Taking the bang out of pressure cooking
A quick look at my home kitchen and you might think I was an avowed minimalist. One pot, a few saucepans and a cherished cast-iron skillet. A cupboard of bakeware and bowls and counter space for just a few appliances. All the gadgets that can fit in one small drawer. A few chosen knives.
Noble? I wish. A would-be cookware junkie, I’m saved from bingeing on tools and equipment only by the postage-stamp size of my cooking space. To make it in my kitchen, an item has to be essential. Which is why I can’t stop thinking about getting an electric pressure cooker.
In addition to cooking foods in a fraction of the normal time with just the push of a few buttons, electric pressure cookers promise so much more. Completely self-contained, there are models that offer automatic timers and multiple functions, so you can brown meats and saute vegetables before pressure cooking, perhaps simmer in-between steps, and keep a dish warm after it’s done. Some models double as rice cookers, steamers and even slow cookers to seal the deal.
I’ve never owned a pressure cooker. With all the horror stories I’d heard growing up about exploding cookers and dinners ending up on the ceiling, I never seriously considered buying one. But more friends are getting them, and I seem to be noticing them everywhere lately, not just in stores, but on TV too. No, I’m not talking “Fear Factor” but popular cooking shows, where chefs brandish pressure cookers to make quick work of slow-cooked dishes for competition shows such as “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef.”
So, is it all hype? And what about the electric models — are they too good to be true? Curious, the L.A. Times Test Kitchen tested five popular electric cookers, along with a highly regarded stove-top model for comparison.
The results? Pleasantly surprising.
At first glance, there’s no confusing an electric pressure cooker for a traditional stove-top model. These babies are nothing like your mother’s pressure cooker. While many stove-top models look like a sturdy saucepan with an extra handle attached to the lid, the electric models are bigger and bulkier — picture a slow cooker on steroids — bedazzled with buttons and digital displays. They’re big enough to demand prime counter-top real estate; you’d be hard-pressed to fit one in a normal cabinet. The stainless steel All-Clad in particular reminded me of a mini bank vault; it was heavier than the other models we tested, and its substantial lid transformed at the touch of a button to lock and unlock (I’m convinced food — anything — would be safe in it even in the event of a nuclear holocaust).
What’s good about the electric models is that they do so many things automatically: plug in the cooker, press a few buttons and go. You don’t have to hover over the stove adjusting the burner to regulate pressure or watch the clock to time when a dish is done. The electric models switch off automatically — often beeping when done — slowly releasing pressure and keeping the dishes warm until needed.
The digital displays can be extremely helpful in giving up-to-the-minute details on how a dish is progressing. Some displays are very simple, others much more colorful, even entertaining (the Deni had me momentarily mesmerized). But there can be too much information. At first, the Cuisinart’s display was a little confusing; even after reading the manual, we still had to look up a video on YouTube to figure it out.
All the models we tested had “browning” and/or “sauteing” functions, a convenient feature allowing you to sear meats and brown vegetables in the same pot before cooking. While most of the electric models were round, our Deni test model was oval — much like a heavy-duty stove-top casserole — and not as deep as the others, but it had more surface area on the bottom of the insert, perfect for browning larger batches of food.
Four of the five electric models had inserts with nonstick surfaces, making them easy to clean. That said, as with nonstick pans in general, the coating limits the amount of flavor that builds up on the surface of the insert as the food browns, reducing the depth of flavor. The All-Clad had a stainless steel insert; perhaps not as easy to clean, but it made a noticeable difference in flavor.
While I love the time the pressure cookers save in cooking many dishes (typically one-third to one-half the time it might take to cook a dish in the oven or on the stove), note that it still takes time for the cookers to come up to pressure before they can really work their magic. Depending on the recipe and heat of the burner, a stove-top model can take 10 to 15 minutes to come up to pressure; the electric models take longer, sometimes up to 20 minutes or more — longer than it may take to actually pressure-cook the meal once the timer starts counting.
While you can’t run an electric cooker under cold water to quickly bring down the pressure after cooking, the models we tested come with quick-release pressure valves. Easy as they are to operate — flipping the knob to open — the short handle on many of the models makes it almost impossible to keep your fingers clear of the hot steam as it escapes. This is easily remedied by using a pot-holder or a long-handled utensil, but it can be a little alarming — and extremely hot — if you’re not ready for it. The Fagor, Nesco and All-Clad test models had slightly longer handles, which was immediately appreciated.
So what about some of those other functions? Can they cook rice? The Fagor includes a specific rice setting in the display, and all the models except the All-Clad give some sort of instruction on cooking rice in their manuals (the Fagor and Cuisinart are very specific; the Nesco and Deni are much more vague). The results were hit or miss. The Fagor and Cuisinart made great rice the first time out; coaxing better results out of the others might just depend on getting more of a feel for the cooker.
And slow cooking? Sort of the opposite of pressure cooking, which involves cooking quickly under pressure, slow cooking involves heating a food over very low heat for hours on end, no pressure involved. The Nesco, Deni and Fagor doubled as slow cookers with pretty impressive results. The Fagor even offers high and low slow cooking options. We tested the models using a general slow cooker recipe for pulled pork; after several hours, the pulled pork came out moist and wonderfully flavorful; only the batch from the Fagor was a little dry.
The most important thing is getting to know each pressure cooker, and getting a feel for how each one works. One pressure cooker may heat more or less quickly than another, and moisture loss can vary between models. All of this can affect cooking time, consistency and flavor. Start by trying recipes that come with the unit; generally, they’ve been tested for that particular machine. Then experiment.
That said, I’m clearing a little space on the counter top, just in case Santa is listening.
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