Pressure cookers come in three basic styles.
First, there are the old-fashioned “jiggle-top” cookers, with a removable, weighted pressure regulator that sits atop a vent pipe in the top and jiggles back and forth when pressure is reached. Companies such as Presto still make these. Although new models have more safety mechanisms than the one your grandmother likely used, they’re basically the same type that blew up on Audrey Hepburn in that infamous scene in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” (We’ll see if that scene’s included in the new “Breakfast” that hits Broadway soon.) Newer versions, called “developed weight” cookers, use a similar mechanism, but the weight is fixed in place.
Next are the highly sophisticated “second generation” cookers, such as Kuhn Rikon’s, which feature a spring valve in the lid that pops up when pressure is reached. These have the highest ratings and even more safety features and are easier to use. Most are imported from Europe and will cost you more than a microwave oven.
On these stovetop models, the cook must watch for pressure to be achieved, adjust the heat under the cooker to keep it at, but not over pressure and carefully time cooking. While a few minutes’ inattention won’t spray dinner on the ceiling, you do risk overcooking.
Finally, there are electric pressure cookers. Connoisseurs prefer the greater control of stovetop cookers, but electrics often also can be used as slow cookers or rice cookers, which they resemble, and they’re pretty much automatic, like a point-and-shoot camera. Put the food in, program how you long you want it at pressure, and the cooker does the rest. The downsides are that electrics take longer to reach pressure than stovetop models and slower to come down from pressure, too, so that cooking takes longer. They’re also bulky, and they come in a smaller range of sizes than stovetop models.
All pressure cookers can be left to depressurize on their own, and modern types let you release the pressure quickly by opening the vent. Stovetop models let you bring down pressure extra fast by running cold water over the top. Which method you choose depends on the recipe, but the food keeps on cooking and you can’t open the cooker until the pressure has dissipated.
Most pressure cooker recipes are written for cooking at 15 psi, so you want to be sure your model gets that high. It can be handy if it also works at a lower pressure for more delicate foods, too.
With a stovetop model, make sure it has a heavy, well-constructed bottom, because cooking starts over high heat.
Pressure-cooker aficionados say that if you’re only going to have one pressure cooker, you should get a big one, because to allow room for pressure to build, you can’t fill them more than about two-thirds full, and for foods that expand or foam, like rice and beans, half full. So a 6-quart cooker lets you cook, say, 4 quarts of soup or 3 quarts of chickpeas.
On the other hand, if you can cook things so much faster, how much do you need to cook at one time, anyway? A 3.5-quart cooker, which would let you make a batch of beans sufficient for a couple of meals, might be all a two-person household needs.
But good luck finding recipes for that size. Kuhn Rikon sent me one for testing and even their included cookbook didn’t have any. When I inquired, though, spokeswoman Kristyn Fuller told me I could cut down larger recipes to fit with the same timing, and that worked out fine.
Leah A. Zeldes