How to Use an Electric Pressure Cooker

Pressure cookers cook food fast. You can easily cut the cooking time in half, if not more, thanks to the high heat inside the cooker.

But, should you use the quick release button? Or let it go naturally?

Why can’t you open the lid during cooking?

We’ve got you covered with a quick tip guide to pressure cooking. Of course, not just explaining what to do, but also why to do so.

We’ll focus on electric pressure cookers in this article. True, they work in pretty much the same way as stovetop pressure cookers, but have a few settings and options not available to stovetop ones.

What to make in a pressure cooker?

Cooking in a pressure cooker starts with deciding what to make in a pressure cooker. You can’t make everything in a pressure cooker. Stay clear of deep frying in a pressure cooker for instance. On the other side of the spectrum there are dishes that you can make in a pressure cooker (think couscous) they just do’nt make a lot of sense.

Dishes with plenty water

A pressure cooker cooks food faster because it increases the boiling point of water. As a result, it’s best suitable for dishes with a lot of water. Think soups, stews, rice, and beans. But, you can also make dishes that use steam to cook very well, think ribs or cheesecake. You’d place those on op of a suitable steamer basket.

It’s crucial that your dish contains enough liquid (water) to ensure that you can build up enough steam within the vessel. That steam is important to build up pressure. If there’s not enough steam that can be formed, you will never be able to build up pressure.

Stay clear of dishes that are prone to burn & stick

In order to create pressure in a pressure cooker the cooker needs to heat up the food quite vigorously. It does so by heating the bottom of your bowl. But, in order for pressure to build up you can’t stir while it’s doing so. The lid needs to be secured tightly.

As a result, dishes that burn at the bottom, before they get a chance to heat through won’t work in a pressure cooker. Think dishes with a lot of dairy (the milk proteins stick to the bottoms) or partially cooked dahls and beans. If you start them out raw dahl and beans work out great, but don’t try pressure cook them for a second round, they’re too prone to sticking and burning at the bottom.

If the pressure cooker just does not build up pressure but does give a ‘hot’ error, you’ve likely chosen a dish that’s too prone to burning and sticking at the bottom.

water roux: heating and thickening
Making roux doesn’t work well in a pressure cooker, it’s too prone too sticking

Dishes that take time

A pressure cooker can cut down cutting time in half, if not way more. But, that doesn’t mean it makes sense to use for just everything. If your pasta normally takes 8 minutes to cook, a 4 minute cooking time won’t really make that much of a difference. Also, do not under estimate the time it takes for pressure to build up. By the time pressure has built up, your pasta might have otherwise been cooked already.

Keep in mind that in a regular pot and pan you can bring water to a boil before adding the ingredients to cook. However, you can’t build up the pressure, before adding your ingredients. The ingredients need to be in the pot while it’s heating up.

Dishes that work well are: (beef) stews, chicken (whole), oxtail soup, and any other meat cut that needs a lot of tenderizing to cook before it’s nice to eat. But also beans, chickpeas, dahl, and lentils.

Most vegetables don’t need pressure cooking

Most vegetables aren’t great for pressure cooking. They easily overcook and turn into mush. Exceptions to that are dishes where you want the vegetables to soften and mellow such as soups and stews. But, if you just want to boil your broccoli, pressure cooking can be tricky to get right. One minute more or less may make the difference between a perfectly cooked piece and one that’s overcooked.

oxtail bones
Cooking oxtail works great in a pressure cooker, bones come out clean.

Create flavor first, then cook

Pressure cooking is a supercharged version of boiling. It happens faster, and some additional flavors are formed, but otherwise, you’re just boiling food.

In other words, if you want to create some flavor by browning of some ingredients, do that first. Most electric pressure cookers have a special setting for this (e.g. Instant Pot calls their saute). This setting introduces a lot of heat to the bottom of the pot, allowing you to brown some onions, or maybe some meat.

Keep in mind that most pressure cookers have quite high vessels. This makes them perfectly suited for pressure cooking, but less so for sauteing and grilling. If you truly want to add some brown color and flavor at the start, you may want to use a regular frying pan for doing so. Make sure to rinse the pan with some water at the end and add that water to your pressure cooker for extra flavor.

Once it’s cooking, you just wait

To build up pressure in a pressure cooker you need to close the lid. As such, once it’s cooking and building up pressure there’s nothing you can do, just wait.

This is great on the one hand, but, it also means there’s no way to check up on the food. You can’t correct the cooking time midway if you see it’s going faster or slower than you expected. It’s why for our dulce de leche experiment, we had to make it a few times with different settings before getting it just right. We couldn’t see whether it had turned too dark or not yet dark enough during cooking.

The lid won’t open

Once pressure has built up, the lid won’t open. Don’t try to open it either. Often, you’ll see that a valve at the back of the cooker has popped up. Keep in mind that the pressure inside the pressure cooker is very high. If you do manage to loosen the lid it would shoot up, possibly hurting you or breaking something.

To vent or not to vent

Once your food has finished cooking, you can release the pressure in one of two ways: natural or quick release.

Natural release = just wait

A pressure cooker is under pressure because of all the hot water vapor that presses against the pot. If that water cools back down again, the pressure will reduce by itself again.

This is often referred to as ‘natural release‘. You just need to wait for the water to cool back down to its normal boiling point, so the pressure in the pot is again the same as it is on the outside.

You will want to use this method if your final dish is quite thick and gooey. This can happen if your ingredients absorb a lot of the liquid in the dish. It might splatter a lot when using the other method for releasing pressure. That said, it’s best to add a little more water to your dish to prevent this from happening, it’s the safer option for sure.

A larger batch size will take longer to cool down than a small batch does.

Quick release = quick

The disadvantage of the natural release is that your food continues to cook for quite some time. Until the pressure has released at least. If your dishes can’t handle that extra heat, it’s best to use your other option: quick release. That is, open the steam release valve on your pressure cooker to release the vapor in a matter of seconds.

By evaporating water, the pressure will go down and the temperature inside the pot will go down immediately. Water can no longer be as hot, any excess heat will cause water to evaporate and disappear.

It may look like a lot of water disappears during quick release. However, water vapor simply takes up a lot more space than that same amount of liquid water. As such, the overall release is quite limited.

Quick release allows you to keep the cooking time more consistent and have more control over the cooking time.

Finish it off

Once the pressure is released, your pressure cooker is a regular pot again. You can continue to cook it. If the dish is a little to liquid to your taste, now is the time to boil off some water to reduce it down.

Also, now is the time to add ingredients that can’t handle the high pressure too well. Delicate pieces of fish, vegetables you’d like to keep slightly crunchy, herbs, they don’t need the pressure so can be added in those last few minutes of cooking.

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