All About Pressure Cookers

Information, Safety, Tips, and Recipes for Pressure Cooking

Chicken with mushrooms sauce
Cultura/Diana Miller/Riser/Getty Images

Pressure cookers are resurging in popularity. While many of us only saw old-style pressure cookers in use by our grandmothers or during a food science class, now they are a modern tool for busy cooks. For example, this programmable electric cooker you can buy at Amazon.com has modern features including a brown or steam function, delayed cooking time, and keep warm function. Here are the basics about pressure cookers and pressure cooking.

With a pressure cooker recipe, you can produce a delicious dish much faster than with stovetop cooking. But there are several safety tips and cooking techniques to keep in mind. Steam and heat combine under pressure to cook foods at about 250 degrees; hotter than the 212 degrees temperature of boiling water. That's what speeds the cooking process.

Pressure Cookers Require Instruction Manuals

The most important thing to know about using a pressure cooker is to follow the instruction booklet. This is a good reason not to buy a pressure cooker at a garage sale or flea market that doesn't have its instruction manual included. If you have an older cooker, read how to do a pressure cooker hot water test to familiarize yourself with it.

Safety Procedures Before Each Use of the Pressure Cooker

Be very careful following instructions about attaching the lid securely, quickly reducing steam pressure, and opening the pot when cooking is completed.

The rubber gasket seal and the steam vent tube are the critical parts of this appliance; make sure that the gaskets are solid, clean, not ripped or torn; and that the vent tube is clean and clear, not clogged with food. Use the cleaning implement that comes with your pressure cooker or a pipe cleaner to keep that vent tube clear.

Safety While Using the Pressure Cooker

Think twice about leaving a pressure cooker alone while it's cooking. Never let children or pets play around the appliance when it's cooking.

Remember, with pressure cookers, safety comes first. To open the lid when cooking is done, you must release the steam from the pressure cooker first. Be very careful when you release pressure; you can burn yourself even with the new cookers that have safety releases.

If you use the quick release features, make sure to only release steam in very short bursts (like the pulse feature on your food processor). If you hold the release button open, hot liquid may spurt through the valve and burn you.

Never try to force the lid open. Read that instruction booklet from cover to cover and keep it handy nearby while you are using the pressure cooker.

Avoid Foam-Producing Foods in the Pressure Cooker

One caveat: watch out for foods that foam! Dried beans, pasta, and some fruits (especially apples) can create foam when they cook; small particles can ride up on that foam and clog the steam vent.

Only fill the pressure cooker half full when cooking these foods (my pressure cooker instructions say to only fill one-third full), and add a tablespoon of oil to keep the foam to a minimum. Foods that cause the most problems with foaming include split peas and beans, oatmeal, apples, cranberries, and pearl barley.

Releasing the Steam Pressure

If you are using an old-fashioned pressure cooker (older than 5 years), for quick release, the steam has to be released by placing the cooker in the sink and running cold water over it. (Make sure to keep the water out of the steam valve!) This reduces the temperature and therefore reduces the steam pressure. You can let the cooker cool down naturally until the pressure is released; this takes anywhere from 10-30 minutes.

Adapting Recipes to the Pressure Cooker

Timing is critical when you're pressure cooking. Foods like large pieces of meat have a bit of 'wiggle room' in timing, but fresh vegetables and fruits can be quickly overcooked. If your pressure cooker doesn't have a built-in timer, make sure you have a reliable, accurate timer that you use every time you pressure cook. Use the cooking time charts provided by the manufacturer such as this list from Fagor.

If you're adapting a recipe to pressure cooking, set the timer to 1/3 of the cooking time of the original recipe. If a recipe cooks on the stovetop for 1 hour, cook for 20 minutes in the pressure cooker, release the steam, following directions, and test for doneness. You can refasten the lid and cook for 1-3 minutes longer if the food needs it.

It's best to undercook food until you're sure of the pressure cooker and recipes; you can always put the appliance back together and cook again for 1-3 more minutes to finish cooking.

Many crockpot recipes convert easily to the pressure cooker. Cheaper cuts of meat, like brisket and chuck, cook to perfection in the pressure cooker just like they do in the crockpot, only the cooking time is really reduced. A recipe that cooks for 8-10 hours on low in a crockpot usually cooks for about 1 hour in a pressure cooker.

Most pressure cooker recipes use foods that have the same cooking times; beef and potatoes, or chicken with parsnips. You can use an interrupted cooking method, as in this recipe for Crockpot Chicken Alfredo, releasing the lid and adding other ingredients as the cooking time reaches a few minutes. When you use this method, be sure to write down the times when more fragile ingredients are added, and carry that timer with you if you leave the kitchen.

Liquid Amounts Are Important in Pressure Cooking

Make sure that you use the amount of ingredients called for in the recipe; liquid amounts are particularly important. You need a certain amount of liquid to build up steam so the food cooks at the correct temperature in the proper time frame.

Do not use your pressure cooker as a deep fryer (i.e. fill it full of cooking oil) unless it is specifically marketed as a fryer.

Is There Enough Pressure?

Keep an eye on the pressure indicator rod. When the pressure cooker is cooking, the rod should be in the raised position (or jiggling, on older models). If it is not, there may not be enough liquid in the cooker to convert to steam and the food can burn. Stop the cooker according to the manufacturer's instructions and when the pressure goes down, lift the lid and add liquid.

Browning Food in the Pressure Cooker

You can brown foods first in most pressure cookers. For an old-fashioned type of pressure cooker, place the cooker on medium-high heat and brown the foods. Then add liquids and remaining ingredients, cover, bring pressure up, and cook. For a newer cooker, most have a brown function; see manufacturer's instructions.

Cooling the Pressure Cooker

Different recipes also have different cooling methods. Old-fashioned cookers may use the cold water method. Newer cookers have a steam release valve that is pressed in short bursts until the pressure is reduced. Or you can just remove the heat or electric source and let the cooker cool naturally for 10-30 minutes. This method is best for longer-cooking foods like large cuts of meat.

Storing Your Pressure Cooker

Don't store your pressure cooker closed with the lid on; that will just allow aromas to stay in the cooker; molds and off flavors can develop. Store the lid separately from the base. Also, do not store the rubber gasket in the base. Sprinkle a bit of baking soda inside the cooker when you store it to prevent these problems.

Pressure Cooker Recipes