How to Use a Pressure Cooker

Exploding pressure cookers are a thing of the past; today’s pressure cookers are a safe, efficient way to cook meals in minutes.

  • Sara Gauchat

What exactly is a pressure cooker, and how does it work?
Think of it as a speedier, more scientifically minded cousin to the ubiquitous slow cooker. Like a slow cooker, a pressure cooker cooks ingredients (such as beans or tougher cuts of meat) in a pot, but does so in a fraction of the time, says Tori Ritchie, the author of The Pressure Cooker Cookbook: Homemade Meals in Minutes ($20, amazon.com).

Its signature look is a tight-fitting lid with a gasket and a pressure regulator. As the cooker heats up, steam gathers and—because it has nowhere to escape—builds up pressure. This causes the liquid inside to boil at 250 degrees Fahrenheit when set to high, instead of the typical 212 degrees, which allows the food to tenderize and cook faster. (Of course, you always need to make sure that you actually have liquid in the pot.) The result: a delicious dish in a third to a half of the time it would take to cook in a regular pan.

Are pressure cookers safe?
“You don’t need to be afraid anymore. Today’s pressure cookers are completely safe,” Ritchie says. “There’s, like, a minimum of seven ways it won’t blow up.” There are safety releases built in with vents that open when the pressure gets high, so there’s no chance that the top will explode off. Just be sure to make this the one case where you absolutely, positively read the manual, Ritchie advises. It will teach you how to work the cooker properly and clue you in on the minimum amount of liquid that must be included every time you use the device.

What kinds of dishes is a pressure cooker good for?
“It’s a great investment if you love slow-cooker food but don’t know what you want to eat in the morning,” says Ritchie. “If it’s 6 P.M. and you feel like creating pot roast, brisket, Bolognese sauce, or short ribs, that’s when the pressure cooker is your friend.” It makes quick, tasty work of these dishes and many, many more. How about a seven-minute risotto that’s actually creamy and still al dente in the middle? Doable. Mashed potatoes in five minutes? Artichokes in four to six? No problem.

Quick soups, beans, and grains are all practically tailor-made for the pressure cooker. Vegetables are also a great match because the cooker keeps all their nutrients in the pot with the food itself. (There is less leeching or evaporating than you’d find with other cooking methods.) And, happily, there isn’t a huge amount of must-avoid ingredients when entering the world of pressure cooking—though you should stay away from tender foods, such as fish, which tend to fall apart during cooking.