How to Use Your Pressure Cooker

By: Laurel Randolph and Patsy Jamieson

Make easy budget-friendly meals faster and healthier with a pressure cooker. Pressure-cooking is an old but reliable cooking method that makes quick work of tough cuts of meats, dense vegetables, hard beans and more.

Pictured recipe: Pressure-Cooker Buddha Bowl

After a long day of work, the last thing you want to deal with is cooking a giant pot roast in the oven for hours. Or what if you forgot to soak those beans for dinner? Dishes like beef roast and home-cooked beans are usually weekend-only endeavors, requiring hours of free time to prepare. Or so you thought. You can save valuable time and streamline dinner prep with the help of a pressure cooker, turning weekend meals into weeknight solutions.

Read More: 3 of the Best Multicookers You Can Buy

Types of Pressure Cookers

Multicooker

Pressure cookers have come a long way since their heyday in the 1940s and '50s. Modern stovetop pressure cookers are equipped with multiple safety features—the design of the lid-locking system makes it impossible for the lid to be removed when the pot is under pressure. New-generation pressure cookers, equipped with spring-valve pressure regulators, are quiet, streamlined and safe.

A real game-changer in recent years is the electric pressure cooker and multicooker. Popular devices like the Instant Pot have introduced pressure-cooking to the mainstream with easy, safe operation and hands-off cooking. Simply snap on the lid and press a few buttons. The cooker does the rest. Note that electric cookers operate at a slightly lower level of pressure, so cook times are a little longer than for their stovetop counterparts.

Try These: Healthy Pressure Cooker Recipes

How Pressure Cooking Works

Pressure-Cooker Chicken & Rice (Arroz con Pollo)

Pictured recipe: Pressure-Cooker Chicken & Rice (Arroz con Pollo)

A pressure cooker works by trapping steam inside the sealed pot. This causes the atmospheric pressure to rise, which increases the boiling temperature of water. So, instead of cooking food at 212°F (if you are at sea level), you cook it at 250°F, resulting in dramatically faster cooking times without harsh boiling.

This also translates into major energy savings. Depending on the type of food and the type of cooker, a pressure cooker can help you green up your kitchen with an energy savings of up to 50 to 80 percent, according to manufacturers.

Cooking with a Pressure Cooker

Gluten-Free Pressure-Cooker Mac & Cheese

Pictured recipe: Gluten-Free Pressure-Cooker Mac & Cheese

Modern pressure-cooking is safer than ever, energy-efficient and will save you time and effort with hands-free cooking. But the cookers do require a bit of a learning curve for best use. Below are the basic steps for how to use your pressure cooker (electric or stovetop).

  1. Read your pressure cooker manual carefully. As tempting as it is, don't skip this step.
  2. Check to make sure everything is in place before cooking. For electric pressure cookers, a clean and dry inner pot sits inside of the cooker, and food should only be added to the inner pot. The gasket, a silicone ring that snaps into the lid, should be clean and properly fitted into the lid. For stovetop pressure cookers, check that the inner part of the lid rim, outer rim of the pot and the valve are clean. Check that the gasket is flexible and not dried out; replace it if necessary.
  3. Add the ingredients to your pressure cooker. Do not fill the cooker more than two-thirds full (or half full for foods that may froth, e.g., beans and grains, or dishes that are mostly liquid and require a quick release).
  4. Lock the lid in place. For electric pressure cookers, confirm that the pressure release valve is in closed position.
  5. Program your pressure level and cook time into your electric pressure cooker, and skip to step 6. For stovetop pressure cookers, bring the pot to high pressure. Once the cooker reaches high pressure, it is important to lower the heat immediately. If left over high heat, the food may become overcooked. If using an electric stove, use the two-burner system: While the cooker comes to high pressure over high heat, heat a second burner to medium-low or low heat. When the cooker reaches high pressure, move it to the second burner and keep it just hot enough to maintain high pressure.
  6. Release the pressure. Once cooking has finished, you must release the pressure before you can remove the lid. You have a few options:
    • Natural Release: This method is recommended for frothy and high-liquid foods, as well as big pieces of meats and other foods that aren't at risk of overcooking. You simply leave the cooker alone and let the pressure come down naturally. This process can take anywhere from 5 to 20 or more minutes depending on your cook time and how full your cooker is.
    • Quick Release: This method is recommended for ingredients with short cook times, like some vegetables and seafood, or for staggering ingredients, such as adding a vegetable partway through a stew. For both types of cookers, press or turn the steam release valve once cooking is complete to release the steam. Be careful to immediately move your hand and other body parts out of the way of the steam, and don't position the cooker under cabinets or other obstacles. Do not use a quick release when cooking foods that tend to froth or for liquidy foods that fill the cooker halfway or more. These foods can clog the valve or spray hot liquid.
    • Cold-Water Release: This is the fastest method for stovetop pressure cookers and a good option when you want to stop the cooking quickly. DO NOT use this method with electric pressure cookers, or you risk electrocution. For stovetop models, place the pressure cooker in the sink. Hold the cooker at a slight angle and run cold water over the outer edge of the lid so that it flows over the lid and down the sides. Do not let water run directly over the vent or valve.
  7. When opening the lid of your cooker, tilt it away from you to avoid any escaping steam.

A Note for High-Altitude Cooks

If you live at an altitude of 2,000 feet or higher, a pressure cooker may be your best friend in the kitchen. The lower atmospheric pressure at high altitudes allows water to boil at lower temperatures than at sea level. By increasing the pressure, a pressure cooker raises the temperature at which water boils, thus helping to compensate for the longer cooking times caused by high altitude. Adjust pressure-cooking times according to the following formula: for every 1,000 feet above 2,000 feet elevation, increase the cooking time by 5 percent.

5 Ways a Pressure Cooker Can Save You Time

1. Cook Dried Beans in Under an Hour

Turkish Chickpea & Lamb Soup

Pictured recipe: Turkish Chickpea & Lamb Soup

There's a good reason canned beans are so popular: they don't take hours to cook. Dried beans are superior in texture, flavor, price and nutrition, but they can be a real pain to prepare since they take lots of forethought. Dried beans are typically soaked overnight before cooking for at least an hour (sometimes two or three hours), making them less than ideal for a last-minute meal. In comes the pressure cooker. It can turn beans from dried to creamy in 45 minutes or less, and the whole process is hands-off. Dried black beans take about 40 minutes to pressure-cook from start to finish, and free you up to assemble tacos or make Spanish rice. Rather than settle for canned, cook up a pot of beans and store any leftovers in their cooking liquid for meals throughout the week. Cooked beans will keep for about 3 days in the fridge.

2. Forget About Defrosting

Pressure-Cooker Beef & Noodles

Pictured recipe: Pressure-Cooker Beef & Noodles

How many times have you arrived home ready to make dinner when you realize you forgot to defrost a key ingredient? Frozen food is a great way to have fresh, healthy food on hand, but cooking frozen chicken thighs, for example, takes some thinking ahead. If you're pressure-cooking those chicken thighs, then you've got nothing to worry about. You can safely pressure-cook a number of frozen ingredients and it will only add a few minutes to your cook time. The general rule with frozen meat is to add 50 percent more cook time (if an ingredient normally takes 10 minutes to cook, cook it for 15 minutes) and allow more time for the cooker to build pressure. Frozen pieces of chicken, ground beef, cubed beef or thin pork are good for this method, and work well in stews and soups. Avoid using frozen giant roasts or other big hunks of meat—it's best to defrost these items before cooking.

3. Cook Large Cuts of Meat

Rosemary-Orange Pot Roast

Pictured recipe: Rosemary-Orange Pot Roast

Speaking of big hunks of meat, Sunday pot roast isn't just for Sunday anymore. Big pieces of beef or pork require long braises or stews using conventional methods, meaning hours of cook time. This is fine as a weekend project, but what if you want to serve pork shoulder on a Tuesday night and you don't want to load up your slow cooker before work? The pressure cooker simulates long braises and turns tough meat perfectly tender after about an hour of high pressure. This means you can have your showstopping main dish on the table, start to finish, in less than two hours. While the meat cooks, prepare your side dishes, set the table and open a bottle of wine. No sweat.

4. Multitask

Pressure-Cooker Mac & Cheese

Pictured recipe: Pressure-Cooker Mac & Cheese

And speaking of multitasking, a pressure cooker gives you freedom to utilize the rest of your kitchen. This may sound like a riddle, but the hands-off nature of pressure-cooking means that you don't have to babysit the dish. Once you've clamped on the lid and started the timer, you're free to ignore the cooker until the cook time is up. This leaves you free to toss a salad and sear a steak on the stovetop, or steam a cheesecake while you eat dinner. Even though you can make whole meals in the pressure cooker (stew, for example), you don't have to. The cooker will cook your chosen dish perfectly without your help, letting you easily churn out a whole spread on a weeknight.

5. Cook Two Dishes at Once

4-Way Beef Roast

Pictured recipe: 4-Way Beef Roast

Why cook one dish in your pressure cooker when you can cook two? Using a steamer rack, basket or trivet, you can create layers within the pot and cook two dishes at once. Steam fish up top while a sauce or grain cooks below. Cook a vegetable stew or curry in the bottom of the pot and steam rice in a bowl or ramekin above. Steam "hard-boiled" eggs while oats, rice or grits cook below. The possibilities are endless, as long as your cook times match up. For example, if both items cook for 5 minutes at high pressure, and one is steamed on a rack or cooked pot-in-pot (meaning the dish cooks in a ramekin, bowl or other dish inside the cooker pot), then you can make both dishes at once. Pressure-cooking two dishes at once is kitchen multitasking at its finest.

Watch: How to Make Mac & Cheese In Your Pressure Cooker

Related:
Pressure-Cooker Chicken & Rice
How to Use Your Pressure Cooker
Pressure Cooker Buyer's Guide