The Joy of Pressure Cookers

If I could only keep one pot in my whole kitchen, without a doubt, I would keep my pressure cooker.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to prepare a whole meal without it.  It’s hard for me to believe that I was over 40 before I ever even heard of pressure cookers.  We owned our own large produce market and the kindest old gentlemen in the world introduced me to the wonders of pressure cooking.  Mr. Pierce had purchased some green peanuts from us, and had returned with a sample of his recently “boiled peanuts”.  Whether you are a fan of boiled peanuts or not, suffice it to say that they were the best boiled peanuts I have ever eaten.  At my delightful ravings, Mr. Pierce cheerfully shared his secret – the pressure cooker.  Not only did he educate me about pressure cookers, but he returned once again with one of his pressure cookers for me to try.  I have been hooked ever since.  There are lots of reasons why I like my pressure cooker.  Pressure cookers cook food incredibly fast, they do not heat up my Florida kitchen, they produce tastier dishes, they seal in the vitamins and minerals normally lost during prolonged cooking and they leave my stovetop neater and cleaner than normal cooking pots do.

How do pressure cookers work?  Pressure cookers simply cook foods faster than normal pots by cooking under high pressure and high temperature.  Pressure cookers have a more elaborate lid than most cooking pots which provide a complete seal to the pot.  By completely sealing the pot with a gasket and locking mechanism, the steam created during heating in a pressure cooker is trapped.  This trapped steam builds up pressure within the pot and thereby increases the temperature of boiling water from 212 degrees Fahrenheit to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.  Under this high pressure and temperature, the fiber in the food is tenderized and the food is cooked in record time with incredible flavor and with very little steam released into the kitchen.  Once the food is done, the cooker is removed from the heat source and the steam must be released before the lid can be removed.  The steam is released either through a quick release method (using the cooker’s special valve or placing in the sink under running water) or through the natural release method (the pressure eventually drops as the cooker cools).  Once the pressure is released, unlock and open the pressure cooker.

What type of pressure cookers are there?  There are now two basic types of pressure cookers on the market, those with a stationary pressure regulator and those with a removable jiggle-top regulator.  Pressure cookers also come in aluminum or stainless steel and a wide variety of sizes.  I prefer the stainless steel cookers and both a large and small cooker.  I use my smaller pressure cooker for everyday uses and my larger one when cooking a large pot of soup, when doubling recipes or when preparing a large quantity of leafy greens.  I also use Presto pressure cookers with the jiggle-top regulator.  Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I have not yet seen anything the older style cookers cannot do and I love being able to buy replacement parts for them at my local hardware store.  I have also always been impressed with the customer service at Presto.  Many times I have found old pressure cookers for sale at estate sales stores, garage sales, flea markets and church bazaars.  Presto still supports cookers made in the 1930s.  (I would not recommend using any pressure cooker made without the built-in safety features currently employed on all pressure cookers.)

Although pressure cooking can seem intimidating and full of horror stories of old time pressure cookers exploding in the kitchen spewing split pea soup everywhere, it is really quite easy and incredibly safe.  All new pressure cookers are equipped with several built-in safety features which will not allow the cooker to open while under pressure.  With a little bit of forethought, attention to a few details and remembering not to walk out of the house with a pressure cooker on heat, pressure cooking will totally change the way you plan and prepare meals.

Pressure cooking tips:

  1. Make sure you read and understand the instructions provided with your pressure cooker.  If you buy a used one without directions included, contact the manufacturer to obtain a copy of the directions.
  2. Do not over fill the pressure cooker.  Foods increase in volume while cooking under pressure and in order to come to pressure, there must be some room between the food and the lid.  The general rule is to fill only 1/2 full with food and 2/3 full of liquid.  Most pressure cookers come with lines stamped on the inside to aid in properly filling the cooker.
  3. Use a timer.  Cooking under pressure greatly decreases the amount of time needed to prepare foods and timing becomes very important.  Most foods will not be harmed by cooking for an extra minute, but some foods will be ruined.  Buy and use a timer and relax.
  4. Keep your pressure cooker clean and well maintained.  Pressure cookers require the same cleaning as other pots, put have a few extra areas to carefully maintain.  The gasket in the lid should be removed and cleaned after each use.  Allow it to air dry before reinserting.  The gasket should be replaced every year or sooner if it becomes brittle or torn.  The vent/valve area should be carefully cleaned and inspected after each use.  If needed, scrub with a soapy toothbrush and in the jiggle-top cookers insert an old-fashioned pipe-cleaner through the valve to ensure it is free from any debris.
  5. Use fewer liquids than with conventional cooking methods.  Since the steam is trapped in a pressure cooker, less liquid evaporates than with ordinary cookware.
  6. Adjust cooking times on the low side.  Since food cooks so quickly and intensely, an extra minute may turn your ingredients from well done to mush.  If in doubt, release the pressure and check it out.  Once the food is hot, returning the cooker to high pressure and continuing heating is very fast.
  7. Adjust your stovetop setting to maintain pressure without overheating.  Once the pressure cooker comes up to pressure, lower the stove setting to the minimum level where pressure is maintained.
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