The pressure cooker is one of those tools cooks either love or hate, and by hate I mean fear. I have never met another piece of equipment that is more feared by the vast majority of home cooks. Since I plan to use a lot of pressure cooker recipes, I felt it only necessary to first talk about the basics of cooking with a pressure cooker and hopefully put some of these fears to rest. With a little knowledge and some basic precautions, the pressure cooker can be your best friend and the source of many easy and pleasurable meals.
I stumbled into pressure cooking purely by circumstance. Pressure canners are required when canning any meats and many vegetables. I wanted to start canning vegetables and soups, but the local cannery had been closed for a few months while the caretaker was in and out of the hospital. Rather than wait to see when the cannery would again open to the public, I began to research pressure canners for my own home use. There were many on the market, but only one brand came with a reasonable price tag and high reviews. I mentioned it to my parents. Before I knew it, they had surprised me with it as a Christmas present. “It” was an All-American Model 915 cast aluminum pressure cooker/canner. The 915 model has a 15.5 quart capacity. It’s large enough to hold 7 quart jars or 10 pint jars and weighs 20 lbs. Sitting on my stove, I could see why my neighbor had referred to pressure cookers as bombs. The lid was held on with six black knobs and had a large handle and two pressure gauges on top. The cooker also boasted two very bold, orange warning labels. It was scaring looking, but I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge. I began to learn everything I could about pressure cookers and found it could do much more than just can soup.
Benefits of Pressure Cooking
What if I told you that I could make a tender pot roast with vegetables in under an hour and a half? How about beef stroganoff in about 20 minutes? The first thing most cooks will tell you is pressure cooking cuts cooking times by more than half. It can also take tough, cheaper cuts of meat and make them tender and juicy. Because flavor does not travel through steam, different types of food can be cooked together without combining flavors. Fewer nutrients are lost and more flavor is retained during cooking because of reduced cooking times and liquid used.
Selecting a Pressure Cooker
There are a lot of different pressure cookers out there for all kinds of budgets. First of all, I would recommend starting with a new pressure cooker. Older models do not have the safety features such as pressure release valves that the new cookers have. Also, if a cooker has ever been boiled dry, the integrity of the cooker is compromised and you could literally have a ticking time bomb on your hands. The only way to be sure it’s safe is to buy brand new.
You also have the choice between an electric and a stove top pressure cooker. Most stove top pressure cookers are not recommended for use on glass range tops. The weight and possible movement of the cooker during cooking could cause the glass to crack. If you have a glass top range, then go with an electric model. With a stove top cooker, you will control the pressure by adjusting the burner’s heat. It can be tricky, but you can usually learn in the first few tries how much heat is necessary to maintain the proper pressure. Of course, it will vary by stove and by pressure cooker. Whatever you choose, keep in mind that most pressure cooker recipes are written for 15 psi. If you choose a cooker that does not go up to 15 psi, then you will be looking at longer cook times.
The next feature you want to look at is the pressure regulator. Most cookers will at least have an easy to read pressure gauge that will tell you the pressure inside of the cooker; however, these pressure gauges must be calibrated before first use and every year after. Contact your local cooperative extension office to find out where to get your gauge calibrated. If you don’t want to deal with calibration, then look for a cooker with a pressure regulator weight. The pressure regulator weight is a weighted wheel of metal that fits over the vent pipe and releases steam as pressure builds up in the cooker. Numbers on the side of the weight (5, 10, & 15) allow you to set the necessary weight. Because the regulator weight does not change with use, it never needs to be calibrated.
Lastly, you will want to choose the size right for you. If you are only using your pressure cooker for cooking, then a smaller model such as a 6 or 8 quart capacity should be sufficient. Most of your recipes will fill the cooker one-half to two-thirds of its capacity. If you want to can, you’ll need a capacity of 10.5 quarts or greater.
Using Your Pressure Cooker
How to cook your food will vary with each recipe, but you should take the same precautions with your pressure cooker every time. Most pressure cookers will recommend you lubricate the seal before using. For cookers with a rubber gasket, lubricate with a thin layer of vegetable oil. My cooker has a metal-to-metal seal that I lubricate with a thin layer of Vaseline.
Every time you use your cooker, you should make sure the vent pipe is clear. A clogged vent pipe could cause your cooker to become dangerously over pressurized and cause the overpressure plug to pop open. The overpressure plug should be replaced if it ever blows, becomes hard or cracks. A wire or pipe cleaner can be used to clean the vent pipe.
Always use enough liquid in your pressure cooker and never add less than recommended by the recipe. Most recipes will call for 1.5 – 2 inches of liquid in the bottom of the cooker. Any less and you will risk boiling your cooker dry, which will ruin your cooker.
Most pressure cooker lids must be locked into place before they can be tightened. Make sure the lid is in the proper position. When tightening the lid, never tighten one nut at a time. To ensure a proper seal, tighten opposite nuts at the same time. After all nuts have been tightened, look around the lid to make sure the spacing between the lid and the lip of the cooker is even all the way around. Adjust as necessary.
The recipe should dictate whether to start with the pressure regulator weight (if available on your model) on the vent pipe. Start with the heat on high until pressure builds up and steam begins to release. This is the point when you begin your cooking time. If the weight is already on, it will begin to sputter. If the weight is not on yet, put the weight on the vent pipe at this time. Adjust the burner heat until the weight only sputters 4 – 5 times per minute. You will probably have to play with the temperature until the proper pressure can be maintained for the duration of the cooking time. Do not leave the pressure cooker unattended. You will want to be able to hear the cooker sputtering. If the sputtering slows down or stops, you will need to increase the heat.
When you have reached the end of your cooking time, remove the pressure cooker from its heat source. Your recipe will dictate if the cooker should be cooled quickly or slowly. If it needs to be cooled quickly, you can either remove the pressure regulator weight from the vent pipe or run the entire cooker under cool water. I prefer to remove the regulator weight. First of all, my cooker weights 20 lbs. I really do not want to risk dropping a 20 lb. cast aluminum pressurized cooker on my foot. Plus, it can take a lot of water to cool the cooker. It seems like a waste to me. The cooker will usually only take 5 minutes to reach 0 psi without the water. Either way, make sure your cooker has reached 0 psi before loosening the lid. This is where that pressure gauge comes in handy. Loosen the lid slowly. A vacuum may have been created inside the cooker, which will make the lid difficult to remove. If necessary, gently break the seal with a screwdriver. When removing the lid, lift the back of the lid first so any remaining steam is released away from your face. The inside of the cooker will still be very hot.
The more you use your pressure cooker, the more comfortable you will become with it. There really is nothing to fear from the modern pressure cookers. In terms of what is available, mine is still very old fashioned, but it was available in my budget. It is still an heirloom quality cooker, which is difficult to find in this day and age. Quality is essential when looking for a pressure cooker. It needs to be able to withstand cooking at high temperatures and pressures. Avoid cookers with a non-stick finish or thin metal as they will not stand up over a long period of time. Stainless steel with an aluminum base is the best, but it comes with a price. Above all else, choose a brand that has been around for many years and has a proven track record. I generally recommend looking on Amazon.com to compare reviews and see what other users have had to say about their pressure cookers. For the price, I really like my All-American and would recommend it to anyone.