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Why do cooks love the instant pot? I bought one to find out


People have fallen in love with their Instant Pots.  

They may like their blenders, cherish their slow cookers and need their food processors.  

But the Instant Pot — a device that combines an electric pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker and yogurt maker in one handy unit — sends even mild-mannered cooks into fits of passion.  

You find the “L” word over and over in the 15,000 or so product reviews on Amazon. And if you click over to Instant Pot’s Facebook community page, you’ll find more than 360,000 members sharing their undying affection alongside their recipes for chili. (A typical post: “I’m having an affair. My husband said he wished he would have never given me the Instant Pot for Christmas.”)  

If you’re a cook and got through last year without bumping into people who couldn’t stop talking about their Instant Pots — or any of the other multifunctional electric pressure cookers on the market (Breville and Cuisinart both make versions) — then you won’t have to wait much longer.

Electric pressure cookers is one of the fastest growing kitchen appliance sectors on the market, with sales doubling and tripling during the last four years, according to Robert Wang, the CEO of Instant Pot Co.  

When the Instant Pot debuted in 2009, it was one of the first brands to hit North America; electric pressure cookers were already gaining popularity in China. In 2010, approximately 300,000 electric pressure cookers were sold in the United States and Canada, said Wang. By 2015, that number rose to over 3 million. (He declined to give exact sales figures, as did representatives from Breville and Cuisinart.)  

The majority of Instant Pots are sold on Amazon. More than 215,000 units were sold on Amazon Prime Day 2016, in July, when Prime members get discounts on select items, outperforming any other product on the site. Two different models of the Instant Pot currently sit in the top 10 list of Amazon best sellers in the Kitchen and Dining category.  

So why do electric pressure cookers inspire such a devoted following?  

I bought one to find out.  

A confession: I already own a stovetop pressure cooker, the conventional kind that you would heat over a burner and then regulate yourself. It is currently supporting a colony of dust bunnies in the back of my highest cabinet, behind the panini press. I never got over my fear of exploding split-pea soup to use it with any regularity.  

What makes this newest generation of electric pressure cookers different is that it is designed with a slew of self-regulating safety features, including sensors to monitor the unit’s temperature and amount of pressure. All you do is plug it in and tap a button, and it does everything else. It’s as user-friendly as a slow cooker — except that it gets dinner on the table a day or so faster.  

The promise of a fast, fresh homemade meal is a pressure cooker’s greatest appeal, said Lorna Sass, author of four pioneering cookbooks on pressure cooking, including “Pressure Perfect.”  

“It doesn’t matter if you’re Paleo or vegan or just trying to eat better, pressure cooking is the answer for healthy fast food,” Sass said.  

After cooking a pork shoulder in the electric pressure cooker, I could easily see why the appliance has struck a chord, with the Paleo community in particular: It cooks large hunks of meat superbly and speedily. After a mere 90 minutes, the meat was spoon tender and deeply flavored, even before I covered the soft shreds with spicy barbecue sauce. The same recipe made in my slow cooker took seven hours, and the meat wasn’t quite as uniformly juicy.  

It was that pork shoulder that turned me into a believer.

I continued to play, spending six weeks experimenting with the Instant Pot and a second electric pressure cooker, the Breville Fast Slow Pro. These are the two models recommended by my colleagues at The Sweethome, a product review site owned by The New York Times Co. that put six electric pressure cookers through their paces. In terms of performance, I found the two to be more or less the same.  

Lamb shanks were velvety soft in 40 minutes, short ribs fell off the bone in 30, and spare ribs were porky perfection in 20 minutes.  

Perhaps most convenient, the collagen-rich beef bone broth that took two days to cook down in my slow cooker was ready in an afternoon, without making the whole house smell like soup (which is nice for the first couple of hours but then gets really old). 
But the electric pressure cooker does have its shortcomings. The most notable failure in the meat category was the whole chicken. The recipes I tested came out with slack and soggy skin, and either stringy and dry white meat or undercooked dark meat. I did have more success with sake-steamed skinless chicken breasts, which were evenly cooked and perfumed with the delicate rice wine and fresh ginger. A nice dish, though how often does one really want to eat steamed skinless chicken breasts?  

I didn’t like it much for vegetables either, most of which don’t benefit from the intense pressure of high-heat steam (beets and artichokes being the important exceptions here). Broccoli, kale, zucchini, fennel, brussels sprouts and mushrooms turned limp and unappealing.

They also took longer to cook than if I had used a skillet on the stove. The manual tells you an ingredient only needs, say, five minutes to cook, but that doesn’t take into account the 10 to 15 minutes required for the machine to build pressure, in addition to the time needed to release the pressure, which brings the total to around 20 minutes. I can do a lot of great things to vegetables with a skillet, some olive oil and garlic in 20 minutes. In general, this is a good rule of thumb: If something takes 20 minutes or less to cook conventionally on the stove, use the stove.  

Another pressure cooker downside: They just don’t do crisp or crunchy. Although most cookers allow you to brown meats and vegetables on the sauté function before cooking, any crunchy bits will wilt under the pressurized steam once you lock on the lid. Though I might use the pressure cooker for potatoes if I were going to mash them, I would never be able to achieve anything like the crisp-edged roasted potatoes I can get in the oven. And in the future, I’ll stick to roasting my whole chickens, so I can crunch on the shards of browned, salty skin.  

The key to pressure cooker happiness is choosing recipes in which softness and succulence is the goal, and which traditionally take hours to get there.  

For example, I’ll never go back to a Dutch oven for chili, which I made in the electric pressure cooker in an hour starting from dried beans.  

Same goes for my favorite red lentil soup. Although I didn’t save any time when I tested it, I adored the convenience of not having to watch a pot on the stove. I could turn the pressure cooker on, then go for a run. When I got home, my soup was ready — a good thing since I was starving. And it’s amazing for chickpeas, which take an hour all told instead of the usual three to four hours for unsoaked beans.  

“People want to use their pressure cookers for everything, but they’re better for some things than others,” Sass said. “Stick to soups, stews, beans and risotto. It makes fabulous risotto.”  

I’d have to agree; Sass’s recipe for porcini mushroom risotto with peas is excellent, adaptable and about as easy as dinner gets (once you source the dried porcinis and Arborio rice, that is).  

I also like the machine for polenta, which eliminates the stirring (and the splatters of molten blobs).  

But perhaps the biggest pressure cooker joy I found was for something as simple as hard-cooked eggs. They didn’t cook faster, but even fresh eggs from the farmers’ market peeled effortlessly, without ending up pockmarked and riddled with craters the way they do when I boil them in a pot. This is because the pressure helps inflate the air pocket between the cooked white and the shell, which makes separating the two go more smoothly.  

I also tried out some of the other functions, including the slow cooker, rice cooker and yogurt maker settings. The unit worked as well as my separate, stand-alone slow cooker, though I can see a future in which I pressure-cook more, and slow-cook less; the results are similar, but one is a whole lot faster. For cooking rice, I preferred both the brown and white rice I made in my separate rice cooker. The pressure cooker was faster, but the rice a bit heavier and chewier. And for yogurt, which I’d gotten into the habit of making every other week on the stove, I have to admit that the machine worked like a dream.  

So after all that cooking, did I fall in love with the electric pressure cooker?  

It takes up a lot of space, it’s not at all intuitive, and I hate not being able to check on my food as it cooks. But even so, I don’t plan on giving mine up anytime soon.  

My friend Robin, who bought an Instant Pot six month ago, summed it up well.  

“I’m out of the honeymoon phase,” she said. “Now we’re settling into a relationship. And I’ve accepted its limitations, like the fact that there’s no reason to ever make oatmeal or rice in it. But between the lamb stew and the butternut squash soup, I know we will be together forever.” 

 

— Pressure Cooker Chocolate Pudding  

Yield: 6 servings  

Total time: 40 minutes, plus at least 3 hours’ chilling 

Ingredients 

1 1/2 cups heavy cream  

1/2 cup whole milk  

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate (preferably 60-65 percent), chopped  

5 large egg yolks  

1/3 cup light brown sugar  

2 teaspoons vanilla extract, or 1 tablespoon dark rum or bourbon  

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom or cinnamon (optional)  

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt  

Crème fraiche, or whipped cream, for serving  

Chocolate shavings, for serving (optional) 

Steps 

1. In a heavy saucepan, bring cream and milk to a simmer. Remove from heat; whisk in chocolate until melted and smooth.  

2. In a large bowl, whisk together yolks, sugar, vanilla, rum or bourbon, cardamom or cinnamon (if using) and salt. Whisking constantly, pour hot chocolate into yolk mixture. Strain through a very fine mesh sieve into a large measuring cup or bowl. This can be made up to 2 days ahead and stored in the refrigerator.  

3. Pour into a 1-quart, 7-inch soufflé dish, or divide chocolate mixture among six (4- to 6-ounce) custard cups, espresso cups or small ramekins. Cover with foil.  

4. Place steamer rack in pressure cooker, and fill cooker with 1 1/2 cups water. If baking the larger pudding, place dish on top of rack. Cook on low pressure for 18 minutes. Wait 5 minutes, then manually release pressure. If making the individual servings, place 3 custard cups on top of rack. Cook for 5 minutes on low pressure, then manually release pressure. Repeat with remaining three cups.  

5. After cooking puddings, remove foil covers to allow the steam to evaporate, and cool to room temperature. Cover puddings with plastic wrap, and chill at least 3 hours and up to 3 days before serving with crème fraîche and chocolate shavings, if you like. 

 

— Pressure Cooker Spicy Pork Shoulder  

Yield: 10 servings  

Total time: 3 hours, plus marinating 

Ingredients 

For the pork:  

5 garlic cloves, grated on a Microplane or minced  

2 tablespoons brown sugar or honey  

1 tablespoon Korean chili flakes (gochugaru) or other chili flakes (Maras, Aleppo or crushed red pepper)  

1 tablespoon kosher salt, more to taste  

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper  

5 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into two or three pieces  

For the sauce:  

1 tablespoon peanut oil  

4 garlic cloves, grated on a microplane  

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root  

1/3 cup gochujang (Korean chili paste) or other chili paste or sauce such as Sriracha  

1/4 cup soy sauce  

2 tablespoons ketchup  

2 tablespoons mirin  

2 tablespoons honey  

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar  

1 teaspoon Asian fish sauce  

1 teaspoon sesame oil  

For the sesame pickled cucumbers:  

6 Persian cucumbers, thinly sliced (or about 4 cups sliced cucumbers)  

1 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar  

2 teaspoons sesame oil  

2 teaspoons brown sugar  

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt  

1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion  

2 teaspoons sesame seeds  

For serving:  

Cooked rice or toasted slider rolls  

Kimchee (optional) 

Steps 

1. To prepare pork, combine garlic, honey, chili flakes, salt and pepper. Rub marinade all over pork. If you have time, cover and refrigerate for 1 hour to up to 24 hours. Otherwise, proceed with recipe.  

2. Set electric pressure cooker or slow cooker to sauté (or use a large skillet). Add pork in batches and sear until browned all over, about 2 minutes per side. Add 3/4 cup water to pot (or to skillet to deglaze, then move to pot), cover, and set to cook for 90 minutes on high pressure or 5 to 7 hours on high in a slow cooker.  

3. While pork cooks, prepare sauce: In a small pot, warm peanut oil over medium heat. Add garlic and ginger, and sauté until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer. Cook until thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Set sauce aside. (It can be made up to 1 week ahead and stored in the refrigerator.)  

4. If using a pressure cooker, manually release steam. Let pork cool until you can handle it, then shred it into bite-size pieces. Pork can be made to this point up to 3 days ahead.  

5. While pork cools, strain liquid from bottom of pot. Pour off fat (or chill liquid, then scoop off solidified fat with a spoon). Reserve.  

6. Prepare cucumbers: In a small bowl, combine all ingredients except sesame seeds, and let sit, tossing one or twice, for at least 20 minutes. Stir in sesame seeds.  

7. When ready to serve, heat broiler. Toss pork with sauce and 1 to 2 tablespoons cooking liquid – just enough so pork is evenly coated but not wet or runny. Spread mixture on a rimmed baking sheet, and broil until crisped on top, 2 to 3 minutes; it will char in places, and that’s fine.  

8. Serve pork over rice or on slider rolls, with cucumbers and kimchee, if desired. 

 

— Pressure Cooker Beef Short Ribs With Red Wine and Chili  

Yield: 6 servings  

Total time: 1 hour, plus 1 hour or more marinating time (optional) 

Ingredients 

3 to 4 pounds bone-in beef short ribs  

2 teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed  

1 teaspoon coriander powder  

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper  

1 tablespoon olive oil or other fat (like bacon fat or duck fat), more as needed  

3 leeks, whites only, chopped  

2 large fennel bulbs, diced  

4 garlic cloves, minced  

1 tablespoon chipotle chili powder  

1 tablespoon tomato paste  

1 cup dry red wine  

1/2 cup pitted prunes, diced  

Fennel fronds or sliced scallions, or both, for serving 

Steps 

1. If time permits, rub salt, coriander and pepper all over beef and let marinate in refrigerator for 1 hour, or, ideally, overnight.  

2. Set electric pressure cooker to sauté function and add oil (or use a large skillet on the stove over medium-high heat). Sear beef until evenly browned on all sides, about 2 minutes per side. You’ll probably have to do this in batches. Transfer to a plate as the pieces brown. Or if using a skillet, transfer them to pressure cooker or slow cooker.  

3. Add leeks, fennel and pinch of salt to hot pan and cook until soft, about 8 minutes, then add garlic, chili powder and tomato paste; cook until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Pour in wine. Add prunes and beef (or add prunes and fennel-wine mixture to the meat in the pot).  

4. Cover, then cook for 35 minutes on high pressure. Manually release pressure. If sauce seems thin, pull out beef pieces and reduce sauce using sauté function. Serve with fennel fronds or scallions, or both, for garnish. 

 

Pressure Cooker Pork Salad With Pomelo and Garlic Chips  

Yield: 10 servings  

Total time: 2 hours 30 minutes 

Ingredients 

For the pork:  

5 garlic cloves  

2 tablespoons honey  

Finely grated zest of 2 limes  

2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, more to taste  

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper  

4 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2 or 3 pieces  

1 tablespoon peanut oil, more as needed  

1 bunch of cilantro, leaves and stems separated  

3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce 

 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar  

1 small red or green chili, sliced  

For the salad:  

1 pomelo or 3 grapefruits  

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lime juice  

1/4 teaspoon honey  

6 Persian cucumbers, thinly sliced (about 4 cups)  

Leaves from 1 bunch of cilantro  

Leaves from 1 bunch of mint 

1 to 2 jalapeños, thinly sliced, seeds removed or not, to taste  

Fine sea salt, to taste  

Cooked rice or rice noodles, for serving (optional) 

Steps 

1. Grate 1 garlic clove into a small bowl, then stir in honey, lime zest, salt and pepper.  

2. Cut 1-inch deep slits all over pork. Rub marinade all over, and into slits, and let sit for at least 30 minutes at room temperature, or even better, cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.  

3. Slice remaining 4 garlic cloves. Set electric pressure cooker to sauté (or use a large skillet), and add oil. Once it’s hot, add half the garlic and cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer with slotted spoon to plate lined with a paper towel and sprinkle liberally with salt. Repeat with remaining garlic, adding more oil if needed.  

4. Add pork to pot and sear until browned all over, about 2 minutes per side.  

5. Add cilantro stems to pot with pork (reserve leaves for salad). Add 3/4 cup water, fish sauce, vinegar and chili to pot. Set to cook for 90 minutes on high pressure. Manually release steam. Let pork cool until you can handle it, then shred it into bite-size pieces while still warm. Pork can be made up until this point up to 3 days ahead (store it in the refrigerator).  

6. While pork cools, strain liquid from bottom of pot. Pour off fat, or chill liquid and scoop off fat.  

7. When ready to serve, heat the broiler. Transfer pork to a rimmed baking sheet, and toss with a tablespoon or two of the reserved cooking liquid (just enough to coat it without making it soggy). Broil until crisped on top, 2 to 3 minutes; it will char in some places, and that’s fine.  

8. Cut top and bottom off pomelo or grapefruit. Stand fruit up on cutting board on a flat end, then slice off the peel and pith, letting your knife follow curve of fruit. Working over a large bowl to catch the juices, slice the segments away from the membranes, letting fruit fall into the bowl.  

9. In a small bowl, whisk together 1/3 cup reserved pork cooking liquid, lime juice and honey. Add mixture to bowl with pomelo or grapefruit and toss in cucumbers, cilantro leaves from the two bunches, mint and sliced jalapeño. Season with salt to taste.  

10. In a large bowl, toss shredded pork with more cooking liquid to taste. Serve pork with salad topped with garlic chips, with rice or rice noodles if you like.


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