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 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 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. When you’re shopping for one, you need to make sure it can go that high. Many 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, Kuhn Rikon, is built well and can go up to 15 psi without constantly venting.
The importance of 15 psi is 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. Higher boiling temperatures yield a more complete protein extraction. I like to make meat stocks in pressure cookers for this reason. With brown stocks I tend to get deeper color as well as flavor.
Remember not to fill the cooker more than three-quarters full and make sure the cooking liquid covers only about one-third of your ingredients. Keep your face away when opening the cooker: The steam is extra hot. Most of all, enjoy experimenting and defying laws of physics.
Trim the short ribs of excess fat and cut between each bone. Make two vertical cuts in each piece of rib down to the bone. Season each piece of rib with one-eighth teaspoon salt, rubbing the salt on all sides of each rib to cover completely.
Heat a saute pan (preferably cast iron) over medium-high heat until hot. Add the canola oil and sear the ribs in a single layer until browned on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes (the ribs may need to be seared in batches). Drain the seared ribs on paper towels and set aside.
In a mixing bowl, combine the soy sauce, malted rice syrup, mirin, onion, grated daikon, pear and garlic.
In a 3 1/2-quart stove-top pressure cooker, combine the seared meat and soy mixture. Stir in the dried mushrooms and red dates. Cover and cook at high pressure (15 psi) for 1 hour. Start keeping time once it has come to full pressure, reducing the heat just to maintain pressure (but watch to make sure the cooker does not go below full pressure for the entire hour).
Manually release the pressure on the cooker, then open the top. The meat should be very tender when checked for doneness.
Taste the sauce and season again if desired; it should be sweet and savory. The volume of liquid should have increased after cooking for 1 hour. Gently stir in the daikon radish cubes, carrots and potato, along with the sesame oil and black pepper. Close the cooker and heat over high heat to bring the cooker back to full pressure (15 psi). Once the cooker has reached full pressure, remove from heat and allow the pressure to reduce naturally; do not release the pressure from the valve manually.
When the pressure is released, open the cooker. Check the vegetables; they should be tender. Cool slightly, then serve with a garnish of green onions and sesame seeds, along with a drizzle of additional sesame oil if desired.
-Korean soy sauce, malted rice syrup, jujubes and Korean sesame oil can be found at Korean markets and select Asian markets.
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