A Pot With Benefits
How the pressure cooker fell out of favor, and why it's time to bring it back.
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.
The disappearance of pressure cookers can't be blamed entirely on that paranoia, however. Modern kitchens are full of dangerous, potentially fatal instruments, not least of which is the nuclear device that helped render the pressure cooker obsolete several decades ago. The microwave oven saved Rosie the Riveter's offspring even more time than pressure cooking saved her, especially when the latest in 1970s culinary hardware was combined with the ultimate in 1950s high-tech food software, the frozen entrée. While a pressure cooker can turn a tough cut of meat into a delicately perfumed stew in about an hour, Swanson's TV Dinners, introduced in 1953, could turn a bland slab of minced beef and a handful of other industrial ingredients into “Salisbury Steak,” a side of veggies, and dessert in just 25 minutes using a conventional oven, and, eventually, in mere minutes using a microwave. In an era when flavor mattered less than convenience, the pressure cooker never really stood a chance.
After more than a half a century of setbacks, it seems like pressure cookers have finally rediscovered their mojo. Fears that modern pressure cookers are domestic IEDs are bogus. Modern units, like the $120 and $199 models that I received (nota bene) for free from the manufacturers, will not pressurize unless I lock their lids properly. They also have multiple ways to release excess pressure, and simply will not open at the wrong time. I recently convinced another friend, scarred by childhood memories of his grandfather's stew painting the kitchen ceiling, to give pressure cookers a try. Santa gave him one for Christmas, and now he'll never make stock another way.
Ironically, the one thing standing in the way of the pressure-cooker revival is the single quality that once served as its main selling point. Slow-cooked, braised meats are now the rage, and convenience, as such, reeks of what's unhealthy and unappetizing. In the new Joy of Cooking's 1,132 pages, the authors devote a mere dozen paragraphs to pressure cookers, which is apparently all they need to equate them with other culinary cop-outs: "We often wonder what is done with the moments saved by [convenience foods’] purchase and preparation," it begins, before pressing the attack. "Something, we assume, of major importance, to compensate for their secondhand flavor." Ouch! "For the cook who is in a hurry," concede the editors, "we offer the pressure cooker as a kind of consolation prize."
Pressure cooking is not a consolation prize. The key is knowing when to do it. People who cook beans or make stock should own one. Same goes for those who love risotto; they'll learn, after one bite, that pressure cooking carnaroli makes a flawless texture.
But even the most ardent pressure cooker fans ought to acknowledge that their favorite device is superior only under certain circumstances. “Pressure cookers should be avoided when precise temperature control is critical,” advises Myhrvold. Those inclined to give the appliance a shot should beware of true believers. Pressure cooker evangelists like Vickie Smith (more popularly known by her nom de cuisine, Miss Vickie) will use the technique for pretty much anything, from hard-boiled eggs to pasta. Miss Vickie describes pressure-cooking as "the perfect cooking method for today's hectic lifestyle," then advances a method for "two- and even three-course meals made all at once." Her website is a wonderful resource for novices, but pressure cooking pasta for seven minutes sounds like a recipe for glue, not convenience.
It's easy to look at the $120 price tag on a 10-quart stainless steel pressure cooker and dismiss it as a gadget for niche cooks. But that's only until you recognize that you've probably allocated a similar amount of money and kitchen real estate to its inferior, far less versatile cousin, a large pot. A pressure cooker is really just a pot with benefits: Not limited to basic simmering and boiling, it offers eureka moments like the one I had when upon discovering 18-minute oat groats (a choice that should sit well with the snobs at Joy of Cooking who demand their foods whole and slow). Gilded with a pat of butter, the cooked grains offer a meaty, somewhat squeaky, resistance when chewed, and their nutty flavor plays well in both sweet and savory dishes. I top them with shredded, pressure-cooked short ribs for a main course or a dollop of Greek yogurt and cherries in syrup for dessert. Are they better than conventionally prepared groats? Maybe, maybe not. I was unwilling to invest the 45 minutes it would take to find out by cooking them in a pot. That's 27 minutes I can use for something of major importance.
Rob Mifsud is food journalist based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets at hungryinhogtown.