Remember your mom’s old pressure cooker sitting on the stove, hissing and rattling away, threatening all who walked near and spewing out steam like an old locomotive. Well, you can forget all that and embrace a new generation of pressure cookers that are safe, easy to use, and possibly one of the most versatile kitchen appliances you can own. Pressure cooking, virtually ignored for the past 30 years on the culinary landscape, is coming back in a big way and I think it’s here to stay.
So what can a pressure cooker do for me, you might ask? How about cooking a whole chicken or tender beef stew in 25 minutes; a wonderfully tender beef brisket in 90 minutes; warm German Potato salad in 7 minutes or a fork tender boneless short rib dish in just 35 minutes? The amazing list goes on and on. But that’s not all! Pressure cookers concentrate the flavors in your food rather than releasing them to the surrounding air. They help keep your kitchen cool and if you’re “going green,” or just want to save some money, pressure cookers are extremely efficient.
How a Pressure Cooker Works
The fundamental principle of a pressure cooker is that the boiling temperature of a liquid is higher when the liquid is under greater pressure. If you live at high altitude, this law of physics is why you have to make modifications in cooking and baking if you’re using a recipe that assumes you you live at sea level. We all remember that the boiling temperature of water is 212 deg F (100 C). But if you boil your water in an enclosed vessel, so that the steam doesn’t escape, the pressure inside the vessel rises. More energy is required to overcome the pressure and turn the water into steam and, in turn, the temperature of the water rises. Most pressure cookers operate at about 15 pounds of pressure above that of sea level, which coincides with a temperature of about 215 F (121 C).
This 32 degree rise in the temperature over the normal boiling point has a profound effect on the food inside the cooker. Proteins and enzymes denature (unravel) causing foods to become more tender. The tough, chewy protein collagen, which comprises about 1/3 of the protein in meat, dissolves into gelatin, making meats more tender. Fructose, a natural sugar found in honey, tree and vine fruits, berries, and most root vegetables undergoes the Maillard reaction, which causes browning and production of large quantities of aromatic by-products, lending luscious and complex flavors to the food. In addition, because of the enclosed nature of the cooker, the aromatic compounds produced are contained and mix back into the food rather than being lost to the air. Another advantageous effect of cooking in an enclosed cooker is that the energy transferred from your stove to the food is retained much more efficiently. Rather than losing large quantities of heat energy via escaping steam, that energy is kept within the cooker. The result is that, once the pressure cooker has reached the desired cooking pressure, the bulk of the time cooking is done over a very low flame – equivalent to a simmer setting on your stove.
Today’s Pressure Cooker
Pressure cookers today are safer and much more refined than the older models. The lid is generally sealed by a durable silicone gasket rather than rubber or metal. The lids seal to the cooking pot and an integral safety locking mechanism prevents the cooker from being opened while any pressure is still present inside the vessel. Sophisticated pressure regulating and release valves allow for the setting of the desired pressure (usually just high or low) and to allow excess pressure to escape as need. Higher quality pressure cookers have a thick, highly conductive clad metal base so that heat is evenly conducted across the entire surface, preventing burning of food on hot spots.
In addition to classic, stove top pressure cookers, electric pressure cookers are now available. The electric pressure cookers have the advantage that you can just set them up and walk away until the food is done and have an integral automatic keep warm mode. However, electric pressure cookers have some disadvantages as well. They are typically smaller than the stove top cooker. The electric pressure cookers also limit your options with respect to pre-browning meats or using the quick-release cooling method which requires cooling the cooking vessel under running water. Electric pressure cookers also take up more counter space compared to the traditional cooker. That said, electric pressure cookers have their place in the modern kitchen and the type of cooker that you choose is dependent your unique requirements.
So Give it a Try
The modern pressure cooker is versatile, safe and allows unique cooking techniques that result in fast and flavorful meals that used to take hours to prepare. At the Culinary Hobbyist, I’ve included an array of pressure cookers and cookbooks in the Amazon store, as well as some amazing recipes. So give pressure cooking a try and add another fantastic tool to your home chef’s toolkit. There’s little doubt that. you’ll be using your new pressure cooker time and time again.
by Dan Crews