By Patsy Jamieson, "Pressure Cooker Possibilities,"March/April 2010
Even though I have cooked professionally for more than 30 years, it was my Spanish teacher, Patricia, in Quito, Ecuador, who convinced me that a pressure cooker could make my life easier. She explained that they are indispensable for preparing bean and whole-grain dishes quickly. I realized that a pressure cooker might help me incorporate these longer-cooking healthy foods that I often don’t have time to prepare into my diet more often. So I decided to give pressure cooking a try.
Pressure cookers have come a long way since their heyday in the 1940s and ’50s. Modern 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 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. And this translates into major energy savings. Depending on the type of food and whether you cook on gas or electric, a pressure cooker can help you green up your kitchen with an energy savings of up to 60 to 80 percent, according to manufacturers.
On my first attempt, I was sold—I cooked up a pot of creamy cannellini beans in just about 15 minutes, instead of an hour or more! I quickly gained confidence and experimented with other foods. I found that inexpensive cuts of stewing meat tenderize beautifully in a pressure cooker in far less time than they normally would. In addition, the sealed environment intensifies the flavor of the braising liquid. A practical pot roast, which used to be reserved for a leisurely Sunday, is now an option for a weeknight meal. And everyday basics like whole-grain brown rice cook in just 15 minutes—instead of the traditional 50 minutes.
Pressure cookers are not as popular in North America as other convenience appliances, such as the microwave oven and slow cooker, but I think their time has come. They can help you get an economical, healthy meal on the table in record time, while you reduce your energy bill.
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. Discoverpressurecooking.com recommends adjusting pressure cooking times according to the following formula: For every 1,000 feet above 2,000 feet elevation, increase the cooking time by 5%.
Patsy Jamieson is a former food editor and Test Kitchen director at EatingWell. She revisits the magazine’s Test Kitchen regularly to prepare food for photo shoots.