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We live in an age of convenience and speed and our kitchen appliances often offer the opportunity to cook meals faster than conventional methods or certainly provide us “hands-off” cooking. Introduced in 2010, the Instant Pot didn’t become popular until many years later when the stars aligned and they suddenly began flying off the shelves of stores nationwide. They have topped the holiday cooking gadget gift list for the last two years and show no sign of slowing down.

In its most basic form, the Instant Pot is simply a pressure cooker — a cooking appliance that has roots all the way back to 1679 France. In the mid-19th century, cast iron pressure cookers were being sold in America and at the turn of the 20th-century aluminum versions were being sold for about $20.00 — that was a substantial amount of money at the time.

Unlike other electric pressure cookers, the Instant Pot also serves as a slow cooker, rice cooker, yogurt maker, sauté pan, and warmer. Some models do more than that, which is likely why they have become so popular. It is one kitchen appliance that does what it used to take several to do.

Even with its popularity, there is a lot of anxiety around pressure cookers in general. We have all heard stories from grandmothers whose pressure cooker exploded and launched tomato sauce into the air leaving a sauced ceiling and large mess to clean up. Rest assured knowing the modern pressure cooker has mechanisms built in to prevent such old-time disasters from happening.

Pressure cooking is also new to many a home cook, certainly in our younger generations. We are used to the slow cooker concept but the pressure cooker tends to leave us questioning what to do. Follow these tips to alleviate some of that anxiety. Then enjoy the speedy meals you and your Instant Pot can create.

How a pressure cooker works

A pressure cooker works at different pressure levels which change the boiling point of the liquid in the cooker. When sealed, the cooker traps the steam rising from the boiling liquid which raises the temperature. The higher temperature along with the pressure in the pot forces the hot steam into the food, allowing it to cook much faster. The steam valve allows excess steam to escape which prevents kitchen ceilings from being painted with tomato sauce.

Most cookers have two presser settings built in - low and high. At low, your food will reach an internal temperature reaches about 235 degrees and at high it will reach about 250 degrees. Most recipes will call for high pressure. Low pressure is used for more delicate ingredients like seafood or eggs.

The steam release process

When using your pressure cooker, your recipe may differentiate between manual and natural release of the steam. Manual steam release means you move the steam valve from the sealed position to the venting position so the steam releases immediately. Take care to protect your hands and not hold your hands over the valve opening. The steam will gush up and out at a fast hissing pace. When using your pressure cooker, it is best to move it out from under cabinets so the steam can release safely into the air and not ruin your cabinets.

A natural release allows the food to continue cooking for 20 to 30 minutes as the steam slowly releases from the pot on its own. There is no need to move the steam valve for this method. Once the pressure is lowered, the cooker will automatically switch to a “keep warm setting”. If your recipe does not indicate which release to use, it is safe to go with the manual release method.

Converting traditional recipes

While there are a vast number of recipes for pressure cookers available online and in cookbooks, you may have a family favorite recipe that you would like to try in your pressure cooker. Converting these traditional recipes for the pressure cooker is simple, albeit not always exact.

The amount of liquid in any recipe is the starting point for conversion. When cooking stove-top, liquid often escapes from a pot through evaporation. This doesn’t happen in a pressure cooker, so reducing the amount of liquid by at least half will yield the best result. Plan for shorter cooking time, too. About a third of the standard cooking time for meats and grains. Beans will only take about one-quarter of the standard cooking time.

If your sauce ends up too thin, set the cooker to the sauté function to allow some of the liquid to evaporate. You can also stir in a slurry of water and cornstarch and let the sauce cook until it thickens a bit.

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Niki Davis can be reached at rootedinfoods@gmail.com. You can find more recipes and food history on her blog Rooted In Foods at www.rootedinfoods.com.

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