You love to make Grandma’s chicken noodle soup recipe, but making the broth and cooking the vegetables seems to takes forever. Maybe you like to make stew, or chili, but you hate having to stand watch at the stove for all that time. Perhaps you’d like a new way to make BBQ or roast. Then you, weary chef, need a pressure cooker. Gone are the days of kitchen explosions! These cookers are equipped with safety features, so don’t fret! Check out these tips for purchasing a pressure cooker:
A Little About Pressure Cookers
Pressure cookers cook food using steam pressure much faster than conventional cooking methods. To achieve this, food is placed in the cooker with a small amount of liquid, then the cooker is sealed. Heat is applied and the cooker’s temperature slowly rises. Eventually the liquid boils and gives off steam, which is trapped inside the unit. The cooker maintains the desired temperature and pressure for a prescribed amount of time and then the pressure cooker is removed from the heat source, the pressure is released slowly and it can be opened. Almost any food that is cooked in a liquid can be cooked in a pressure cooker.
There are many advantages to cooking with a pressure cooker. First and foremost, a pressure cooker cooks food faster. This is ideal when you forgot to put the roast in the crockpot before you left for work, and now you only have a few hours to figure something out for dinner. Pop it in the pressure cooker! It will cook 70% faster than cooking with conventional methods. Cooking at higher altitudes is also faster. You don’t need much liquid to cook in a cooker, and because of this the vitamins and minerals in the food are not extracted by the water. This also means that your food is more flavorful. A pressure cooker uses less energy to operate since it cooks so fast. Finally, a pressure cooker will kill bacteria. It reaches temperatures high enough to kill microorganisms.
There may be some reasons why you wouldn’t want to use a pressure cooker. It is not as affordable as a regular sauce pan or stock pot. When cleaning, you must make sure to be careful with the gasket, as it is fragile. Pro Tip – if your gasket does get dry or cracked, you can bring it back to life by rubbing a small amount of vegetable oil on it. Do not rub too much, because excessive oil can cause the gasket to swell and you won’t be able to open the lid. A gasket that has lost its flexibility makes it harder to bring the cooker up to the desired pressure. When cooking on the stovetop with conventional pots and pans, all you need to do to check on your food is lift the lid. With a pressure cooker, however, it is necessary to depressurize the unit first. Finally, pressure cookers are heavy, not making them a viable option for transporting food.
What to Look for in a Pressure Cooker
High quality and heavy gauge steel is the first thing to look for. All pressure cookers are made of metal, either aluminum or stainless steel, but you want durable stainless steel. Stainless steel is important, as aluminum tends to have an acidic reaction to the food and can change the taste. There are different types of stainless steel. You should look for a cooker stamped “18/10 Stainless Steel,” which indicates the makeup of the metal. A cooker of this combination includes 10% nickel and 18% chromium. Due to the inclusion of these alloys, the cooker will be stain and corrosion resistant and it will have a nice gleam to it. Some models come with a non-stick inner coating. It is recommended that this be avoided for two reasons. First, non-stick coatings just do not last. Also, there is some controversy regarding the health and safety of non-stick coatings. It is better just to avoid it.
Your pressure cooker should come with a steamer basket, a trivet for keeping items above the liquid line and metal divider for cooking multiple foods at once. It should also come with instructions, which you should read carefully as misuse of the unit can result in serious injury.
Most pressure cooker recipes require that the food be cooked at 15psi (pounds per square inch). Don’t take it for granted that the cooker you have chosen will reach this gauge – some are manufactured to reach pressures at less than 15psi. This is important at high altitude cooking as well. There should also be an accurate, easy-to-read indicator that will tell you when the unit has reached the desired pressure.
Your pressure cooker should have a quick release mechanism built into the regulator. This allows for equalization of the pressure quickly, so you can add ingredients as you go and quickly continue pressure cooking.
Pressure cookers come in stovetop or electric models. The stovetop models are heated and brought to the desired pressure by the burner on your stove. An electric model simply plugs in. Electric models are a little safer because they are self-regulating and it is not as easy to reach an over-pressure situation. You can also set it and forget it with the electric models, as they are all self-regulated. Stovetop models are more accurate due to manual regulation and come up to pressure faster. A stovetop cooker can also be used as a stockpot and sauce pan.
Some pressure cookers are multi-functional. They can also perform functions such as: sauté/browning, steaming, slow cooking, rice cooking, yogurt making and stockpot warming (to keep cooked foods warm). Pressure cookers have even been used as autoclaves in emergencies.
Problems occur when the main steam valve is blocked. This causes the pressure to build in the unit and can result in explosion. Pressure cookers currently on the market are equipped with two or three safety valves. The best way to avoid a mishap is to avoid overfilling the cooker. Typically, only fill the cooker with solid food 2/3 full, liquids that foam or froth (pasta) ½ full, and foods that are pulses (beans) 1/3 full. Pro Tip – 1 tablespoon of cooking oil will cut down on froth. Look for pressure cookers equipped with safety features, such as an over-pressure release valve, which will release steam if the pressure inside the cooker rises too high. If the pressure continues to rise, the gasket will be pushed out through the lid, which will safely vent the steam.
Size Does Matter
Pressure cookers come in different sizes – 4, 6, 7 and 8-quart models. Which model you purchase is determined by your need. Do you have a big family and need to make large meals? Then you might want to go for a 7 or 8-quart model. Remember, pressure cookers cannot be filled to capacity.
Making dinner has never been so easy! Just toss in your protein, maybe some veggies, a starch, and a little water or chicken stock and voila! A short while later you’ve got a healthy, hot meal for your family that took little effort. A pressure cooker is a smart investment for families of any size.