beans, chickpeas especially,” says Lorna Sass, author of three pressure cooker cookbooks, including The Pressured Cook (Morrow). “I don’t think you can do chickpeas on top of the stove but in a pressure cooker they are the most delicious things you can imagine.” The pressure cooker also does a great job on grains such as brown and wild rice and on vegetables that normally take a while such as collard greens or beets. Braised dishes such as osso buco, beef Bourguignon and lamb tagine are also good candidates.
Foods that typically don’t need a long time to become tender, such as many vegetables, some poultry, and most seafood, are not cooked in the pressure cooker. However, Wise says that while her Thai-style shrimp with long beans and coconut milk “wouldn’t take much longer in a regular pot…with a pressure cooker you don’t have to watch it.”
Wise does acknowledge that her recipes are “very specific” with regard to timing so the food doesn’t overcook. That’s fine if you have a recipe for delicate foods. But if you don’t, cooking times can be an issue because once the lid is in place, there’s no peeking to see how things are going. Nor can you add food in stages for longer cooking dishes as you might in a conventional pot. However, there is nothing to prevent you from allowing the pressure to fall in the pressure cooker, removing the lid, adding more ingredients and starting up again.
The fastest way to remove a lid is to put the pot under cold running water until the pressure gauge indicates a drop in pressure and the pot heaves a kind of sigh indicating it’s ok to open, one to two minutes. This is the method you’d use for risotto, for example. A more time consuming release method is to remove the pot from the heat and let the pressure drop naturally, about 10 to 15 minutes. This is appropriate for more forgiving foods such as tough cuts of meat and dried beans.
I tested four pressure cookers—six-quart sizes from Fagor, WMF and Presto and a seven-quart model from Kuhn Rikon, which doesn’t make a six-quart size. All were made of gleaming stainless steel (older pressure cookers were made of cast aluminum) and performed comparably overall in cooking risotto with butternut squash, black bean soup and braised lamb shanks. My only general complaint is that while the lamb came out tender, it wasn’t as meltingly soft as it might be when braised for a few hours in an oven.
The Swiss-made Kuhn Rikon Duromatic ($210) and the German-made WMF Perfect Plus ($190) both use the most modern technology. As a result, they were quieter than the other two. At times, the WMF was so quiet I wasn’t sure it was on until I checked the pressure gauge. While the Kuhn Rikon did a fine job on the bean soup and lamb, the risotto came out the soupiest of the four. Also, its taller sides and smaller bottom made browning the meat somewhat more difficult. Ditto for the WMF. The WMF did the best job on risotto—creamy with firm grains and vegetables cooked just right. But it emitted a buzzing sound when it reached full pressure cooking the bean soup, requiring the heat to be turned off and on again a few times.
If your mother had a pressure cooker, it was probably a Presto, which has been making home models in the United States since 1939. The Presto Anniversary I used and the Spanish-made Fagor both have a modified version of the old-fashioned weighted regulator, which doesn’t jiggle but does allow steam to come out, making them less quiet than the Kuhn Rikon and WMF, though hardly noisy.
The Presto ($95) has an attractive bell-bottom shape that made browning meats easier. It reached full pressure faster than the other three (9 minutes on the risotto vs. 9.5 for the Kuhn Rikon and the WMF and 10.5 for the Fagor) and did a solid job on all three dishes. At $60 the Fagor gets best buy award. It made the second soupiest of the risottos and took the longest but handled the lamb shanks and bean soup well. It also has a wider bottom.
In all three dishes seasoning needed to be cranked up. Sass always recommends a finishing time after the lid is removed—especially for dishes such as risotto which may need stirring over heat to tighten up. Then she adds herbs and other seasonings such as garlic (pushed through a press so it incorporates faster). I added seasonings in the beginning and at the end.
Food, like jumbo shrimp, is full of seeming contradictions. When it comes to cooking in a hurry, using a pressure cooker takes the pressure off of you.
The following recipes are adapted from The Pressured Cook (Morrow) by Lorna Sass.
RISOTTO WITH BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND SAGE
- 1 tablespoon each, butter and olive oil
- 1 cup minced onions
- 1-1/2 cups arborio rice
- 1/2 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
- 3-1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
- 1-1/2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch chunks (about 3 cups)
- 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- 1 tablespoon dried sage leaves, crumbled, or 2 tablespoons fresh sage, minced
- 2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1)Put the butter and oil in the cooker over medium-high heat. When the butter melts completely, cook the onions, stirring frequently, until they soften slightly, about 2 minutes. Add the rice, and cook a few minutes more, stirring to coat the rice with the butter and oil. Add the wine and continue cooking and stirring until most of it has evaporated, about 1 minute. Add the broth, squash, and salt.
2)Lock the lid in place. Over high heat, bring to high pressure. Reduce the heat just enough to maintain high pressure and cook for 4 minutes. Quick-release the pressure by setting the cooker under cold running water. Remove the lid, tilting it away from you to allow excess steam to escape.
3)Add the sage to the risotto. Boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until the rice is tender but still chewy, most of the squash is pureed (a few small chunks here and there are fine), and the risotto loses most of its soupiness and becomes creamy and thick, 3 to minutes.
4)Turn off the heat and stir in the Parmesan and additional salt, if needed. Serve immediately in large shallow bowls sprinkled with parsley. Serves 4.
PORTUGUESE RED BEANS WITH SAUSAGE AND KALE
When I made this dish, I used a turkey drumstick, which I put in the bottom of the pot before adding the beans. After the pressure was released, I removed the turkey, cut the meat into chunks (be careful about the bones) and returned the meat to the pot.
- 1-1/2 cups red kidney beans, picked over and rinsed, soaked overnight in ample water to cover or speed-soaked (See below)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons chopped garlic
- 2 cups chopped onions
- 1 pound kale
- 3½ cups chicken broth
- 1 pound linguica, chorizo, or other spicy, smoked sausage, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices or chunks
- 3 large bay leaves
- One 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Tabasco sauce to taste
1)Drain the beans and set aside. Put the oil in the cooker over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion and cook, stirring frequently, until soft, about 5 minutes.
2)Meanwhile, cut the kale crosswise into 1/2 to 3/4-inch wide ribbons. As you go down to the stalks, cut the pieces smaller. Discard the bottom inch or two, depending on how small and tender the stems are. Put the kale in a large colander and thoroughly rinse. Set aside.
3)Add the broth to the onions and garlic and increase the heat to high. Scrape up any browned bits sticking to the bottom of the cooker. Add the reserved beans, sausage, bay leaves, and kale. (Don’t be concerned that the cooker will be quite full; the kale will shrink dramatically as the cooker comes up to pressure.) Pour the tomatoes on top. Do not stir.
4)Lock the lid in place. Over high heat, bring to high pressure. Lower the heat to maintain high pressure and cook for 12 minutes. Turn off heat and let the pressure reduce naturally. Remove the lid, tilting it away from you to allow any excess steam to escape. If the beans are not tender, return to high pressure for 3 minutes more.
5)Stir well and discard the bay leaves. Taste for salt and pepper. Add Tabasco sauce to taste. Cook a few minutes more. Serves 4.
Note: Though I’ve never tested it, soaking beans overnight is said to make them creamier when cooked. But what’s the point of saving time with a pressure cooker if you have to soak the beans for eight or 10 hours? Though Lorna Sass says speed soaking is “not completely reliable” because very fresh beans can go beyond soaking to actual cooking, this method worked fine for me.
To speed soak beans in a pressure cooker, add the beans and 4 1/2 cups water. (The ratio is 3 parts water to one part beans.) Lock the lid in place and bring to high pressure over high heat. Adjust heat to maintain high pressure for 1 minute. Turn off the heat and allow pressure to come down naturally.