My “Instant Pot” Experience

Months ago, my husband and I were watching TV—I think it might have been CBS Sunday Morning—and there was a short segment about this new “must have” kitchen item that was a 6-in-1 gadget replacing your rice cooker, slow cooker, pressure cooker and all those sorts of things. I told Bill that this gadget would be a great candidate for my Christmas list. Long story short: this device was one of the presents under the Christmas tree, and I figured I would share my experiences and learnings so far.

About the “Instant Pot” Clones

The device that created this revolution is known as the Instant Pot. It’s got a nice background story about some classic entrepreneurs who created a device and then worked hard to create a grassroots following, and indeed the TV show from which we learned about this thing referred to it by name.

When it came to buying an Instant Pot for me for Christmas, my husband unfortunately ran into that classic situation where it ran out of stock everywhere just days before he went shopping. He was forced to resort to a clone called the Power Pressure Cooker XL, which from what I can tell was mostly marketed for home shopping networks like QVC. While doing my own Christmas shopping last month, I also noticed that there were a number of similar knock-offs from the likes of KitchenAid, Cuisinart, Breville, etc.

Power Pressure Cooker XL
The Power Pressure Cooker XL

We were worried that the clone wouldn’t work as well as the original, or that we would find cookbooks or recipes that worked for one but that didn’t apply to the other or would require some strange conversions. One of the reasons I’m writing this blog article is to let everyone know there’s nothing to worry about. The way you work an electric pressure cooker is pretty much universal.

About Electric Pressure Cookers

Pressure cooking is itself not a new thing. The classic pressure cooker is a pot with a locking handle that you would heat directly on a stove.

stovetop pressure cooker
An old-fashioned pressure cooker

There’s a reputation for these devices to be confusing if not downright dangerous. It’s not uncommon to see someone on an episode of Top Chef trying desperately to figure out how to make one work, and there a numerous horror stories of people not knowing what they’re doing and having the pressure cooker explode with some sort of sauce coating the entire kitchen ceiling. (If you look up images in Google with the terms “pressure cooker explosion” you’ll actually see a number of gruesome  images of burn victims.)

The issue is this: a pressure cooker builds a lot of pressure on the inside. With the old manual devices, if you remove the lid before the pressure has had a chance to dissipate, you will get an explosive release of hot steam-packed innards. (Note, the Boston Marathon homemade bombs were made using pressure cookers.)

The magic of the electric pressure cooker is that it cannot be opened until the inside pressure has been dissipated properly. There is an internal locking mechanism that keeps the lid locked down until everything is perfectly safe. Another challenge with the older pressure cookers was that you had to monitor the level of the stove heat so that you didn’t build too much pressure inside. A gauge would let you know what the pressure was, and if it was too low you would need to turn up the stove heat. If the pressure was too high, an emergency escape valve would go off letting some steam escape. Whereas you had to carefully monitor your manual pressure cooker, the electronic was handles all of this automatically, turning off its internal heating element once that ideal temperature and pressure are reached.

It really is foolproof!

What’s the big deal about pressure cookers?

It’s all about temperature. If you boil food, you are bathing that food in a bath of 212? (or lower if you live in a high-altitude community) and that’s the maximum temperature you are going to get. In contrast, if you’re sautéing (or frying) food in oil then you’re aiming for a much higher temperature around 320? or so; that’s what browns your meat or mushrooms or caramelizes your onions.

The pressure cooker is designed to increase pressure so that the boiling point is equal to 250? rather than 212. (Okay, doing some research for this blog, I’m seeing that there’s some variation here. The classic Instant Pot has a “high pressure” setting that attains about 240? and a “low pressure” setting that gives about 230? whereas my Power Pressure Cooker XL is typically set to only reach 228?—about equivalent to Instant Pot’s low setting, although I could press “Canning/Preserving” to get the higher 240?. Here’s a good article about the difference between high- and low-pressure settings.)

So is the increase of 212 to 250 really that big of a deal? Well, it turns out that yes, it really is. Pressure cookers allow you to speed up the process of braising dramatically, so that recipes that used to take hours could be done in a fraction of the time. Imagine cooking a roast or ribs in 40 minutes, or making a soup from dried, un-soaked beans in 30 minutes. Homemade stocks can similarly be made in that 20-30 minute timeframe. It’s pretty miraculous.

Starting with the Sauté

Here’s the other thing that I love about my Power Pressure Cooker XL: with many recipes you start with sautéing in the bottom of the pot, then you add the liquid and then put the lid on and start the self cooking. This keeps you from having a recipe that ends up being just blandly boiled/steamed. You put a little oil in the bottom of the pot and then brown you meat and/or sauté your onions or mushrooms or risotto right in the device. And I would swear this contraption has some magic that does this faster than it would take separately in a frying pan.

Seriously: with a frying pan it always takes 10 minutes to get the oil hot enough and then to cook onions long enough to get translucent. In the pressure cooker, this step seems to take 3 or 4 minutes. It’s a bit of a miracle.

The other benefit is that you really do end up with a lot less cleanup. The inside pot of the pressure cooker is really fast and easy to clean (unlike food processors, mixers and other kitchen “convenience” appliances!) and you have a lot fewer pots and pans that get messed up.

The only thing I found that was confusing (at first) was how to do the sauté step. With the Instant Pot there’s apparently a Sauté button whereas with my Power Pressure Cooker XL I had to press “cancel” and then any of the pressure cooking buttons and then wait for it to go into heating mode. This wasn’t written in the instructions anywhere, and it took a bit of Googling and video-watching before I felt comfortable proceeding.

Time & Quick-vs-Manual Release

My Power Pressure Cooker XL has a bunch of buttons on it like “Soup/Stew” or “Beans/Lentils” or “Meat/Chicken” but the only thing these buttons do is to give a preset amount of cooking time, which you can hand-adjust anyway. It’s like those buttons on the microwave that are supposed to be for different types of food, but all they do is pre-program different times. The long-and-short of it is that all you really have to know is how much time to cook at pressure. For split pea soup, this will be about 20 minutes. For a roast, it’s probably about 40 minutes. The point is you’ll find universal recipes on the Internet, and they will tell you how much time you need—and pretty quickly you get a good feel for it yourself.

The other interesting thing about a recipe is whether you are supposed to do a “quick release” of the steam or a “slow/manual release”. For the quick release, once the cooking is done you turn this little release valve and steam vents out of the pot over the span of a minute or two. It’s very safe and it gets you to the food more immediately. This also causes the contents to bubble vigorously (which you can’t see because the lid is still sealed on tight) because the food’s temperature is higher than the boiling point (which is rapidly returning to 212?) and this can cause things like risotto or steal cut oats to get plump and puffy.

For some recipes, you don’t want this internally-violent decompression to happen, so you just wait patiently for about 10 or 20 minutes after the cooking is done for the temperature and pressure to gradually drop to normal on their own.

Anyway, that’s about it. Know the cooking time and the release type, and that’s about all there is to it.

And the results…?

Here’s the skinny on the foods I’ve cooked so far:

Split pea soup

My first experiment was just a matter of sautéing some onion, carrot & cubed ham and then adding (dry) split peas and some water. It took 20 minutes pressure cook time and ended up just fine. I regrettably forgot to add garlic, which I think it really needed, and I should have put some more black pepper and tabasco in there, but it turned out just fine.

Steal Cut Oats

If you’ve ever made steal cut oats, you know it’s a labor of love because you have to slowly and constantly stir them in a pot over a full 30 minutes. In the pressure cooker it was both fast and, more importantly, it required none of the 30-minutes-of-hovering-over-the-bloody-stove. The recipe I had called or a 2-to-1 water to oats ratio, and they ended up quite thick. I think I’ll try 3-to-1 next time.

Mushroom Risotto

Another painfully slow stir-forever-over-the-stove recipe, risotto comes out perfectly. I sautéd a mix of mushrooms, then added onions, then added the risotto and altogether sautéd for about 10 minutes and then put in 3/4 cup white wine and cooked for 2 more minutes. I separately brought chicken stock to a boil (so it would start cooking more quickly) and added it to the pot and cooked for about 20 minutes. End result: perfect risotto.

Spaghetti Sauce

Sautéd onions, then added fresh oregano and some minced garlic and cooked for another minute or so. Then added a can of diced tomatoes, a small can of tomato sauce and some sliced-up Italian seasoned turkey sausage and some red wine plus some black pepper, salt and dried Italian herbs. Cooked for about 20 minutes.

The sauce was nicely developed, but the turkey sausage ended up a little dry. I think it might have overcooked, and don’t know if traditional pork sausage would have done better, or if it would have been better to start without meat and then to try and do a second pressure cook with the sausage for an extra 5 minutes. I might try both later on.

Other modes

There’s a “slow cooking” mode that makes the cooker act like a slow cooker. (I wouldn’t mind consolidating and getting rid of my crock-pot knockoff which I’ve never liked.) I haven’t used that yet, but I suspect it’ll be fine if I ever find a need for slow cooking.

There’s an entire book that came with my machine about canning & preserving, and one can use mason jars (not included) to make jams or chili or spaghetti sauce “starters” or canned fruits or that sort of thing.

On the Instant Pot there’s a button for making yogurt (quick research makes it look like my Power Pressure Cooker XL doesn’t do that) but I don’t really see myself ever wanting to do that.

Finally, you’re supposed to be able to use it to cook rice with just the standard pressure cooking mode. I haven’t tried that yet, but if it works I might be able to retire my rice cooker. (Although, often braised dishes go well on top of rice, so it may be worthwhile to keep the rice cooker.)

The verdict

I’ll have to see after a few months if this becomes a central instrument in my kitchen, or if it becomes another cooking novelty that ends up collecting dust. Right now I’m pretty damed impressed. It is true that meals cooked with this machine end up with surprisingly less kitchen cleanup (a major winning point) and it’ll make it possible for me to consider cooking dried grains like bean soups and lentils whereas I had all but given up in the past.

If you like braised dishes, this is a miracle. If you prefer roasted dishes, this will not replace an oven or a grill. The biggest thing I would say is that the device ends up being pretty easy to use once you get past the initial intimidating learning curve. (Just watch a couple YouTube videos and you should be confident to give it a start.) Also know that there are some cookbooks dedicated to the electric pressure cookers, and they’ll be a good starting point, along with all the online resources.

One last piece of advice: there are a number of different sizes of electric pressure cooker, whether you’re buying a classic Instant Pot or a different brand. I think it’s worth opting for the larger models so that it’s easier to do your sautéing, and so it’s more likely to be able to throw away donate your slow cooker and consolidate storage space.