You Just Got an Instant Pot—Now What?
Starter tips for the multi-cooker that can do it all.
I don’t remember the exact moment when the Instant Pot became the kitchen appliance to own, but it seems like every time I go to a dinner party, the host credits at least one of the mouthwatering dishes to the multi-talented gadget. And it’s not just my friends—the Instant Pot is currently the number-one best seller in Amazon’s Home and Kitchen section, with reviewers calling it a “game changer for those who are short on time.” If you are known for spending time in the kitchen, there’s a good chance you were gifted an Instant Pot this holiday season.
What exactly is an Instant Pot, anyway? This wonder machine is a programmable, electric pressure cooker, which means it uses a combination of heat and pressure to cook food in about half the time of traditional methods. Most models also have settings that allow you to sear, saute, steam, slow-cook, and simmer. You can also use the Instant Pot to cook rice, make yogurt, and walk your dog. OK, that last one was just wishful thinking, but the Instant Pot really can cook almost anything. With all those functions, though, can come a fair bit of confusion. We have a few tips for making sure the start of your pressure-cooking journey is as smooth as possible.
If you got an Instant Pot over the holidays, you’re ready to move ahead with the pointers below. If you’re still on the hunt for an Instant Pot (and maybe have some gift cards to use up) I personally use the 6-quart Duo Nova. I find that it’s large enough to fit a whole chicken, but not so big that it takes up all my spare counter space. If you’re regularly feeding four or more people, you might decide to go with an 8-quart model.
When you first open the Instant Pot box, you might be overwhelmed by the amount of literature to sift through. Don’t give up yet—all you really need at this point is the instruction booklet and the safety card. After you’ve read the basic instructions, don’t get lost in the multitude of features and options for cooking. For pressure cooking, you will most likely be using the “manual” setting the majority of the time, so there isn’t much use in learning all the pre-programmed settings while you’re getting started. You can learn the others as you need them.
If the idea of a pressure cooker conjures up images of exploding devices and cooking experiments gone terribly wrong, you should know that this is not your grandmother's appliance. It’s fairly difficult to mess up the Instant Pot, especially to the point where it becomes dangerous. The pot visually lets you know when enough pressure has been relieved and it’s safe to open the pot. The float valve, which is the small silver post that pops up when the pot is pressurized, will drop back down and be flush with the lid. As long as you wait for that signal, you will be safe from exploding appliances.
One safety matter worth noting is that if you decide to use the “quick release” function (as opposed to “natural release,” which is more gradual) you want to be very, very careful to keep your hands and face away from the valve to avoid being burned by the power and heat of the quick release in pressure. You'll want to use quick release when the food you are cooking relies on a very specific time to cook properly, such as poached eggs. Feel free to enlist tongs for turning the valve, and wear an oven mit.
The cooking time listed in recipes is the time at full temperature and pressure, which means that you have to allow for some time for the Instant Pot to preheat before the countdown begins, which can take anywhere between 5 to 45 minutes depending on what you’re cooking. This means that sometimes you have to let the device preheat for as long as you use it to cook the dish, which can be annoying, but is necessary for proper functioning. You also need to account for the time on the other end for the pot to release pressure and normalize before you can open it up, which can take up to 30 minutes. During the preheat stage, make sure that the steam valve is in the locked, sealed position to ensure pressure is building.
When I first got my Instant Pot, I was sure I would be done with slow cooking for good. After all, why would I want to take eight hours to cook a dish that could take one in the pressure cooker? I quickly changed my mind on that, though—and felt grateful that the Instant Pot includes a slow cook setting. The Instant Pot will certainly pressure cook your chilis and stews more quickly than a slow cooker or simmering on the stove, but you might miss out on some of that deep flavor that only comes with time. I like to use my Instant Pot's pressure cooking setting to make beans, rice, eggs, and a whole chicken for shredding, but I stick to the slow cook method when it comes to a dish where I want to let the flavor develop a little more. Of course, when I inevitably forget to plan ahead, it’s incredibly helpful to have the pressure cook feature on hand to save dinner.
We recommend using recipes especially designed for the Instant Pot's specific pressure cooker or slow cooker features to make sure you get the ingredient amounts, ratios, and cook times right. 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 and iOS, which has nearly 1,000 recipes designed specifically for your Instant Pot.
If you get bold and decide to wing it without a recipe, just remember to include at least one cup of water or other 'thin' liquid in with whatever you’re cooking. This means that broth or wine or okay, but not thick sauces like enchilada or BBQ. The thin liquid combined with the heat creates the pressure that the multi-cooker relies on to work its magic.