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.
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!
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.