[Dear Holidailies: I’m taking advantage of this year’s round to finally launch a food blog I’ve been dithering over for forever. I’ll post a personal catch-up post in the next few days.]
So you finally pulled the trigger on a Holiday Saletime Instant Pot, Foodi, or other brand electric pressure cooker. Or maybe you got one a while back and it’s been in the box all this time, lurking menacingly, terrifying you even while all your friends rave about theirs. Now what?
(Or maybe you’re waffling about whether you want one at all. Read on, I think this is useful to know in advance.)
If it really is brand new, take all the parts out and wash the washable ones – the liner and the inside of the lid. Rinse the silicone seal and seat it in the lid (note: Instant Pot, as well as pretty much every other manufacturer, has a youtube channel with all kinds of very short instructional videos for using the appliance, check there if you’re not sure you’re doing it right). Review your manual and see if your particular model wants you to do anything else.
The Instant Pot manual specifically guides you to do a “water test” first, just bringing a bit of water to pressure in the pot, to make sure yours works as expected but ALSO, it’s a great introduction to using the machine’s basic functions without worrying about ruining any food or making any real mess. I recommend doing it, and in the future if you think your machine isn’t heating or timing properly, you can do it again as a diagnostic tool.
Once that’s out of the way, you’re ready to start using it. Or maybe you did that ages ago, made a few recipes off the internet, but you’re still not entirely sure what you should or shouldn’t do with it, or what to make next.
I see a lot of situations where new users, having heard all the raves about electric pressure cookers, are really underwhelmed when they start using theirs, and don’t get the hype. When you actually start making stuff, you realize you’re not really saving much time versus stovetop cooking and you’re making basically slow-cooker recipes, just faster.
Most people who really get it know that the big game-changer of these appliances is the walk-away factor. Yes, you can make one-pot pasta or stew on the stove, or put a casserole in the oven, or chuck stuff in the slow-cooker and get more or less the same food, but really only the casserole in the oven has a true walk-away factor* and even then, it is extremely finite and you have to come back in a specific amount of time or things get ugly.
*Maybe YOU can leave a hot appliance running unattended all day in your house, but maybe YOU aren’t living with anxiety disorder (and if not, congratulations!). If you’re me, you’re having to get up at 5am to a house that reeks of beef stew in order to get it to cool enough to put away before leaving for work, or you’re running a slow-cooker all day on the weekend.
On the other hand, the Instant Pot mostly doesn’t need you there when it finishes. It’ll tick over into Keep Warm mode for 10 hours, giving you ample time to get distracted elsewhere. Getting distracted elsewhere is pretty much my lifestyle, which is why my Instant Pot is given one of the few precious bits of counter real estate I have, full time.
Given that this is the strength of the device, and this site is going to be all about taking advantage of what it does really well, I think it’s helpful to set some expectations about what pressure cooking is and isn’t going to do for you.
The primary principle of pressure cooking is that you’re using a closed chamber from which moisture cannot escape and the air is super-heated. This is a wet cooking method, in which you cook food in boiling humid air. Boiling is a tricky thing, and some kinds of food products don’t like it. Their cells just explode, losing structure and squeezing any moisture out from inside them. That’s fantastic if it’s rice, and not so much if it’s steak.
Please don’t pressure cook steak. People ask this all the time on social media groups. If you put a good steak, like a ribeye, in your pressure cooker, you could save yourself a lot of money and just cook an old sponge, or maybe some laundry, and eat that instead. [Note: some electric pressure cookers have a sous vide mode, which is the best way to cook steak. We’re gonna talk about that soon.] Good steak is fatty inside, which is what makes it so delicious, and if you boil it all the fat comes out and leaves you with just fibers. On the other hand, cheaper leaner cuts of meat, like most roasts, are already mostly just fibers. An extended amount of cooking, whether you braise them in the oven or on the stove or in a slow cooker, or time-lapse that process by using superheated moist (and flavored!) air, softens those fibers until they are pleasant to chew. And in the closed chamber of a pressure cooker, if you use the natural release method of letting the pressure lower itself as the chamber cools, you’ve saved every bit of the flavor that boiled out of the meat plus any aromatics you included, and so you’ve wasted nothing in the sauce or soup that you’ll serve with the meat.
An additional dimension to that is density. The real trick to braising meat is to break it down into pieces (think stew) so that each piece is getting roughly an equal amount of heat all the way through it, so that you’re not cooking the outside of a single large hunk of something to death while the center still remains cool. When you’re cooking meat in the pressure cooker, break it down to roughly equal pieces that can cook through simultaneously. Don’t put a whole roast in there, it will be gnawsome and fibrous and inconsistent. You can get away with this a little more in a slow-cooker or an all-day slow roast in an oven, and this is one of the things sous vide can make magical, but honestly even your oven roasts should be broken down first, it will make a better product.
I personally also mostly hate chicken breasts in the pressure cooker. They’re not braising food. I have a few tricks, this site is for those tricks, but if you got a new pressure cooker and threw whole breasts in it and ate them and thought “I’m never cooking anything in this thing again,” I wouldn’t blame you. Nobody should have to floss that many times in one day to get lunch out of their teeth. I cook chicken dark meat several times a week, though, happily.
Then there’s vegetables. When you start experimenting with pressure cooking, you find out exactly how delicate most vegetables are. Pressure cook broccoli for 4 minutes and you get broccoli soup, which may not have been what you wanted but is in fact perfect if you want to make broccoli soup. Really only root vegetables and tubers, hard squashes, mushrooms, and cabbage are good at going the distance under pressure, which is another disappointment people encounter when they want to throw everything in at the start, like in a slow cooker, and have stew at the end. There’s actually lots of ways to build up dishes like that in layers, doing the toughest stuff first and taking advantage of the high built-up heat to do some quick work at the end, and it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it.
The final thing I think people get fixated on is the idea of pressure cooking being a state where a whole meal jumps out fully-formed at the end, and get disappointed when you can’t make a roast and broccoli-cheese rice casserole and a cheesecake and side salad in an hour, all in the Instant Pot, and in frustration it goes out to the garage. It’s a fantastic tool, one that is great for components, and that is where it has made a tremendous difference in my life: as a star player on the team with which I plan and prep and also sometimes improvise from whatever weirdo stuff I’ve got on hand. I use it for the things it is best at, I take advantage of the walk-away factor, I turn out some really great meals with it.
And that’s what this site is going to be for: to talk about how to make real food, not Insta-ready restauranty food but actual meals for people who need to eat in between doing other things, taking advantage of all the gadgets and tools and assistance available from modern technology. Welcome!
BTW, if you made it this far, here’s one of my favorite easy recipes from when I first got my Pot: Spicy Honey Garlic Chicken. I like to roast/steam/nuke some broccoli to go on the side, to make a serving stretch further and give it some variety.