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September 7, 2009 12:59 AM   Subscribe

Pressue Cooker 101: Which one do I want? And what do I do with it? What do *you* do with yours?

I want to buy a pressure cooker primarily to make Indian food: dals, pulses, etc. But that's as far as I've got. I've never used one before, and the options are many. Stoptop or electric? What features are important? Do you use yours? A lot? What is great about it? What don't you like?

I'm looking for any schooling you can give me on the pressure cooker experience. Of course, if you have killer pressure cooker recipes, please share.
posted by Methylviolet to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: We have one, which is broken. It was great for beans and cooking meat quickly, but it was heavy and took up room and I didn't care for it enough to get it fixed.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:10 AM on September 7, 2009

I use mine quite a bit.
It's an old-style Tefal one. I use it for stews, soups, and beans. It came with an entertaining 1960s/70s recipe book featuring incredibly unappetising meals, but I've never actually used that.

I guess I don't really cook anything in it that I couldn't cook in a normal pan. I just like the fact that it's much quicker in the pressure cooker.

The downsides? It's big, and heavy, compared to a normal pan. That's it.
posted by jonesor at 1:30 AM on September 7, 2009

I love my pressure cooker. Well I have two actually. One was inherited from my MIL, and it's a 5L model. It was originally purchased in the the '70s or '80s (we're not quite sure when), and aside from having to replace the rubber gasket, it looks and works great. We also got a smaller 3L one last year because it was on sale at 50% off, and I just wanted a smaller (lighter) one. Both are from Kuhn Rikon, a Swiss company. (My MIL was Swiss. Cultural sidenote: almost every Swiss household has a pressure cooker, much like most Japanese households have an electric rice cooker.) I think the fact that a company stocks parts for 20+ year old models says a lot, even though they are expensive compared to the offerings from other makers initially.

I would go for a stovetop model, because you can use it as a regular, heavy-bottomed pot that is great for stewing and stuff (heavy, steady bottom = even heat). You can do things like pressure cook a stew with the meat in it until the meat is tenderized, then continue simmering with the lid off for deeper flavor, and to preserve the texture of the vegetables.

What do I use the thing for...let's see.

- cooking all kinds of grains and legumes. Chickpeas done in an hour for hummus! Whole dry soy beans, which are a pain to cook the regular way, done a lot faster with no loss of flavor! Barley soup in 30 minutes!
- for cooking brown rice. I like the results better with a pressure cooker though my rice cooker does brown rice too. The grains come out plumper. I have been experimenting a bit with white rice too.
- Soups and stews and curries and stuff, where texture is not an issue. (See above about combining methods though.)
- Making stock - pressure seems to extract more flavor from the bones and scrap meat.

For Indian cooking, you can use it for your pulses and grains, for stewing things, making chutney, etc.

Miss Vickie is a great site with a wealth of information, and lots of All-American type recipes. But you can adapt any cuisine to a pressure cooker.
posted by thread_makimaki at 1:43 AM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have a stovetop scanpan pressure cooker, it seems fine. I use it for indian primarily also. But also it's great for shanks, any kind of casserole action, and duty as a regular stovetop pot. I once used it to extract mescaline from an hallucinogenic cactus - it was okay at that, too.
posted by smoke at 2:02 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I use mine 3-4 times a week, and love it. I have a 8L fagor, Spanish made and no complaints. One thing to do is to try and get a newish model - these ones use valves and are much safer than the older, "jiggle top" models, and will not clog as easily with small stuff like lentils or barley. A well ventilated kitchen will help if you use quick releases.

I'm vegetarian, so I use it to cook soup, curries and speed up legumes mostly - you might want to check out Lorna Sass, who specialises in pressure cooker recipes - Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure is where I get most of my recipes: I just had potato cauliflower curry tonight. The other favourite here is the Thai Chickpeas. She has an omnivore book too.
posted by scodger at 2:13 AM on September 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I bought a stovetop version, a Fagor Duo 10-quart, mostly on the strength of the Cooks Illustrated recommendation of the Fagor Duo 8-quart (which you can find a PDF of on the Fagor site). I don't have a place in my small kitchen to put mine away, but that's OK, because I never end up putting it away.

My husband and I are vegetarians, so I use it mostly to cook beans to be used in other recipes and bean soups. I've been a vegetarian for a decade and I never really did get the hang of cooking beans on the stovetop because they boiled over, they were too hard, they took forever, even with every bean-cooking trick I could find online or in cookbooks. With the pressure cooker, I can soak some black beans (optional, but I think it makes it turn out better), pop them in the pressure cooker with veggies and seasoning, and come back in about 45 minutes to delicious beans. It doesn't heat up the kitchen like four hours of trying to convince black beans to cook, either.

I had never seen a pressure cooker before, and I hid in another room the first time mine got up to pressure and started whistling. But after that first time (and after I tasted the chickpeas that came out of it!) I'm not concerned about its safety. I've been able to tell by sound when something's not right and take it off the heat, and in theory it should vent out elsewhere even if I didn't. This has only happened twice - once because I didn't lock the lid properly, and once because our new apartment's range doesn't really heat properly, so my normal sense of timing and heat management was way off, resulting in split pea mush and a clogged part, easily cleaned and fixed. (You're not supposed to cook split peas in this pressure cooker anyways because of that foam clogging it up, but I can usually do it if I'm careful - and don't have a broken stove.) I would recommend that you really read through the instruction book like a textbook - mine was a little incomprehensible, but between the book and the experience I got it in the end.

Mine is easy to take care of, although big and a bit of a chore to handwash because our faucet is too low. (The 8-quart might be more reasonable, but I figured I always like making leftovers, and I might want to try canning someday.) As long as I've attended to the gasket (the rubber seal, which needs to be in perfect condition and lightly oiled) and the condition of the pressure valve, it's good to go.

I haven't cooked anything but beans in mine, although it came with some sort of steamer thing I never used and a recipe book I never used. Still, even just with that, I use it all the time and love it.
posted by shirobara at 4:55 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Stovetop works fine for me. As until this year I never owned one I consider the pressure cooker a time-saving device rather than an integral part of my kitchen like a rice cooker or cast iron pans or a broiler. I don't use it to make anything I couldn't make some other way, but because it massively reduces the time it takes to cook some things it's incredibly useful.

I started out horrified by it because my stepmother had one of those scary exploding ones with the weird dancing cup thing on top in the 70s. I'm still not totally over my admittedly irrational fear, but I will

Last week I used it to precook potato chunks in that steamer thing to put on the veggie skewers before I grilled them. The previous dish made in mine was a five pound pork shoulder (in a quarter of the time of barbecue) that I pulled for pork sandwiches. Prior to that? A chicken cacciatore to die for, in a sixth of the typical cooking time. Before that? Chili in an hour instead of a day.

The unit we have is one of the cheaper Presto things, but it works fine and can be cleaned entirely in the dishwasher.
posted by majick at 6:14 AM on September 7, 2009

I make dal in mine about once a week and occasionally Alton Brown's pressure cooker chili recipe, which is incredible.
posted by galaksit at 8:21 AM on September 7, 2009

Dried legumes, etc. are cheap. Plus I like the fact that you aren't paying for water weight to be shipped to the store, and you don't have to haul the extra weight home. This was crucial when using a backpack to grocery shop for two years. This necessitated a pressure cooker. Plus anything you want to infuse with flavor will be so much better in a fraction of the time when cooked in the pc.

I'm guessing it's more energy efficient too. So pretty much I used it to reduce pantry space and packaging because I could buy in bulk, and save cooking/presoaking time.
posted by variella at 8:55 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all your answers so far -- this is very helpful!

It looks like everyone has a stove-top model -- why? I would have guessed that an electric would be better, in that it wouldn't need watching, but like I said, I'm ignorant. Why is the stove-top model preferred?
posted by Methylviolet at 9:36 AM on September 7, 2009

I have an electric one, but that's because I'm totally terrified of an explosion and if I had a stovetop one I'd just never use it. It was really expensive, though.

One of my favorite recipes to make is this pressure cooker risotto.
posted by sugarfish at 9:44 AM on September 7, 2009

I have a T-fal pressure cooker which I used to use a lot for large whole beans (kidney beans, chickpeas, etc - not small stuff like split peas or lentils), which were still hard after 4 or 5 hours of simmering, but lately I've found that beans soften up on the stove at 1 atm in an hour or 2. I've no idea what's changed recently, but since I use the stove to help heat the house in winter, I like simmering beans for a couple of hours. If I'm in a hurry, though, I bust out the pressure cooker.

The one thing I've found a pressure cooker absolutely essential for is goat meat. Goats are tough scrawny animals, but goat meat is the best "lamb" you've ever tasted. Seriously. And it doesn't unload a ton of fat into your food either. But it never gets tender (at least in my experience) with regular cooking - you have to pressure-cook it into submission. Like at least a half-hour at high pressure, which sounds like enough to soften steel ball-bearings, but that's what it takes to turn it into soft luscious "lamb".

Lastly, if you're a crafty type who occasionally needs a jet of steam for some textile/paper/whatever project, a pressure cooker set to "vent" will deliver a nice tight stream of dry steam without sputters. Much better than a tea kettle or open saucepan.
posted by Quietgal at 9:58 AM on September 7, 2009

We've got a Fagor 8L. You can make a lamb saag in it like no other. Even when we've tried cooking it for hours on the stove, it's not as good as in the pressure cooker.

(but I'd love some of the recipes folks have been discussing for dals!)
posted by leahwrenn at 10:06 AM on September 7, 2009

One bonus of a stovetop pressure cooker is that it's basically just a really well-made pot with a special lid. I use mine for both pressure cooking and as a regular stock pot, which saves a little space in my tiny kitchen.
posted by heliotrope at 10:25 AM on September 7, 2009

We also use ours (stovetop) mostly for cooking things like legumes and soups faster than we would in a normal stockpot. La dra. boluda also uses it to make a fantastic flan, putting a little bundt-like mold inside of it.
posted by dr. boludo at 10:33 AM on September 7, 2009

Cook's Illustrated tested a bunch of pressure cookers in 2005. The only thing they had to say about electric models was: "In the first round of tests, we eliminated electronic pressure cookers, which don't allow the cook to modify or change a recipe procedure once the pot is sealed; we wanted more control."

I've got a pair of Kuhn-Rikon pressure cookers (there was a great sale on two pots and one lid), which CI recommended with reservations. I like them because they have thick, heavy bottoms which make for good browning on recipes which call for browning meat first. In an electric, I believe I'd have to brown them in a different pan, then add them to the pressure cooker. And, yeah, the larger 6L pot makes a good general purpose stock pot, while the smaller 2L one is good as a frying pan.

My favorite recipe is this asparagus risotto. It's also great for making dulce de leche in 45 minutes instead of 3-4 hours.
posted by hades at 11:04 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

If safety is an issue for you, if the title of your question suggests, don't skimp on the quality. Spend the extra money and get one of the good brands, like Kuhn-Rikon or Fagor. I myself have a Fagor stovetop model, which, unfortunately, is broken now, but when it was working, I used it at least every other day.

One nitpick: the instructions will tell you to reduce the heat as soon as the little plastic indicator pops up. Going that route didn't generate enough pressure. As soon as the little indicator pops up, give yourself another twenty to thirty seconds on high heat, and THEN reduce the pressure.

More nitpicks: the cooking times suggested for tougher legumes were, in my experience, a little optimistic. Pozole, for example, will not be done in 40 minutes. Not even close. Also, you need to cut your food into relatively small pieces, just as you would if you were cooking in a microwave.

Nitpicks aside, the pressure cooker is a wonderful kitchen tool, woefully underappreciated here in the USA and I think every cook should have one.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:31 AM on September 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

One thing that's blown me away is making stock in it. Good stock is key to many recipes, and cooking the base (before you reduce) goes much much faster and unlocks more flavor, especially from the aromatics. Also great for steaming things.

as said above, I like the stove top because a) it's a pot, so I can reuse it for a non-pressurized cooking component b) control. Can you quick release the electric ones in the sink? It's one less piece of electric crap to break in my kitchen. Since it replaces a large pot, it takes up no extra space.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 11:33 AM on September 7, 2009

Oh, and I have 2. (What, we cook a lot of beans). One from Macy's home essentials, one from presto. Both have worked just fine.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 11:36 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I use my pressure cookers occasionally for meat, but mostly for canning. It's summer, and friends gardens are full of more than anyone wants of everything. I take extras. I can them. They are super excited when they get back some of their own produce this winter.

I use stove-top pressure cookers. The bigger the better, for canning, because cans take up a lot of damn space. A 5qt model will hold about 4 pint jars. You won't be able to use quart jars at all.
As for monitoring, my pressure cookers require very little. They work quite consistently, so for each one I know exactly what setting on the stove will keep it at the correct pressure. I set it, set the timer, and wander off to do whatever.
I do not worry about explosions at all. They have the primary pressure release valve, the emergency pressure release valve, the o-ring that holds in the emergency valve, and finally the silicone seal itself can blow out. There is really no way for a modern pressure cooker to explode.
posted by agentofselection at 12:35 PM on September 7, 2009

Manttra is another brand of cooker that seems to be pretty nice. I have an older Mirro cooker, and the Manttra that I use regularly now. I really like it.

I'm vegetarian and usually cook beans and rice and the like. There are a couple of pressure cooker methods for cooking plain white rice (directly in the pot, or with a dish inside the cooker). Either way has produced the best white rice I had ever made, and even quicker than the electric rice cooker I had. Throw in some soy sauce and a few random spices and you can make some pretty awesome and flavorful rice almost by accident.
posted by glycolized at 4:24 PM on September 7, 2009

Soup, soup, and more soup. All the veggies can go in together and be cooked in 10 minutes. Buy a hand blender and you can cook liters of soup at a time!
My other favorite to cook in the pressure cooker is the French version of potatoes lyonnaise. The recipe (which came with my Tefal pressure cooker) is:
Cook onions and chopped potatoes (leave skins on) in a little oil until slightly browned.
Stir in a little flour (a tablespoon or so) to the mixture. Add a glass of white wine and some water to make sure it does not boil dry (I top up to the top of the veggies.) Stir well.
Put on the pressure cooker lid and cook under pressure for 10 minutes. (10 mins after the pressure cooker has reached full pressure).
Serve with anything that needs a little excitement. I used to serve with roasted chicken when I ate meat. Now I serve this with bean mixtures or baked tofu. It is heavenly - and very easy.
If you cook meat curries, these can also be cooked much faster in the pressure cooker.

As for brand, I love my Tefal. But modern pressure cookers are not so robust as the old ones. I like a good, heavy feel to my cooker, so foods do not burn so easily - a heavy base distributes the heat better. Look for a cooker with a decent heft, made in stainless steel (aluminum "colors" acidic foods and is not good for you in the long term).
posted by Susurration at 8:26 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh - and get a cooker that is at least 6 liters in capacity. You can only fill these half to 2/3 full or the liquid seeps out through the pressure valve. I have an 8 liter cooker and I can cook enough soup for 2 of us for 4 days in this ... :-)
posted by Susurration at 8:29 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Pressure cookers save time and energy. One thing I use mine for is the sort of dishes that otherwise require slow cooking. We cook game and things like culled chickens from time to time, and while the slow cooker is fine, its well - slow. Using the pressure cooker means a tough cut of meat can be taken from frozen to falling off the bone in ~1 hour.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 9:11 PM on September 7, 2009

Best answer: " Why is the stove-top model preferred?"

I can't speak for everyone, but the advantages of the stovetop model to me are:
1. Lower cost.
2. One less thing with a cord to clear space on the counter for / unplug the toaster for.
3. My stove already generates heat to my specifications, why buy something else to do its job?
4. It works as a non-pressure cooking Big Ass Pot.
5. One less device to fail.
6. Doesn't cost as much.
7. Didn't have to give as many moneys to the vendor.
8. No requirement to pay for unnecessary features.
9. It was cheaper.
10. Compared to an electric unit, the price was lower.
11. It generates copious steam and I would want that to vent into the hood anyway, which is over the stove, so I might as well run the thing on the actual stove.

and finally:
12. It's a better deal.
posted by majick at 10:41 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the excellent responses. I wanted to know all about pressure cookers, and not just from the choir -- I was wondering whether I would really use it long term, or if it would end up going the way of the bread machine I thought I needed. Every answer in this thread was helpful, so consider yourselves all best-answered.

I bought the Fagor Duo 8L/4L combo, as many of you recommended. It hasn't come yet, but I'll know just what to do with it when it gets here.
posted by Methylviolet at 7:58 PM on September 20, 2009

If it's at your library, this month's vegetarian times (magazine) has a feature on using pressure cookers with some pretty good looking recipies.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:51 AM on September 21, 2009

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