Before Christmas, I had exactly one friend who owned a pressure cooker—which he'd used unsuccessfully to process psychedelic mushrooms back in his misspent undergrad years. A dozen years later, the aging vessel, with its hair-trigger jiggler top and dust-caked lid, lives in a box in his parents' garage. Or maybe they've thrown it away. Frankly, he neither knows nor cares. Like most kids who came of age after the Carter years, he's never used a pressure cooker to cook an actual meal.
That dim picture is changing. Pressure cookers are exploding—in a good way, this time—into home and restaurant kitchens. I discovered the joys of pressure cooking last year while reviewing Modernist Cuisine, the 2,348-page encyclopedia of avant-garde cuisine by former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold. He argues that pressure cookers are the perfect vessel for making stock, and he's right. Pressure cooking extracts more flavors from the primary materials and keeps them in the pot, where they condense back into a rich, full-bodied liquid. I was blown away by the chicken stock I made the first time I used a pressure cooker.
But I didn't stop there. I followed a few of Myhrvold's other suggestions and soon discovered that pressure cookers make superior, stir-free risotto—cooked through, but with a pleasant hint of resistance—after just five-and-a-half minutes at pressure. Braised short ribs are similarly sublime, fork tender without being mushy, and bathed in a broth with an intense, concentrated beef flavor. They went from being a Sunday afternoon project to a supper I could prepare after work on weeknights. Emboldened by success, I even went so far as to pressure cook a surprisingly moist lemon-mascarpone cheesecake.
What makes the pressure cooker so great? As steam builds in a sealed vessel, the boiling point of the water within increases from 212 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. That allows the contents to repose as if in a sauna, while their aromas are squeezed out of them in a hot bear hug. At high temperatures, the food can also develop Maillard reactions, which produce the complex flavors associated with browning and caramelization. The fact that a pressure cooker does all this in less time and, as a result, with less fuel than a pot on a stove, is just (remarkably rich and full-bodied) gravy. When used appropriately, pressure cookers deliver better flavor and texture in a fraction of the time.
So why aren't they catching on faster? Or, more to the point, why did they ever disappear? Buoyed by post-World War II enthusiasm for time- and labor-saving devices, the pressure cooker was once more common. According to a 1950 article from the New York Times Magazine, 37 percent of U.S. households owned at least one pressure cooker at midcentury, a rate that had plummeted, according to consumer research firm NPD Group, to 20 percent by 2011. It's easy to see the roots of this decline in the Times' piece, which, despite a generally positive tone, addresses a prejudice against pressure cookers that, sexism aside, still has currency:
A professional home economist in New York, who requested her name not be given, said, when asked her opinion of pressure cookers:
'I am scared to death of them. Women are not often mechanically minded enough to employ these utensils without scalding themselves.'
As laughable as that gender stereotype may be, the underlying concerns about this primitive kitchen gear weren't entirely unwarranted. Ask any baby boomer about their childhood pressure-cooking memories, and they'll likely conjure a scene from The Hurt Locker. Early versions of the appliance rattled and belched steam ominously, and they could explode if misused because their one rubber release valve would blow like a geyser if the pressure got too strong.