The first few weeks of school crushed me. The morning logistics, the exhausted, emotional children, the after-school activities that seemed to take us farther away and stretch longer into the evening. And my boys seemed to be hungrier and hungrier. They came home from school and headed straight for the fridge. They were the poster children for “hangry” when they returned home after sports. I had been warned that this day would come, but I couldn’t feed them fast enough.
In response, I dredged up the pressure cooker that a family friend had given me as a wedding present with a note saying it would help me run an efficient household. At the time, I laughed — and stuck it in the storage room to collect dust for 18 years. I’m not sure why I saved it, but, boy, am I glad I did, because now I am desperate for ways to run an efficient household. I’m on Night 7 of the pressure-cooking experiment, and I have a feeling this little machine is going to save me.
What’s so impressive about a pressure cooker? A pressure cooker cooks food fast — generally in a third or less of the time it takes other cooking methods. Don’t believe me? Last night’s risotto took seven minutes. It’s enough to make a parent swear off takeout.
Last winter I adopted the slow-cooker, but a slow-cooker is truly a tool for the highly organized cook: someone who can plan dinner in advance and get it brewing before school and work. The pressure cooker, which would sell so much better if it were more aptly named the “fast-cooker,” is a tool for the last-minute cook or someone whose mornings are too hectic for them to even think about dinner — in other words, most of us.
If you aren’t sold, just imagine walking in the door at 7 p.m. with a pork loin or a salmon steak in hand and witnessing it cook completely in five short minutes. That’s barely enough time to change your clothes and say hello to the kids. Rice cooks in six minutes. Quinoa in one. Take that, boys. You and your hangry need for food now have been matched.
How it Works
A pressure cooker works by trapping hot steam in a pot, which builds pressure and cooks food quickly. I wondered whether lots of nutrients are lost in the high-pressure temperatures, but quickly found that they are not. A study in the Journal of Food Science confirmed that pressure-cooking broccoli preserved 90 percent of its vitamin C, while steaming preserved 78 percent and boiling only 66 percent. Because vitamins and minerals do not leach into cooking water in a pressure cooker, fewer nutrients are lost. Also, when foods are cooked for shorter periods of time, there is less time for nutrients to escape.
A wide variety of foods can be cooked in a pressure cooker, including soups, stews, vegetables and meats. Our favorites have been fish curry (cooked in five minutes) and pork (cooked in 15).
Shopping and Cooking Advice
If you didn’t get one of these tools as a wedding present, America’s Test Kitchen evaluated many of the models on the market and suggests you look for these qualities in a pressure cooker:
• Material: Stainless steel over aluminum. Aluminum can convey a metallic taste.
• Size: Eight quarts over six. A pressure cooker must not be filled more than two-thirds, so you will want the extra space.
• Heat source: Stove top over electric for safety and the ability to quick-release by running the top under cold water.
• Shape: Wide over tall. A wider container makes seeing and stirring the food easier, plus it allows more surface area for browning. Sides should be straight, without any metal overhang that can cause burning.
• Bottom: A thick disc-shaped bottom.
• Pressure indicator: One that can be seen from across the room.
A few other things I have learned:
• When adding greens such as spinach, arugula or herbs, stir them in at the end, after the pressure has been released, as they lose flavor if cooked under pressure.
• The cooking time begins when pressure has been reached and not before.
• Don’t unlock until the pressure releases.
• If you have an old machine, make sure all the pieces are in working order. The rubber ring on the lid, for example, can grow brittle over time.
First published in the Washington Post on Thursday, September 25, 2014.