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

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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.

Can you use a conventional recipe with a pressure cooker?
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to convert a conventional recipe; you can’t prep your favorite dish, plop it into the pressure cooker, and expect it to be cooked perfectly and ready to eat in five minutes. But you can make adjustments, says Diane Phillips, the author of The Easy Pressure Cooker Cookbook ($27.50, amazon.com). “Use timing charts and compare your old tried-and-true recipe with a pressure-cooker recipe, paying close attention to the amount of ingredients and liquids,” she says. Conveniently, your cooker’s manual should also have pointers on adapting your recipes, and there are loads of cookbooks and websites just waiting to be perused.

What features should you look for when buying a pressure cooker?
There are two basic types of pressure cookers—stovetop and electric. The base of the stovetop versions can pull double-duty as a pasta pot, which is a nice two-in-one feature for smaller kitchens, Ritchie points out. But you do need to be in or near the kitchen while they’re cooking to monitor the heat and pressure. The electric versions can be programmed to take care of all the cooking themselves, so they can be left to their own devices (quite literally)—although they do take up more space and make a bigger footprint on your counter, Phillips says.

So first consider where your pressure cooker is going to live. Then choose the size you’ll need. Typically a family of four will use a four- to six-quart cooker, says Phillips. She also recommends looking for a three- to five-ply pot bottom for even heat, plus a stainless steel-lined interior (because aluminum will often pit inside from tomato-sauce acid). The bottom line? Figure out which cooker suits your kitchen, budget, and amount of storage space and go from there.

How do you clean a pressure cooker?
Happy news: “It’s no more complicated than cleaning a regular pot,” says Ritchie. And if you have an electric pressure cooker, some of the components may even be dishwasher-safe. The one important thing to remember is that you have to wash and dry the gasket from the lid by hand to ensure that it stays in tip-top condition.

What are some tips for getting the most out of your pressure cooker?
Pressure cookers tend to bleach colors out a bit, so brown your ingredients first to start with a deeper, richer color. And after a dish is done cooking, it might be a little too watery. Removing the lid and letting the sauce reduce slightly should help. Ritchie also suggests sticking with the high setting on your pressure cooker because most recipes fare better with it.

Phillips recommends using a flame tamer to distribute heat evenly if you’re using your cooker on a gas stove. When meal planning, she advises turning to ingredients you already have in your pantry, because you can cook from it pretty easily with a pressure cooker. “Think of the pressure cooker as the new microwave—but it’s not going to turn things into hockey pucks for you,” Phillips says.

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