Kitchen Basics: How To Use A Pressure Cooker

Pressure cookers drastically reduce the cooking time of many favorite homestyle dishes. Here's how to choose and use a pressure cooker.

Maybe you remember your grandmother using a pressure cooker to can her garden vegetables in glass Mason jars, and you haven't seen a pressure cooker since then. Indeed, they seem to come from a time when homemakers had more time for cooking and canning, so you may even wonder if pressure cookers are still made! They certainly are, and you might be surprised at how easily they fit into your modern, busy lifestyle.

While they are not as fast as a microwave oven, pressure cookers drastically reduce the amount of cooking time required for many foods. Pressure cookers also cook meat and chicken to a tender perfection without losing any of their flavor (and with a shorter cooking time, foods also retain more of their vitamins and minerals). Recipes that could take 8 hours or more to cook in a slow cooker take only about an hour to cook in a pressure cooker.

In general, a pressure cooker takes about one-third the time of the conventional cooking method, but more precise time charts for pressure cooking various foods can be found online with a simple search - and there are many good pressure cooker recipe sites, too, where the pressure cooker novice can go for ideas and tips.

As useful and easy to use as they are, however, pressure cookers can be dangerous if not used with caution and maintained with care. Remember to follow these tips when choosing and using your pressure cooker:

* Do not buy a used pressure cooker or attempt to resuscitate your grandmother's old one. Sensitive parts like the rubber gasket may need replacing, the steam vent tube may be blocked, or the pressure cooker may not seal well enough to use. It's best to start fresh with a new cooker.

* If you must use an old pressure cooker, make sure that the rubber gasket is clean and free of tears or other defects. Clean out the vent tube with a pipe cleaner and make sure there is no blockage. Pressure cookers older than 5 years old lack the safety features of the modern pressure cookers, so familiarize yourself with how to use it safely. For instance, learn how to let your pressure cooker cool down before opening - let it sit on the stove until the pressure indicator on top no longer hisses when you tilt it, or put the cooker in the sink and run cool water over it to help the pressure go down. Even with a new pressure cooker that has safety features, never attempt to force the top open.

* Never let children or pets play around the pressure cooker (of course, this also applies to any pots and pans on the stove - the back burners are the safest places for cooking when kids are around, and handles should always be turned toward the back of the stove so that they are not easy to reach or accidentally bump).

* Make sure you have enough water in the pot to be able to convert to steam - otherwise the cooker will be unable to build up pressure, and the food will simply burn. Conversely, make sure not to put too much water in - there should be a "fill line" marked on the inside of the pot that you can use as your guide.

* Be aware that certain foods, primarily dried beans, tend to foam excessively when they are cooking and may block the steam vent.

Choosing a Pressure Cooker

Pressure cookers can range in price from $15-20 to ten times as much - or more. The cheaper pressure cookers are more likely to resemble the old-fashioned pressure cookers, with fewer safety features. Pricier cookers have more safety features and sometimes also a more ergonomic design. But what features are important?

Look for stainless steel, not unclad aluminum, and avoid nonstick interiors that are unlikely to last as long as your pot. (Aluminum is more likely to become pitted and to absorb flavors than is stainless steel, and cooking in unclad aluminum may even increase your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease later in life - definitely not the result you want when you buy a pressure cooker to help you cook healthy dishes!)

Also, make sure the cooker you choose reaches the standard pressure setting of 15psi - most recipes are designed for cookers that reach this setting. And finally, choose a larger pot than you think you will need; remember that you can't fill the pot to the top because there has to be room for the steam to build up.

Once you have your pot, remember to maintain it: clean the steam vent to make sure it remains unblocked, clean the rubber gasket well, and avoid storing the cooker with the top on - strong flavors may develop in a closed cooker.

Follow these tips for choosing and using your pressure cooker, and it may just last for forty years the way your grandmother's pressure cooker did - and your family will enjoy the flavors and benefits of home-cooked meals in a third of the time.

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