Updated: February 24, 2013 6:02AM
The perils of the pressure cooker aren’t what you might think they are.
“People are terrified of pressure cookers,” says Chelsea Schlunt, managing director for cookware makers Kuhn Rikon USA. “The pressure cookers that were on the market when your mom and my mom were using them were unsafe, and gave pressure cookers a bad name.”
Gone are the days when you had to worry about dinner exploding all over the kitchen. If “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” were filmed today, Holly Golightly would need another reason to throw herself into Paul Varjak’s arms.
Modern pressure cookers are full of fail-safes that make them no more dangerous than any other cooking device. (Let’s face it — cooking is not for wimps.) Kuhn Rikon’s models, Schlunt notes, have five-way safety controls.
No, what you risk when first taking up pressure cooking is turning out a lot of not-very-good food.
Pressure-cooker advocates do not tell you this. They kvell over how you can turn out slow-food-style braises, soups and stews in a third of the time. “There’s a soulfulness to the food that comes out of the pressure cooker,” says Lorna Sass, author of Pressure Perfect , Cooking Under Pressure and others.
They exclaim over high levels of retained nutrients and energy savings. “You can make short ribs, start to finish, in 30 minutes,” says Schlunt. “This is very ‘green’ cooking.”
Fans marvel over how versatile these gizmos are, saying they’ll make everything from vegetables to cheesecakes. “You can make risotto in seven minutes!” says Schlunt.
What they don’t tell you is how easy it is to pressure cook food that’s watery and blah.
There are, I am sure, pressure-cooker whizzes who can whip up fabulous cuisine in a trice. I am not one them. Yet.
I bought my first pressure cooker six weeks ago, and so far I have made unpleasantly sour pot roast, incredibly bland pork loin, crunchy lentil soup, murky chicken stock, a perfectly ordinary batch of blackeyed peas, some not-bad pulled pork shoulder, a good tasting but mild and runny curry and some very decent risotto. There is clearly a learning curve with these things.
Cooking under pressure is faster because in the sealed pot, water boils at higher temperatures than its normal 212 degrees. The seal also means that liquids don’t evaporate as they do conventionally.
So the cheap wine I poured into my pot roast didn’t dissipate and mellow as usual but remained as raw as when it started. At the same time, seasonings such as garlic and herbs lose strength, and lean cuts of meats can become dry — hence my tasteless pork loin.
“The shorthand answer is the cheap cuts, the fatty cuts, are the best,” says Sass. So the pork shoulder, a cut that normally takes long, slow cooking to break down tough fibers and render fat, came out much better than the loin — and literally fork tender.
Dried legumes are exceptionally good and speedy, says Anupy Singla, Chicago-based author of The Indian Slow Cooker and Vegan Indian Cooking . “Every South Asian I know uses a pressure cooker,” says Singla, who’s working on a new cookbook of Indian pressure cooker recipes. “The beans and lentils cook so much faster,” important in a cuisine that uses more than 30 varieties.
Beans need not be soaked, says Sass. “The beans cook slightly unevenly in the pressure cooker,” she says, but will even out if you let them cool in their liquid.
Sass doesn’t even brown meat before pressure cooking. “It didn’t make enough of a difference,” she says. Instead, she rolls meat in soy sauce for color and flavor.
Pressure cooking isn’t for everyone, Sass comments. “People who like the slow process and stirring the soup every hour won’t like it,” she says. “You can’t poke anything in the pot.”
If you’re used to the complex flavors of long-cooked recipes, Sass says, you might find pressurized equivalents slightly flat. For Sass the time savings is worth it. After all, if you never make such dishes because they take too long, you don’t get to taste them at all.
Says Singla, “I tend to add [seasonings] in the beginning and then if there isn’t enough, add more at the end.” When I mentioned that the curry seemed too mild, she confided that for her taste she doubles the amount of chiles, so that can’t be blamed on the cooker.
You still need to taste and fine-tune. Don’t expect the pressure cooker to do everything. You also need to learn your own cooker. Like microwave ovens, pressure cookers vary and the timing may need adjusting. When things aren’t cooked enough, like my lentils, it’s easy enough to put the lid back on and cook a few minutes more.
My stock was murky without my usual long skimming process and gentle overnight simmer. But I had full-flavored stock in under an hour, and after chilling, most of the cloudy material rose to the top with the fat to be skimmed off easily. The pot roast, too, improved the next day, just like any pot roast cooked any other way, from stovetop to oven to microwave.
Leah A. Zeldes is a local freelance writer.