With tightening budgets and rising food prices, more and more people are reverting back to home-cooked meals. Cooking can eat up a lot of time, though, so how do you speed up the process? The answer is to use pressure cooking.
Reasons why a commercial kitchen pressure cooks their food:
- It takes a fraction of the time, compared to regular boiling, broiling or roasting.
- It takes less electricity to cook any given item.
- It’s almost impossible to burn the food.
- The food is guaranteed to be cooked thoroughly, so there are no deadly bacteria.
- The food is more nutritious since vitamins are retained better when food is cooked quickly.
Is a Pressure Cooker Safe?
You may have heard anecdotal tales from older relatives about exploding pressure cookers. Rest assured. In this modern era of lawsuit craziness, the design of pressure cookers has been made dummy-proof. New designs include lids that interlock with the main pressure valve and up to 2-3 more redundant pressure valves. The fanciest models have thermostatically controlled built-in burners to maintain a constant pressure. Even if you have a working 20 year old pressure cooker, it might be a good time to upgrade, to take advantage of the newer safety features.
How Fast Can You Pressure Cook Food?
Some cookers have more than one pressure setting but the highest is always 15 psi, a value the USDA came up with back in 1917. At that pressure, average cooking times are 1/3 to1/4th as long as conventional methods.
Consider this common scenario. Dinnertime is an hour away. You just realized that you forgot to take that frozen chicken breast out of the freezer for tonight’s dinner which is chicken fettucini. If you roast the breast in the oven, assuming it was thawed, you’re talking 60 minutes cooking time. You could try to thaw it in the microwave on 20% power, but that’s a little dicey. The outside will start to cook before the middle is thawed. You could boil it in a pan on the stove for 45-50 minutes, probably longer if it’s frozen. Instead, try this:
- Turn the big burner to high on your stove.
- Run the chicken carcass in its foam tray under hot water until you can separate the chicken from the packing material.
- Plop that frozen chicken carcass into your pressure cooker, fill it up halfway with hot water and put it on your preheated burner.
- Once that valve pops up in typically 10 minutes, set the egg timer for 15 minutes.
- While it’s cooking, get a dutch oven full of water ready for cooking the egg noodles.
- Put the dutch oven on one of the smaller burners and set that burner to high.
- When the timer dings, move the pressure cooker to the back of the stove and get the dutch oven on to the big burner.
- The water should just be boiling in the dutch oven, by now.
- Put in the egg noodles and reset the timer again for 15 minutes.
- Ten minutes later, put the pressure cooker in the sink and run cold water over the top until the relief valve pops down.
- Open the lid, fish out the chicken and chop into bite size chunks on a cutting board.
- After the timer dings again, drain the liquid from the noodles and mix in the chopped chicken and canned fettucini sauce and serve.
That took about 45-50 minutes total and you didn’t even have to thaw the chicken. I use this method all the time and it works like a charm. The meat is tender and moist and never undercooked.
What about other foods? I originally bought a pressure cooker to cook dried beans. Even the most stubborn dried beans cook in less than 30 minutes, most types in 15-20. Experts recommend soaking the beans overnight, before cooking. Also, you need to add a little oil to keep the beans from foaming up and pushing stray bean husks into the pressure valve.
You can also cook brown rice, potatoes, apples and most all vegetables in a pressure cooker. Some people do a roast with vegetables, all at the same time, although you will overcook the vegetables a bit doing it this way, since the meat cooks slower.
Helpful Tips for Pressure Cooking:
- Add a tablespoon of oil when cooking dried items to prevent foaming.
- Fill the cooker half full of water for cooking dried foods, because of foaming, or 2/3 full for meats and fresh vegetables.
- Check the relief valve to make sure it is clean and free of food debris before starting a new cooking session.
- Remove the sealing ring and clean it separately. This is one of the most critical parts to a pressure cooker, and likely the only part that will ever wear out.
- Point the relief valve away from wood cabinets to prevent damage to the cabinets from the steam. Orient the pressure cooker such that the hood vent best catches all the steam.
- Cool the pressure cooker quickly by running it under cold water in the sink. If you let the cooker cool down naturally, you are continuing to cook the food inside, so take that additional cooking time into account. For beans, this means about five minutes less under pressure, if you let the cooker cool down on its own. With the natural cooling method, it may be 15-20 minutes before the valve pops down after removing the cooker from the burner.
Which Pressure Cooker Should You Buy?
There are many models on the market with the most popular coming from Presto, Fagor and All American. Prices are all over the map from $20 to $450.
I decided to look for an inexpensive one, so I bought a $46 Presto model, that was on sale at Amazon for $34. This model is made of thick aluminum, has one back-up pressure relief method and holds six quarts. It also has the old-style jiggly weight on top. I used it a couple of times and it worked fine, although I had some complaints from other household members about the noise from the weight. I ended up giving the Presto to a family member. I still would recommend this model for frugal souls.
After reading more about pressure cookers, I decided to get a stainless steel model with a modern pop-up main valve and two back-up pressure relief methods. One of the highest recommended models is the Magefesa Practica Plus which is $90 retail, $70 on sale at Amazon. This is the Cadillac of pressure cookers. It holds 6.3 quarts and is made out of 18/10 stainless steel. I love how this model works. It is extremely well built with a thick multilayer base, a locking lid that makes a nice firm click when it locks and a has three pressure settings at 6, 9 and 15 psi. The steam release is a nice steady hiss and not annoying at all. There is one school of thought that cooking food in aluminum results in toxins in the food. There is no definite clinical proof, but it worries me, just the same. I just like the rugged construction and looks of stainless steel. It does cost twice as much as the Presto and they both get the job done.
The pressure cooker is definitely one of the must-have appliances in my kitchen. It would rank second in value only to the microwave and above a food processor, toaster oven or rice cooker. If you cook from scratch and you don’t have a pressure cooker yet, you need to start shopping for one.