You Just Got an Instant Pot—Now What?

Starter tips for the multi-cooker that does it all. 

Photo: Getty Images

What exactly is an Instant Pot, anyway? It's a programmable, electric pressure-cooker, which means it combines heat and pressure to cook food in about half the time of traditional methods. I don't remember the exact moment that Instant Pot became the kitchen appliance; but it seems like, at every dinner party, the host credits at least one of their mouthwatering dishes to this multi-talented gadget.

Most models have settings for sear, sauté, steam, slow-cook, and simmer—there are even some that can also function as an air-fryer. You can also use the Instant Pot to cook rice, make yogurt, and walk your dog. (OK, that last one was just wishful thinking.) That's a lot to figure out, so we cut through it all to tell you how to use an Instant Pot, plus offer a few tips to make sure the start of your pressure-cooking journey is as smooth as possible.

01 of 06

Start With the Basics

When you first open the Instant Pot box, you may be overwhelmed by a pile of literature to sift through. But don't give up—all you really need to start is the instruction booklet and safety card.

After reading the basic instructions, don't get bogged down in the multitude of features and options for cooking. For pressure-cooking, you'll likely use the "Manual" setting, so don't bother with all the pre-programmed settings just yet; learn as you go.

02 of 06

Don't Be Intimidated

If the idea of a pressure-cooker conjures up images of exploding devices and cooking experiments gone terribly wrong, know that this is not your grandmother's appliance. It's hard to mess up the Instant Pot, especially to the point where it becomes dangerous.

The Instant Pot visually lets you know when enough pressure has been relieved and it's safe to open: The float valve (the small silver post that pops up when the pot is pressurized) drops back down to be flush with the lid. As long as you wait for that signal, you're safe from exploding appliances.

One safety matter is worth noting when using the "quick release" function (as opposed to "natural release," which is more gradual). Be very, very careful to keep your hands and face away from the valve (to avoid being burned).

Use quick release when the food you're cooking relies on a specific time to cook properly, such as poached eggs. Feel free to enlist tongs for turning the valve, and wear an oven mitt.

03 of 06

Factor-in Preheating and Pressure Release Time

The time listed in Instant Pot recipes refers to the unit's cooking time at full temperature and pressure. This doesn't include preheat time or the time it takes after cooking for the unit to depressurize until it's safe to open.

Preheating can take between 5 to 45 minutes—potentially as long as your dish's cook time—which, while annoying, is necessary for the Instant Pot to function properly. During the preheat stage, make sure the steam valve is in the locked, sealed position to ensure pressure is building.

After cooking, you need to allow the unit to release pressure and normalize before you can open it, which can take up to 30 minutes.

04 of 06

Adjust Your Flavor Expectations

When I first got my Instant Pot, I was sure slow-cooking was in my rear mirror for good. After all, why would I choose to take 8 hours to cook a dish versus 1 hour in the pressure cooker? I quickly changed my mind on that and now appreciate Instant Pot's slow-cook setting.

The Instant Pot certainly pressure-cooks your chilis and stews more quickly than a slow-cooker or by simmering on the stove, but you miss out on developing those deep flavors that only come with time.

I use my Instant Pot's pressure-cooking setting to make beans, chicken and rice, and eggs, but I stick to the slow-cook method when I want to let the flavor develop more. Of course, when I inevitably forget to plan ahead, it's incredibly helpful to have the pressure-cook feature to save dinner.

05 of 06

Use Recipes Designed for the Instant Pot

When using your unit's pressure-cooker or slow-cooker features, we recommend using recipes especially designed for Instant Pot to ensure the correct ingredient amounts, ratios, and cook times. You can find plenty of recipes online (like this drool-worthy Instant Pot mac and cheese), or check out the new Instant Pot app (for Android or iOS), which has nearly 1000 recipes designed specifically for your Instant Pot.

06 of 06

Make Sure to Include Liquid

If you decide to wing it without a recipe, remember to include at least 1 cup of water or other thin liquid with whatever you're cooking. (Broth or wine is OK, but nothing thick like enchilada or BBQ sauce.) That thin liquid combines with heat to create pressure the multi-cooker uses to work its magic.

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