Great chefs share tricks of the trade
Our monthly Master Class series features some of America's greatest chefs, including Thomas Keller, Nancy Silverton, Tom Colicchio and Sang Yoon, sharing the practical details of what they've learned from their years in the kitchen. Yoon is the chef-owner of beer-and-burger mecca Father's Office, with locations in Santa Monica and Culver City. He also recently opened the restaurant Lukshon in Culver City, turning out his take on the cuisines of Southeast Asia and China.
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» Master Class: Sang Yoon on pressure cookers
The Father's Office and Lukshon chef finds that a pressure-cooker life is a delicious one in the kitchen.
What if I told you I had a device in my kitchen that could manipulate and modify the cooking atmosphere and change the fundamental laws of physics by raising the boiling point of water to above 250 degrees Fahrenheit? Then I told you that this device could not only save up to 70% of traditional cooking times but also make many foods taste better? OK, relax, this isn't an infomercial. You might think I am in possession of some futuristic experimental piece of lab equipment I stole from Nathan Myhrvold. Nah. I just own a pressure cooker.
Pressure cookers have been around a long time, but most people I talk to know very little about them. In fact, I know many good cooks who are actually scared of them. Maybe because of lingering childhood memories of screeching sounds or a kitchen explosion that left dinner splattered on the ceiling.
Modern-day pressure cookers are very safe and no longer subject you to high-pitched screeching or the fear of an explosion. If used properly, it can be an incredible tool in your cooking arsenal. Yes, you can cook rice in 10 minutes in one of these, but that's not the real benefit.
In my kitchens, we use them for several different purposes. Cooking things like octopus, pig ear or beef tendon is much easier and faster in a pressure cooker. The higher cooking temperatures really help break down toughness.
Now, you might ask: If I want faster cooking, why not crank up the oven to 500 degrees? Seems logical. But remember that at sea level, no matter how high the air temperature gets, the boiling point of water will remain at 212 degrees — so until your food is cooked dry, that's as hot as it will get.
You might also be be thinking: "I know it's faster, but how does it make food taste better?" A pressure cooker is a sealed environment, so it doesn't allow moisture to evaporate. Ingredients that are full of water, and most of them are, tend to keep more of their native moisture locked inside. Thus, a potato that was pressure-cooked tends to taste more earthy and potato-like. This is true of all root vegetables I've tried cooking this way.
With tough cuts of collagen-rich meats that you would normally braise, pressure cooking will not only cut the time way down, it also tenderizes more deeply using much less liquid. That's part of what makes traditional braising take so long: You have to evaporate a lot of liquid. When using a pressure cooker, you're using only a small amount of cooking liquid, since almost none will evaporate.
In fact, you might end up with more liquid than you started with. By starting with less liquid, the resulting sauce tends to be less soupy and more concentrated. If you're using meat stocks in the braise, you don't end up getting that sticky texture associated with braised meats in the finished sauce because you're not reducing the volume of liquid. You're relying on the extra-high temperatures to heighten the meat flavors rather than spending hours on reduction.
The magic of pressure cookers can be attributed to one number: 15 psi. That's the pressure in pounds per square inch. In fact, when you're shopping for one, you need to make sure it can go up that high. Many of the electric models can't go above 10 psi. If you're looking at stove-top models, make sure the vent doesn't release steam constantly. I have found that cookers that constantly vent don't produce the same deep flavors and can be annoying. My favorite brand is Kuhn Rikon. They're built well and can go up to 15 psi without constantly venting.
The importance of 15 psi is that that amount of pressure means the boiling point of water will go from 212 degrees to about 256 degrees. That temperature isn't high enough to create a full Maillard effect but is high enough to enhance richness and meaty flavors. Lower boiling points don't seem to yield the same intensity of flavor. The logic is that higher boiling temperatures yield a more complete protein extraction. In fact, I like to make meat stocks in pressure cookers for this exact reason. With brown stocks I tend to get deeper color as well as flavor.
So, just remember not to fill the pressure cooker more than three-quarters full and make sure the cooking liquid only covers about one-third of your ingredients. Remember to keep your face away from the pot when opening the cooker. The steam is extra hot, so be careful. But most of all, enjoy experimenting and defying the laws of physics.
Sang Yoon is the owner and chef of two Father's Office restaurants, in Culver City and Santa Monica, and of Lukshon in Culver City.