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A pressure cooker is a pot with a lid that locks on and traps steam inside. As a result, the steam builds up internal pressure and the temperature inside the cooker increases.
Instead of reaching 212°F where water turns into steam, the water temperature inside a pressure cooker can reach 250°F before steaming occurs. You can therefor cook foods more quickly—one third of the time it would take to cook on a regular stovetop.
Because it saves time and cooks foods faster, a pressure cooker can use less energy than traditional methods of cooking. Also, because the steam and heat are trapped in the pressure cooker, you'll find that your kitchen remains cooler. You'll have the versatility to cook foods year-round that you might otherwise reserve for winter.
Most recipes call for you to start by browning foods either in the cooker itself or on the stovetop. Then, you combine the food with at least 1 to 1 1/2 cups of liquid (check your pressure cooker manual for the minimum liquid requirement), lock the lid in place, and set a timer.
Electric pressure cookers monitor the time and temperature for you. There are built-in safety valves to control for any unplanned occurrences. The locks help prevent you from making a mistake and opening the unit when there’s pressure inside.
Pressure cooking can be your sole cooking method or it can just speed up the process of making a meal.
Ribs, for example, can be cooked in the pressure cooker and then popped onto the grill and brushed with barbecue sauce. Hams can be cooked in the pressure cooker and then glazed under the broiler for easy and beautiful browning.
For visual appeal, as well as for flavor, it’s important to brown your foods either before or after pressure cooking.
Many electric pressure cookers now have brown settings, which allow you to sear foods before adding the liquid required for cooking. If your electric pressure cooker doesn't have a brown setting, you can often use one of the pre-programmed buttons in order to brown. Turning the pre-programmed button on will engage the bottom element, as long as you don’t put the lid on.
Alternatively, you can brown foods on the stovetop in a skillet, add liquid to deglaze the pan, scrape up any brown bits from the seared meat, and pour all of the contents into the pressure cooker along with any remaining ingredients.
There are two ways to release the pressure. The natural-release method involves turning your electric pressure cooker off. The temperature will slowly decrease in the cooker and the pressure will come back to normal. Understand that a natural pressure release can take as long as 15 minutes, so account for that time in your meal planning. Use this method for meats, beans whose skins tend to burst otherwise, and dishes with a lot of liquid that can spit out of the pressure release valve.
The quick-release method is another option. Electric pressure cookers have a release valve that you can turn to release the pressure manually. Steam will escape out of the valve until the pressure has returned to normal. Use this method for foods that are easily overcooked, like grains, seafood, or vegetables.
There are a lot of different brands, features, functions, and colors to pick from, but choosing a pressure cooker can be broken down into three factors:
Size: If you cook for 2 to 4 people, you’ll probably find that a 4-qt pressure cooker is big enough for most of your needs. If you like to feed a crowd on occasion, an 8-qt pressure cooker would be a good pick. If you’re uncertain, go for the most-popular 6-qt size.
Extra functions: Some pressure cookers are really multi-cookers with many different functions. These cookers can be set as a low slow cooker, rice cooker, steamer, yogurt maker, browning pot, and warming buffet pot. Many of the different brands of cookers have these functions with the ability to cook in an instant. Decide which functions and pre-set buttons are important to you, then check out what cookers have them.
Design: The appliances that we leave on our countertops are the ones that we use most often, so go for a pressure cooker that looks good on your counter and complements the color of your kitchen.
Check out our easy-to-use selection
Host David Venable has ideas for your pressure cooker