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Cooking under pressure

Pressure cookers may be intimidating to some, but with the right tools and knowledge, this cooking method is a fantastic way to cook meals in half the time. Pressure cooking food makes it taste like it has been slow cooking all day, soaking in those added flavors. 

Despite stories of early models exploding in our grandparents’ kitchen, most of the new models of pressure cookers are quite safe to use. The demand for pressure cookers after World War II is rumored to have led some unscrupulous manufacturers to produce models that were prone to explosions.

The basic principle of a pressure cooker is to create and maintain pressure that raises the boiling point of the liquid inside. The pot’s lid locks into place with a valve at the top that regulates the release of steam. The water’s boiling point rises, up to 200 degrees, creating steam and pressure that cooks the food faster.

I got my first generation pressure cooker for free at a friend’s garage sale. At first, I did not know how to use it because my parents never owned one. The avocado green color probably dates the model to sometime in the 60s.

It has a weighted jiggle top that rattles as a small amount of steam releases from the pot. It can be pretty noisy; that is why most new models have a spring-loaded valve, which are quieter and have more safety features. Once the steam starts coming out of the valve, the desired pressure is reached and the heat can be turned down as the food finishes cooking.

When buying a pressure cooker, take note of the following suggestions to make sure you’re choosing a quality cooker:

  • All pressure cookers will utilize a heavy pot and lid that locks, has an airtight seal and a pressure control device.
  • A 6-quart pot is the most reasonable for the average home cook, but bigger pots will allow for bigger batches of food.
  • The pot should have double handles for easy maneuvering.
  • The model should have an easy-to-follow owners manual (every manufacturer produces different models with different instructions, so it is important that you read this before cooking.)
  • Heavy is better. If it feels cheap, it probably is—stick to stainless steel models over aluminum if possible.
  • Choose a brand that has been around for a few years both for quality and practical use, in case you need to order and replace parts later on.
  • Stovetop pressure cookers are better than electric pressure cookers.
  • Avoid non-stick interiors, because they do not withstand the pressure cooker environment for long, and will begin peeling off into your food.
  • Look for the latest versions of pressure cookers versus first generation models because there are more safety features in place. 

Here is also a list of tips to get the best use out of your pressure cooker:

  • Brown meats and vegetables with a little vegetable oil first to bring out the most flavor. 
  • Use at least one cup of liquid when cooking, but never fill your pressure cooker more than halfway with liquid, or more than a third full of food.
  • Start at a high heat and finish cooking with low heat.  
  • Never force the lid open, especially when there is pressure inside. Avoid getting burnt by the steam when opening the lid by tilting the lid away from you.
  • When the food is done, you can release the steam according to your recipe’s instructions. You can release it naturally by carefully taking the pot off the heat to cool (10-30 minutes,) or running cold water over the top of the lid, but do not get water in the release valve and never submerge electric models under water.

Try making Vietnamese Pho with a pressure cooker in half the time it normally takes to make broth/stock.

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