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Linda Brandt: Pros and cons of pressure cooking – Sarasota Herald |

Linda Brandt: Pros and cons of pressure cooking – Sarasota Herald

My mom had a pressure cooker in the 1950s and ’60s. She used it a lot and not once did I see spaghetti sauce on the ceiling. I did, however, eat plenty of tender pot roast with vegetables, chicken and yellow rice; vinegary, bacony warm German potato salad and, I think, corned beef and cabbage. She also used it to can fruits and vegetables. And I got to “help” by monitoring the little thingamajig that danced and whistled on top of the pot as it reached the desired cooking pressure.


Despite those happy memories, I’ve never had a pressure cooker, even though I have thought about it from time to time. So when a reader suggested I write a column for others who might be considering the purchase of one, I was happy to put myself in their shoes and find out more.

Naively, I expected to come away with clear pros and cons, some helpful general guidelines, some recipes and possibly a convincing argument for buying a particular model.

What I found was a lot of technical information about the boiling point of water, denatured protein, acrylamides, carcinogens, phytic acid, lectins, glutamates, collagen and gelatin — not exactly what I was looking for.

So I was glad to find at consumerreports.org: “No fancy-schmancy gadget, a pressure cooker is a metal pot with a tight-fitting lid that seals. When liquids inside the pot heat up, steam is trapped, creating pressure. This results in higher cooking temperatures and faster cooking.”

The most often given reason (now considered more of a myth or urban legend) for not using a pressure cooker involves visions of what happens if it (or its owner) malfunctions causing serious injury and property damage.

If you Google “pressure cooker safety,” you will find a number of Web sites clearly marked “Ad.” Some are for pressure cookers; others are for attorneys willing to advise you on your rights if you are injured in a pressure cooker mishap.

I am sure it is because of pictures such as those found at pressurecookerlawsuit.org and other similar sites that pressure cookers seem to be maligned more than, say, immersion blenders, hand mixers, electric knives, food processors, cookware and bread machines. And it should be noted here that in some of the reported cases the injured persons, not the pressure cooker, may have been at fault, having failed to clean clogged vents or attempted to open the lid before sufficient pressure had been released.

Both Cooks Illustrated magazine and Consumer Reports staffs who have researched and tested numerous pressure cookers assure readers that today’s pressure cookers are foolproof and safe, with intuitive methods for locking and unlocking the lid and for maintaining pressure levels. And they have multiple features that allow excess pressure to escape safely.

Another myth: The high temperature and pressure destroy the nutrients in food.

It turns out, says Kristen Michaelis, citing a number of studies at foodrenegade.com, that higher cooking temperatures don’t destroy any more nutrients than lower temperatures and because food cooks for shorter times in pressure cookers, nutrients are actually preserved despite the higher temperatures. Also, because a pressure cooker uses very little water, it actually acts like a steamer and because less water comes into contact with food, fewer vitamins and minerals are leached out.

So why consider a pressure cooker?

“One of the main draws is faster meal preparation,” says Bernie Deitrick, who conducted pressure cooker tests for Consumer Reports. “But the end result is another good reason.”

That end result he refers to includes perfectly cooked large cuts of meat (whole chickens, pork tenderloins and roasts and beef roasts), hearty nutritional stocks, intensely flavored sauces, soups, barbecues, braises, stews, ragu like the recipe below and even risotto.

Shorter cooking times and the fact that most of the heat is contained in a tightly closed pot mean savings of time and energy and result in a cooler kitchen. And you can save money on meat because inexpensive cuts come out just as tender and tasty as more expensive cuts.

Electric or Stovetop?

When shopping for a pressure cooker, your first decision will likely be between a stovetop model or an electric one. While electric models have the advantage of not having to be monitored as closely as stovetop models, they do have drawbacks. Their nonstick liner pots are less durable than aluminum stovetop models and those liners tend to spin inside the pot when you stir the food. Electric models don’t have handles, which makes pouring hot liquids difficult. And their heating elements tend not to get as hot as stove burners so browning and sautéing are challenging and cooking time may be longer. Electric models also take up more space than stovetop models.

What Else?

If you have decided on a stovetop model, here are some things to consider.

Larger is better. Your choice will likely be between 6- and 8-quart models. You can make a small amount of food in either size, but if you will be cooking a pound of dried beans or making recipes that serve more than four (think leftovers), you will need the larger cooker.

Lower, wider pressure cookers have more cooking surface, which means you can brown meats in fewer batches. And wide pots with straight sides are easier to reach into.

Look for a pressure indicator that is brightly colored, prominently raised and easy to read at a glance from several feet away. Avoid cookers with pressure indicators that are confusing or difficult to read or that are indented, requiring you to bend over the cooker to see them.

The disk base, or cooking surface of the cooker, is typically made of aluminum. The thicker the base, the more quickly the pot reaches the desired pressure and the better it retains heat to regulate the pressure, which means more even cooking and less pot watching.

And Another Thing

Because my mom made it look so easy, I may have come to this subject with some misconceptions, namely that once the food started cooking, you could go about your business and take the pressure cooker off the burner when the pressure indicator said you could. But, according to “Perfection,” pressure loss is normal for a stovetop pressure cooker, which means that to maintain maximum pressure you will need to watch the pressure indicator and adjust the burner as necessary.

Also, you can’t just put the food in the pressure cooker all at once. Ingredients such as rice for risotto, or meats for stew have to be browned first (this can be done right in the pressure cooker).

But looking objectively at the beef ragu recipe below, for which you brown the meat and onions, deglaze the pan, add the other ingredients and allow to cook, I can see it is not that different from any recipe I would be likely to make, except the cooking time is shorter and the meat may be more tender and succulent. Hmmm. I can see why so many folks in online communities are so crazy about their pressure cookers.

Pressure cooking actually involves two appliances, a stove and a pressure cooker. And because stoves are different, you need to be familiar with how hot yours gets on a particular setting. Electric burners cool down more slowly than gas, so when it is time to reduce the heat, consider moving your cooker to a different burner.

Follow cooking times exactly, beginning when the pot is up to pressure and ending when you begin the quick or natural release. And use only the release method (quick or natural) instructed in your recipe.

Not all foods benefit from pressure cooking. Quick-cooking foods such as asparagus and delicate fish will benefit more from conventional cooking methods than from pressure cooking.

After reading about how important it is to follow the recipe exactly, I was confused to read “the amount (of liquid) you actually have to add varies depending on the food in the pot and the exact cooking time.” Once the lid is locked and the heat is on, you will not be able to add (or remove) liquid or test for doneness. If, when you have released the pressure and tested the food, it is undercooked or there is too much liquid, allow it to simmer gently on the stovetop in the pressure cooker pot until it is done or the liquid has cooked down.

Unevenly cooked (or in some case, scorched) food can be traced to inaccurately measured and carelessly prepped ingredients, according to “Perfection.” I am OK with buying the right size meat or poultry and accurately measuring the liquid, but “grab a ruler when prepping vegetables” might be a deal breaker for me.

You can pay anywhere from $90 to $300 for a pressure cooker and until you use it, there are some things you won’t know, such as how fast it reaches maximum pressure or how much evaporation it is losing. If your pressure cooker doesn’t reach optimum pressure and temperature rapidly, food will not cook properly. And if steam escapes at a steady rate once maximum pressure is reached, you may need to add more water at the beginning of your recipe. But you won’t know this until you have bought and used your pressure cooker.

So here is what I suggest when purchasing not only a pressure cooker, but any piece of kitchen equipment:

Before you buy, read the owner’s manual. This is usually available online. Type the brand and model number into a Google search. Also, call, e-mail or chat live with the company’s customer service department for answers to your questions and concerns.

Check for alerts and recalls at cpsc.gov/recalls or safetyrecalls.org.

Read objective user reviews online.

Purchase from a store with a liberal return policy (even exchange or refund and no re-stocking charge), register your purchase and save your receipt. This is important because even if there is nothing wrong with the appliance, you may find it just isn’t for you.

Following the recipe/instructions in the owner’s manual, use your appliance as soon as possible so any problems can be rectified well within the warranty period.

Note: Having not owned a pressure cooker, I may have missed some important points. If you have or do still use one, what do you mainly use it for? What are the advantages? Are there any drawbacks? Please send thoughts/tips/advice to share in a near-future column.

Beef Ragu with Warm Spices

Trim all visible fat from 1 1/2 pounds of bone-in beef short ribs. Dry with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in pressure cooker pot over medium-high heat until just smoking. Brown ribs well on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes ; transfer to plate.

Pour off all but 1 teaspoon fat left in pot, add 1 finely chopped onion and cook over medium heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and a pinch of ground cloves and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Stir in 1/2 cup red wine, scraping up any browned bits; simmer until nearly evaporated, about 2 minutes. Stir in 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes. Nestle browned ribs with any accumulated juices into sauce.

Lock pressure-cooker lid in place and bring to high pressure over medium-high heat. As soon as pot reaches high pressure, reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 25 minutes, adjusting heat as needed to maintain high pressure.

Remove pot from heat and allow pressure to release naturally for 15 minutes. Then quick release any remaining pressure and carefully remove lid, allowing steam to escape away from you.

Transfer ribs to a plate, let cool slightly and then shred meat into bite-size pieces, discarding fat and bones. Using a large spoon, skim excess fat from surface of sauce. Return shredded meat to sauce, bring to a simmer over medium high heat and cook until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in some chopped fresh parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Time under pressure: 25 minutes; total time: 1 1/2 hours,

Recipe makes 4 cups, enough to put over 1 pound of cooked pasta.

From “Pressure Cooker Perfection”

E-mail Linda Brandt at brandtlinda11@gmail.com

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