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If you're old enough, your memory of pressure cookers is probably of a steaming, spitting monster of a pot, noisily rattling on the kitchen stove. I know I have this memory of pressure cookers and it made me afraid to even try this most useful cooking tool for decades.
The old pressure cookers were scary things. I remember one time when my mother neglected a pot of pressure cooked beans while she answered a phone call. A loud explosion rudely interrupted her call, resulting in beans on the floor, beans on the ceiling, beans on the walls --- you get the big messy picture.
If you're not so old, you probably have never encountered a pressure cooker at all. But pressure cookers are back, and good news, they are nothing like the noisy, rattling, steam spitting models your mother or grandmother used. Today's pressure cookers are safe and easy to use.
What Exactly Is a Pressure Cooker?
Pressure cookers look like other kitchen pots, except their lids are a bit more elaborate. How they work is that they completely seal the pot. When the liquid inside boils, it is trapped inside the pot. Having nowhere else to go, steam builds up pressure. This results in higher cooking temperatures and shorter cooking times.
The pressure of the trapped steam can be measured in pound of force per square inch or PSI. You will often find this term in pressure cooking recipes. It refers to how many pounds of pressure per square inch you will be cooking with. Don't worry if this sounds very technical. The instructions that came with your pressure cooker will tell you how to read the PSI.
The gasket or rubber ring is another important component of today's pressure cookers, as this makes a seal that traps in steam and heat and allows pressure to build. The gasket fits on the side part of the cover. In order to make sure you get a good seal, make sure all the components are clean and free from food particles.
Even in the old days, most pressure cooker disasters could usually be attributed to user error, much like my mother and the beans. Nonetheless, today's pressure cookers offer a much higher safety level than their predecessors. For one thing, you can't open them until the pressure is hrefeased to 0 PSI.
Today's pressure cookers have at least three valves for safety and will automatically hrefease pressure should it build too high. Different types of pressure cookers have different styles of valves (refer to the instructions that came with yours), but if you hear hissing or noise coming from the cooker, it's the valve telling you to check the pressure.
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Why Use a Pressure Cooker At All?
You may be asking, even though today's pressure cookers are safer than the old fashioned ones, why take a chance at all with something that cooks under pressure? I felt the same way until I actually tried pressure cooking. Now I'd be hard pressed to live without my pressure cooker. There are lots of advantages to using this valuable kitchen tool including:
Nutritional Boost - Due to the shorter cooking time and the fact that food is cooked in less liquid that gets boiled away, more vitamins and minerals are retained than with conventional cooking methods.
Saves Time - Food cooks up to 70% faster in a pressure cooker, making it a wonderful tool for when you come home after work and have to get dinner on the table in a hurry. You can put ingredients in the pressure cooker and by the time you're finished tidying up the kitchen you can have a wholesome, hearty home cooked meal.
Energy Efficient - As less cooking time is needed, less energy is needed to accomplish the task.
Cooler Kitchen - As all the steam and heat stays within the pot, your kitchen stays cooler than with traditional stovetop or oven methods.
Cleaner Kitchen - As all pressure cooker foods are cooked in a covered pot, there are no messy splashes or spatters to clean up and no boiled over foods - ever!
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How to Buy a Pressure Cooker
You'll find a variety of pressure cookers on the market, usually ranging from 4 to 8 quarts. If you can only afford one, a 6 quart model is good for most jobs, but go larger if you have a big family.
The pots are made of aluminum or stainless steel and like with all cookware, you get what you pay for. I prefer the stainless steel models as they are generally higher quality, heavier pots, which always results in better cooking with less danger of food sticking to the bottom. The heavier stainless steel models are also great because you can brown or saut? foods in them before cooking under pressure, without dirtying another pot.
Different models have different valves and locking systems, but all work in much the same way. I have a Kuhn RikonDuromatic (pictured at the top of this page) model that is so easy to use, it made me kick myself for not giving pressure cookers a try years earlier. It's so simple, I use it as often to quickly steam veggies for quick side dishes at dinner as I do for cooking soups and entrees. I love the Kuhn Rikon Duromatic Pressure Cookers best of all I have tried. They are simple and absolutely foolproof.
Some pressure cookers -- much larger 10 quart or more versions -- are also capable pressure canning (putting up food for future use without refrigeration). This lies out of the scope of this article, but if you do can (or plan on canning) you might want to check into one of these models. One we especially like is All American Pressure Cooker and Canner(pictured at right).
General Pressure Cooking Guidelines
•           Never fill your pressure cooker more than half full with foods or two thirds full of liquid. Foods have a tendency to increase in volume under pressure so it is important to never over fill your pressure cooker. Most cookers have a mark stamped on the inside that lets you know when you've put in the maximum amount.
•           For extra flavor, brown or sauté foods first just like you would when cooking with conventional methods. For instance brown the meat and onions for a soup, before adding other liquids and cooking.
•           Use less liquids than with conventional cooking methods. When cooking under pressure, less liquid evaporates than with conventional or stove top methods. Likewise slightly less liquid is usually required.
•           Add different ingredients at different times. Since food cooks so quickly, you will want to add slower cooking ingredients first, then later, release pressure, add faster cooking ingredients, seal and cook more. For some recipes with many ingredients, you may do this "stop and go" technique several times, but it's worth it so the finished products retains texture as well as flavor.
•           Be ready to adjust the stove heat. If the pressure builds too high, you will want to immediately lower the temperature so it comes down. This is a easy on a gas range or even today's new electric models. However, if you have a standard electric stove, it's helpful to have one burner set on low heat while you build pressure in the cooker on another burner over high heat. Once you reach the desired pressure, move the pot to the burner with the lower heat in order to maintain the pressure at the desired level.
•           Begin counting cooking times when the pressure cooker has reached the full pressure, or PSI, called for in the recipe.
•           Estimate cooking times on the low side. Because foods cook so rapidly in the pressure cooker, a few extra minutes and they can turn to mush. If in doubt, check it out - release pressure, open the pot and test for doneness. If it's undercooked, you can always cook it more. If it's overcooked, you are stuck with it.
•           Increase cooking times slightly at high altitudes. You should be fine if you live at sea level to 2000 feet above sea level. After that, a good rule of thumb is to increase the cooking time by 5% for every 1000 feet higher than that 2000 foot base.
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Releasing Steam
You cannot open today's pressure cookers until you completely release the pressure from the pot - a huge safety improvement over the pressure cookers of yesteryear. Depending on what you're making, you will release steam, and therefore pressure, from your pressure cooker via the natural release or quick release methods. The recipe will tell you which is the preferred method.
The Natural Release Method - This method means you remove the pressure cooker form the heat and wait for the pressure to slowly release as the temperature of the pot naturally lowers. Foods like soups or tough cuts of meat benefit from this extra cooking time, becoming more tender and flavorful.
Quick Release Method - Some pressure cookers have an automatic release method (check the instructions that came with yours). If so simply follow the instructions to release steam and pressure. If your pressure cooker does not have an automatic release method (and don't worry if it doesn't -- many do not), it's still simple to quickly release pressure. All you have to do is move the cooker from the stove to the sink and run cold water over the top side of the pressure cooker until the all the pressure is release It should take less than a minute.
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Tips for Safe Pressure Cooking
•           Too much pressure is created in one of three ways: the heat is too high; the pressure cooker is overfilled, the pressure regulator valve is obstructed or malfunctioning.
•           Never fill your pressure cooker more than half full with foods or two thirds full of liquid. As steam builds up it needs space. Over filling your pressure cooker can result in food particles getting lodged in the valves, which can result in pressure not being released.
•           While it's important not to overfill the cooker, you must use enough liquid in order to build pressure. Usually at least 2 cups for larger pressure cookers.
•           Inspect the gasket or ring, making sure it is not dried out and still flexible (most manufacturers suggest replacing the gasket once a year). If the gasket is not in good shape, it will be impossible to attain a good seal and build pressure.
•           Inspect the valves to make sure they are free of debris and food residue. The instructions that came with your pressure cooker can tell you more thoroughly what to look for and how to maintain the valves.
•           Do not deep fry in your pressure cooker. It was not meant for this task and it can be dangerous as hot oil is highly combustible!
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Cleaning and Storing Your Pressure Cooker
Take care of your pressure cooker and it will last you for a lifetime of great cooking. Here are some basic maintenance tips:
•           Remove the rubber gasket or ring and wash this separately by hand.
•           Never immerse the cover in water as it can clog and damage the safety valves.
•           Hand wash the pot by hand with your favorite dishwashing soap.
•           Do not store the pressure cooker with the lid locked in place as it can damage the rubber seal. Also if moisture is present it can create a seal that's difficult, if not impossible, to open.
•           You can conveniently store the pressure cooker pot with the lid placed upside down on top of it.
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Adapting Regular Recipes for the Pressure Cooker
You can cook most anything in the pressure cooker, although to be sure, it is better suited for foods that require long cooking times, such as soups, stews, beans and grain dishes. That said, I often make crisp-cooked steamed vegetables in my pressure cooker - the secret is to only cook them for a minute or two under pressure.
There are not many changes to make when adapting recipes for the pressure cooker. Just make sure you are using enough liquid to create steam (usually a minimum of 2 cups, you can get away with a little less for foods that cook quickly like steamed vegetables).
Sear meats and aromatic vegetables like onions for better flavor before closing the pressure cooker and cooking under pressure.
Other than that, the most important thing to monitor is the cooking time.
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Design of Pressure Cooker
Pressure cookers are generally made from aluminium or stainless steel. The former may be stamped and buffed or anodised, but this metal is unsuitable for the dishwasher. Expensive stainless steel pressure cookers are made with heavy, three-ply, or copper-clad bottom (heat spreader) for uniform heating, since stainless steel has lower thermal conductivity. Most modern units are dishwasher safe, although some manufacturers may recommend washing by hand.
A gasket forms an airtight seal which does not allow air or steam to escape between the pan and the lid; the only way the steam can escape is through a regulator on the lid when the pressure has built up (or if the regulator is blocked, through a safety valve). Sometimes the gasket is referred to as a sealing ring.
To seal the gasket, some pressure cookers have a breach lock with flanges that interlock when you turn and tighten the lid on the pot. Others, like Hawkins[1] have slightly oval lids and openings. With these, you insert the lid at an angle, then turn the lid to fit the pot. A spring arrangement, in Hawkins' case the lid arm with a hook to the pot arm, holds the lid in the right place. When cooking, the pressurized steam inside keeps lids tightly on.
The food to be made is placed in the pressure cooker, along with some amount of water. The vessel is then sealed and placed on a heat source (e.g. a stove). When the water reaches the boiling point at atmospheric pressure it begins to boil, but since the produced steam in the pressure cooker cannot escape the pressure rises, consequently raising the internal boiling point. Once the pressure increases to the designed amount above air pressure a relief valve opens, releasing steam and preventing the pressure from rising any further.
Most pressure cookers sold in the U.S. have an internal pressure setting of about 100 kPa (15 psi) over atmospheric pressure, the standard determined by the USDA in 1917[2] . At around this pressure boost relative to sea-level atmospheric pressure, water boils at 125 °C (257 °F).
The higher temperature causes the food to cook faster; e.g., cooking times can be reduced by 70 percent. For example, shredded cabbage is cooked in one minute, fresh green beans in three minutes, small to medium-sized potatoes cook in five minutes (depending on thickness and type), and a whole "roast" chicken takes only twenty minutes. Brown rice and lentils and beans can be cooked in 8 minutes instead of 45.
Pressure cookers are often heavy because they need to be strong, and because they are often used to sterilise jams and other preserves and their many bottles at harvest time, so are big. Some pressure cookers are manufactured for camping, and can be as low as 1208g for a 4 litre pot.
Pressure cooking is often used to simulate the effects of long braising or simmering in shorter periods of time.
Some pressure cookers have a lower maximum pressure, or can be adjusted to different maximum pressures; cooking times will vary accordingly. This is often done by having differently-weighted regulator weights. However, there seems to be little reason to use the lesser pressures.
Since pressure cooking depends on the production of steam, the process cannot easily be used for methods of cooking that produce little steam, such as roasting, pan-frying or deep-frying.
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