Full steam ahead – notes on cooking with a pressure cooker

This is a very basic pressure cooker with a red button that rises to let you know pressure has been reached and you can start timing your recipe photo - Karen Anderson
This is a very basic pressure cooker with a red button that rises to let you know pressure has been reached and you can start timing your recipe
photo – Karen Anderson

This week on Alberta at Noon I talked about Rajasthan and the warm and spicy food I found there. I shared a recipe for Lal Moss which is a simple red meat stew that you will see on every menu throughout this Northern Indian State. You can either leave it to simmer or braise in a slow oven or crock pot for a day or you can prepare it in a pressure cooker in about 15 to 20 minutes time. Watching the chefs in Rajasthan do so inspired me to get over my pressure cooker prejudices and demystify them once and for all.

This post will delve a little deeper into the question of whether there’s a place for a pressure cooker in your kitchen and whether or not you, like me, are ready to get to know them a bit better and maybe even buy one.

Pressure cookers were first invented by a French physicist in the 1600’s but did not become a viable option for home cooks until after they were popularized at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. They were quite the “it” gadget in the 1940’s but did not catch on for good because of the occasional tendency to explode and send a pot’s worth of whatever rocketing to the roof. I’m sure that would only have to happen once to dissuade even the most evangelical fan. It also explains how the saying, “don’t blow a gasket”, became popular for times we feel our own head might blow off with anger or frustration.

Today, pressure cookers have at least three built-in mechanisms to keep them from “exploding”. There’s a spring-loaded pressure indicator, a gasket with openings to allow excess pressure to escape and pressure release buttons. The best pressure cookers have straight sides, at least eight quart capacity and heavy stainless steel bottoms.

Pressure cookers work by forcing water or whatever liquid you are cooking with to boil at a higher temperature than normal. This happens because of the increased pressure inside the sealed vessel that is a pressure cooker. Water would normally boil at 212 °F but in a pressure cooker the temperature must rise to 250 °F. This means very hot wet steam is penetrating your food under pressure and causing it to cook in one-third to two-thirds less time.

You can cook a meat stew in 15 to 20 minutes, beans (without soaking) in 12 minutes and you can make a risotto (without all that standing and stirring) in 10 minutes. There are savings to be had on your energy bill too because the overall energy-efficiency in cooking your meal may improve by up to 70 per cent.

My Mom/Santa gave me an inexpensive Lagostina brand pressure cooker for Christmas this year. She found it at Canadian Tire on sale for $79.99 (regularly priced at about $159.98). It is stainless steel but has an aluminum core in the base. I would rather have one with a much heavier solid stainless base as I’m already seeing a tendency to scorch a little on the bottom. I’ve also found that the gasket is a bit loose for my liking and more steam is escaping than I think should be. The other thing is that it only achieves 13 psi (pounds per square inch) of pressure so I have to cook my red meat a bit longer – say 20 minutes instead of the 15 that a unit capable of 15 psi could achieve.

This pressure cooker will do for now but as I become more familiar with them I may upgrade. For now, it is safe, I’m having fun with it and as they say down in Hollywood, the price was right.

If you are ready to spend a serious amount of dough on a pressure cooker purchase ($250 – $400) here’s a list to keep in mind as follows:

1. Get at least an 8 quart capacity.
2. Look for a heavy solid stainless steel bottom for even heat penetration without scorching.
3. Ask if it achieves 15 psi pressure.
4. Take it out of the box and see if it has a user-friendly system for locking the lid (mine’s tricky)
5. Get one with a button that would let you release the steam quickly after cooking (with oven mitts on and facing away from you) so you don’t have to wait around for your time-saving device to cool down on its own as this can add another 15 to 20 minutes to the whole procedure
6. Check if there are instructions in a manual and maybe a little cookbook. My Lagostina’s book suffers from a bad case of “lost in translation” and there are no recipes whatsoever.
7. Find out what kind of back up there is if the main steam release valve becomes clogged (and so check for its patency after each use – especially after cooking legumes).

I hope this helps, my dear fellow cooks. I also found watching this video from America’s Test Kitchen helpful.

The Williams-Sonoma pressure cookers can be ordered online and delivered to your (just about anywhere) door and that is a great convenience in a country with so many remote areas like our dear Canada. Too bad it is an American company earning our Canadian dollars by providing this service.

Canadian Tire, who now calls themselves, “Canada’s Kitchenware Store” displays their products online but has yet to enter the online ordering world so you’ll have to ply yourself away from the computer, get your parka on, strap yourself into your snow tired car and drive on over to one of their 487 stores nationwide. Seeing that they gross about $9 billion annually they may eventually get with the times and bring in a shipping department to go with their currently fairly futile web presence. (They are really rather missing the point of being on the web).

Because I do not now and never will take any money to represent a company you can trust that the comments I make here are truly my opinions and are not influenced by anything other than my own noggin. Of course, I’d love to hear your opinions as it’s no fun living in a blogging vacuum.

The best book I could find on pressure cooking is by my Canadian food-writer and former CBC colleague Cinda Chavich. It is called 225-Best-Pressure-Cooker-Recipes. Chavich’s food is always very tasty.

I’ll leave you with a recipe from a 2003 article from Bon Appétit and one of my culinary heroes, Dorie Greenspan. When she wrote about pressure cookers for her Tools of the Trade column in that magazine she focused on her friend Lorna Sass’s then new cookbook called Pressure Perfect. This recipe comes from that cookbook and is every bit as delicious and apropos a decade later. Bon Appétit< and I hope that if you try this yummy soup, you will savour it all.

Curried Chicken-Coconut Soup
3 c. chicken broth
1 can coconut milk
¾ c green onions, chopped
2 ½ T curry powder
1 ½ T lemon grass (take just the tender white part of the stalks and mince them in a food processor)
1 T ginger, minced
4 large chicken thighs with bones
and later
1 package of baby spinach leaves
3 T. lime juice
salt and pepper to taste
¼ c fresh cilantro leaves
1 lime, cut in 6 wedges
Combine the first 6 ingredients in a 6 – 8 quart pressure cooker.
Remove the skin from the chicken and add chicken to the cooker.
Lock the lid in place.
Bring to high pressure over high heat.
Cook 8 minutes, adjusting heat as necessary to main tine hight pressure.
Remove from heat.
Let pressure come down naturally until the unit is safe to open.
Slowly release the lid, standing back to allow the steam to escape.
Remove the chicken and separate the bones and the meat, dicing the meat and returning it to the pot with the spinach.
Simmer about 1 minute for the spinach to wilt and then add the lime juice.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Ladle soup into bowls, top with cilantro and pass the lime wedges separately.
Yum! I’m making this tonight.


  1. Jen

    Ok, just read your comment about your pressure cooker. I guess it is just about how much you want to spend as usual. Thanks

    1. Karen Anderson

      Hi Jen,
      If you check out the video on the next blog piece you’ll see the pressure cookers of my dreams. If you are ready to retire your presto and are ready for a splurge I’d go for one of the ones America’s Test Kitchen recommended. They are both available via Williams-Sonoma.
      Happy pressure cooking,

  2. Michelle

    I recently bought a pressure cooker and use it for everything from stocks to stews to braises. Before buying one I didn’t think I needed it but after buying one I just fell in love with mine. If you don’t know which one to buy, I would recommend reading Cook With Pressure reviews. They do a good job explaining the pros and cons and which one would suit your budget.

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