Some foods take a long time to cook using traditional methods. Seriously. If you’ve ever tried to transform dried beans into something like refried beans, you know just how long it takes. It’s way cheaper, but you need to put in the hours—even if you’re not standing over the stove the whole time.
Pressure cookers alleviate the time strain—usually by one-third or more. Rather than spending two or three hours on a roast, you can have it on the table in less than an hour. (Realistically between 30 and 45 minutes.)
And, speed is just the beginning. If you spend any time and energy cooking, a pressure cooker could save your life. (We’re only exaggerating a little—it really can save you time and money which many people find life-changing.)
Benefits of pressure cooking
Ask any home cook if they would like to speed up the cooking process (and save a little money) without sacrificing food quality—we’re not sure that any would decline… even if they relish their time in the kitchen.
That alone is cause to consider a pressure cooker.
But, these appliances (or specialized pots) are also healthy. Published studies demonstrate that pressure cooking retains between 90 and 95% percent of the nutrients in vegetables (specifically broccoli in the tests). Compare that to the amount of nutrients retained through other cooking methods (measured through B and C vitamins):
- 75-90% when steamed
- 53-90% when roasted
- 40-75% when boiled
Pressure cookers are also energy efficient. Stovetop models can cut 70% of energy consumption spent on cooking compared to flat and rounded-bottom pots and pans. Electric models may be even more efficient depending on the wattage drawn. Between time spent cooking and power usage, pressure cookers are clear winners for green homes.
As an extra bonus, pressure cookers don’t leave those awful grease splatters on the stove or coating the interior of your oven. And, once you get the hang of using them, they’re super easy to work with—and even safer than that.
How do pressure cookers work?
This is actually quite exciting for anyone interested in cooking or molecular biology. We’re not kidding.
Raw food becomes cooked food through heat. That’s basic. The amount of time it takes for food to cook depends on how quickly heat can be transferred to and change the molecules within. And that, by and large, depends on the amount of water in the food - and the temperature at which that water boils.
What? Doesn’t water boil at 212 degrees F? Well, yes, if you’re at sea level and you’re working with pure water. The minute you add salt to water, you reduce the boiling point (which is why it’s often used when boiling water to cook pasta).
Other elements can affect the boiling point of water too… including pressure points. The lower the pressure point, the lower the temperature at which water boils. The higher the pressure, the higher the boiling point.
With a pressure cooker, the pressure builds inside the food chamber, raising the point at which water boils, allowing you to cook at higher temperatures without water loss—and that, essentially, allows you to cook food faster without burning whatever is inside.
And, it’s the primary reason that pressure cookers are so good at retaining nutrients - the water inside your food doesn’t steal the nutrients and escape from it, carrying all the goodness away.
Once you start investigating all these benefits, it’s easy to start dreaming of your own pressure cooker. Then, it’s time to consider what’s important to you in terms of features—because there are a whole lot of options out there.
Stovetop vs. electric pressure cookers
Though you may have a preference for one or the other, both electric and stovetop pressure cookers get the job done—and do so faster than other methods. But, there are a few key differences outside of where you place them in your kitchen and it’s definitely worth comparing both before settling on the one you want.
As Consumer Reports rightly points out, stove to pressure cookers are definitely faster, but they’re also noisier (with constant steam venting) and you’ll need to keep an eye on them during cooking as all adjustments must be manually handled. But, before you begin thinking these are cheaper—consider that they may range from $20 to over $200, whereas electric models tend to sit somewhere around the $100 mark.
Electric pressure cookers are quiet, easier to use, and require less supervision—but they can take as much as three times longer to achieve proper pressure as their stovetop cousins.
Pressure cooker recipes call for a certain amount of pressure (usually around 15 pounds per square inch). And, cooking with pressure requires some means to regulate it - otherwise, the pressure levels become dangerous.
There are four types of pressure regulators. Electric pressure cookers use a float valve which isn’t actually used to maintain pressure—that’s all done through the computer, but it will release the pressure at the end so you can safely retrieve your food.
Stovetop pressure cookers claim the other three types of regulators: weighted, modified weighted, and spring valves.
Weighted valve pressure regulators are the traditional kind that you’ll find on your grandmother’s pressure cooker. (She may even call it a jiggle-top regulator.) The valve rocks back and forth to allow the steam to escape and it should move rhythmically. These can be quite noisy—which can be a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it. The noise means you can leave the kitchen and still monitor the cooking process, but then again, it can be loud. (When it’s silent, it may be cooking—but it’s not pressure cooking.)
Rather than rocking, the modified weighted valve allows steam to escape in short bursts. It’s connected to the pressure cooker rather than the vent pipe and does need a fair amount of adjusting during cooking to keep it on a steady steam release.
Most expensive of all, but with several benefits to go with it, is the spring valve regulator. These are much quieter and more efficient. A short (1”) valve pops up to show the pressure level—and, as you can imagine, it’s best not to leave the kitchen to ensure too much pressure isn’t brewing under the lid.
Regardless of the type of stove top valve, you’ll need to clean it regularly, so you’ll need to ensure easy access.
In addition, you probably want a pressure cooker with two settings: high and low. Meat, beans, and foods that would otherwise require long cooking times require the high setting. Fish, eggs, and pasta are much better done on low settings. While more settings may seem like a better investment, you really don’t need more.
Pressure cooker capacity
Bigger isn’t better for pressure cooking. The smaller the area, the faster your pressure cooker will work. But you don’t want something that’s too small. Typical sizes are 4 quarts, 6 quarts, and 8 quarts.
Ideally, estimate one quart per person included in the typical meal and possibly a little more. Realistically, a 6-quart pressure cooker (which is the most common size) will feed a maximum of 6 people. It all depends, of course, on the food you cook—and you should never fill your cooker more than two-thirds full.
You can cook 4 cups of dry rice in a 6-quart cooker or 2.5 cups of dry beans. When it comes to recipes, the majority of them are written for 6-quart cookers. But, again, if you’re only cooking for two people, you don’t need something larger than 4 quarts. Anyone that cooks for the freezer, however, should opt for a larger size to get the most out of the machine.
Aluminum vs. stainless steel
At the moment, there are two primary materials used for pressure cookers: aluminum and stainless steel.
Aluminum pressure cookers are less expensive, but less durable. They’re excellent conductors of heat, but they can also warp and stain. And, because aluminum is reactive, you may experience flavor changes in acidic ingredients. It’s more noticeable with stove top models compared to the chambers of electric options.
Stainless steel cookers are, of course, more expensive, but they’ll look shiny and new for years. Stainless steel is strong, durable, and usually recommended for stovetop pressure cooking—but the material is definitely not known for its ability to conduct heat. And, these pots are much heavier, which means it’s not right for every user.
There are a few options that offer the compromise of adding aluminum-clad bases to stainless steel bodies, but these are often the most expensive of the lot.
First-time pressure cooks may want to consider a cheaper aluminum model to make sure the habit of using it sticks before looking at one with a mix of stainless steel and aluminum—but if money and space aren’t an issue for you, then go for it.
Whichever material you purchase, be sure to avoid non-stick coatings. These just aren’t useful with this type of cooking.
Understanding safety features
Safety first is true in all things—and especially so with pressure cookers. We can just imagine the accidents and injuries suffered in the development of these pots a couple centuries ago. You don’t want to go through that.
Fortunately, you don’t have to.
Most pressure cookers have safety features that seem a little over the top. But trust us, they’re not. At the very least, you should expect:
- Lid locks: These are essential for keeping the lid on regardless of the pressure inside.
- Pressure releases: Tou can expect primary and secondary valves. The primary valve works throughout the cooking cycle while the secondary one is there for backup. Because, you know, sometimes things happen. And, if this fails, the pressure cooker will (or, at least should) have a lid lip vent. This is a small cut in the lid that will allow pressure to escape. Even electric cookers have these.
- Auto shut-off: This is only available on electric cookers, but it’s a critical feature. For stovetop cookers, an accurate pressure gauge is also a safety feature.
What else counts?
There are plenty of manufacturers out there, but you may want to spend a few bucks more on names you recognize and trust. It’s not because these pots and appliances are inherently better; it’s because you will need to replace a few parts from time to time.
The sealing gaskets should be replaced every 18 months to two years - whether you use your pressure cooker or not. (Incidentally, that’s the silicone ring inside the lid and it’s really important for safety.) Occasionally, a safety valve or another part will need replacing. While these aren’t major investments, you don’t want to spend too much time looking for them.
Whether you prefer an electric or a stovetop model, simple and accurate controls are critical—no matter how basic the cooker is. You need to know the lid lock is secured and the amount of pressure inside.
Pressure cookers that also function as slow cookers should perform equally well across all methods—and it’s important to read the reviews that apply to the other modes. There’s no point in buying an appliance that’s supposed to do multiple things but only does one well.
Pay attention to the cleaning and maintenance instructions both before you buy—and after every use. In addition to maintaining manufacturer warranties, this particular piece of cooking equipment’s maintenance is directly linked to kitchen safety.
Pressure cooking and canning
If you’re looking for a pressure cooker that can also do pressure canning, you need to find one that meets USDA food safety standards and that’s not as easy as it may seem. There aren’t that many out there (and usually only in the 10-quart or higher range)—and it may be better to find a pressure canner that can occasionally be used for cooking if that’s your priority.
And, while you’re definitely going to be tempted to do pressure frying (adding oil to your pressure cooker)—you absolutely should not unless your pressure cooker manufacturer and manual explicitly say it is safe to do so. As you can imagine, the combination of pressure and oil is, um, dangerous to say the least.
That said, you can expect a pressure cooker to make perfect roasts, tempting stews, steamed fruit, and the most delicious risotto you’ve ever had in your entire life. Want more recipes? We seriously recommend any of these options from Serious Eats. Yum!