My mom had a pressure cooker when I was growing up. I remember it because it was heavier than a beast and we only hoisted it out of the cabinet to cook pasta. The pot was so tall we didn't have to break the spaghetti noodles to submerge them in water.
But did she ever use it for its intended purpose?
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Pressure cooker pointersWhile testing recipes for this story I learned several things: First and foremost is that I love pressure cooking. I actually have two cookers now, a stovetop model -- the 6-quart Duo Fagor -- and an electric 6-quart from Cuisinart.
Both pots worked equally well and produced incredible results. I favor the Cuisinart slightly because of the timer that automatically starts ticking down once the desired pressure has been reached. With the stovetop model, I had to keep an eye on the yellow indicator before setting the timer. Yet the electric model can't be run under cool water for super-quick pressure release, so there are trade-offs.
Here are a few other things I learned along the way.
• Recipes state cooking time, but don't forget to factor in the time it takes the pot to reach pressure. Depending on how full the pot is, that could take up to 15 minutes.
• You can add ingredients to the pot at different intervals so some foods don't overcook. Make sure to bring the pressure fully down before opening the lid and start timing again after the pot reaches pressure. For example, when making stew, add carrots and potatoes about five minutes before you expect the meat to be done so the vegetables don't turn to mush. And if the meat isn't cooked to your liking, put the lid back on and cook it longer.
• Pressure cookers are great for less expensive, tougher cuts of meat that we associate with cold weather, but it also works wonders with delicate fish and vegetables. Because it cooks so fast, it's great for hot-weather meals because you don't have to heat up the kitchen as long.
• Follow manufacturers' directions for filling the crock. The cooker should never be more than two-thirds full, and about half-full when cooking some beans and grains.
• Think beyond dinner. These cookers work for canning and making dessert, like cheesecake that doesn't crack on top.
-- Deborah Pankey
"Your dad and I might have made chili sauce in it once, because that's how Gramma did it," she said. "But I didn't use it because I was afraid of it."
Back in the 1950s and '60s, housewives had reason to be afraid. Rumors spread about pressure cooker explosions. I say "rumor" because I have yet to meet someone who witnessed such a culinary catastrophe. Oh, sure I've heard from people who knew someone who knew someone, but I haven't found anyone who actually saw such an event firsthand.
Here's what is supposed to have happened: The pressure would build up under the tightfitting lid causing a release valve on top to rock and rattle. If left on high heat too long, the lid would rattle loose and the contents, be it beans or beef stroganoff, would fly like shrapnel.
But pressure cookers have come a long way and are enjoying a renaissance as modern cooks realize these cookers are safe to use and can create healthful meals in minutes.
How it works
The first pressure cooker came on the scene in 1679, invented by a French physicist who discovered that by putting food into a closed system he could heat it to higher temperatures in a shorter amount of time. The water, or liquid inside the cooker, remains trapped. Once heated to the boiling point, steam rises and creates a moist cooking atmosphere that reaches 250-plus degrees. This method, first used to soften bones and otherwise wasted meat parts, drew raves from royalty who said it made meat and mutton as soft as cheese.
Set to low, the pressure builds to around 8 pounds of pressure per square inch; at high it's about 15 psi. In comparison, a basketball should be inflated to about 8 psi, a bike tire between 45 and 60 psi.
Once the cooking time is over, the pressure must be released by removing the cooker from the heat source. Left to come down naturally, pressure subsides in about 15 minutes. Pressure can also be released quickly with the cooker's valve, which will produce a spurting hiss that might cause startled guests to needlessly seek safety. An even quicker cooling method is to run the pot under cold water; you might have seen reality TV chefs cooking against the clock take this tactic. This is also the preferred method for delicate seafood and vegetables where you want the cooking to stop before the food becomes too done.
In the United States, pressure cookers began to appear in the 1920s and became more common after World War II. At one time, some 70 manufacturers were forging these pots, but as stories of temperamental cookware (usually inexpensive and made from low-quality metals) spread, the market dropped.
Benefit vs. risk
Those stories persisted long enough to keep Wendy Copeland away from pressure cookers until earlier this year when the purported health benefits won out.
"John and I are trying to eat healthier and we both like to cook," said Copeland, of Palatine, adding that she and her husband purchased one in January and have used it several times since -- making everything from chicken breasts to beef stew.
Nutrition experts tout pressure cooking as a healthful technique because the closed system retains more vitamins and minerals than other cooking methods. Lean meats don't dry out in the moist atmosphere, and because foods cook more quickly they also retain their color and flavor. Many pots are made with stainless steel and have nonstick crocks that negate the need to add cooking oil.
Copeland says the chicken soup she made in her cooker was the most flavorful version she's ever had, and the beef stew had incredible texture.
"I've used a crock pot to make beef stew for years; it was good and the meat fell apart," she explains. "In the pressure cooker the meat turns out super tender. It's broken down, but it doesn't just fall apart."
Copeland also appreciates the speed at which ingredients cook, up to 70 percent faster than more traditional methods. Potatoes, for example, cook fork-tender in about 8 minutes, fresh artichokes in 12, beef Burgundy in 30.
Copeland says her new favorite recipe is for Italian chicken breasts that go from the freezer to the table in less than 15 minutes. Put 1 tablespoon of pasta sauce on a piece of foil, top with the frozen chicken breast, some mozzarella cheese and a bit more pasta sauce. Fold up the foil and cut a little hole in the packet. Cook at high pressure for 12 to 14 minutes.
"If you've forgotten to take something out of the freezer for dinner, you don't need to go through the drive through," she said.
That faster cooking time means you're using less gas or electricity to meal prep, making pressure cookers more "green" and energy efficient as well.
Judith Dern, spokeswoman for AllRecipes.com, says more cooks are getting comfortable with the new design.
"Our pressure cooker page views are up 17 percent," Dern said, adding that the most popular recipes are pot roast and Caribbean-style oxtails. "It went up pretty steadily last fall, then way up in January, which makes me think people got them for Christmas.
"I think people have figured out that it's easy and that they (the pots) are not going to explode. ... (newer models) have release valves so that just doesn't happen anymore," Dern says.
Khristina M. Westbrook, communications manager with Fagor, one of the leading pressure cooker manufacturers, explains that today's pots are made with multiple safety features that models lacked decades ago. Lids lock until pressure has been released, regulators have been designed to make it easier to determine when the desired pressure has been reached and rubber gaskets expand if the pressure does rise too high.