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by author and food writer Cheri Simard
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.
Exactly Is a Pressure Cooker?
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?
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
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 Rikon Duromatic (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).
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.
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:
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.
Source: Pressure Cooker Primer by Cheri Simard http://www.fabulousfoods.com/component/resource/article/222/19975 Posted July 29th, 2007; accessed Sep 14, 2010