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While there are several electric pressure cookers on the market (other well-reviewed ones include the Breville Fast Slow Pro and the Cuisinart CPC-600), the Instant Pot seems to inspire a special intensity of devotion. The Instant Pot Community Facebook group (where people trade tips on how to cook everything from cheesecake to barbecued pork chops) has over 400,000 members. The Instant Pot is the #1 bestselling item in the Kitchen & Home department on Amazon.com (with 17, 211 customer reviews when I checked, most of them positive).
But none of those things won me over. In the end, I decided to check out the Instant Pot for 2 reasons:
1. A lot of serious cooks were also freaking out about it.
My youngest daughter Lydia is 22 months old, and in a seriously clingy phase. When I cook she is right alongside me, clutching a handful of my clothing and sob-screaming at me to pick her up. My husband usually swoops in, but she invariably escapes and darts right back to my side. So lately, cooking has stopped feeling quite so zen and the interval between getting home and getting everyone fed has become the most stressful part of my day.
Could a pressure-cooker take the pressure off of my weeknight family meals? I decided to find out.
I borrowed an Instant Pot from a friend, and cooked with it for a week. For me, this meant making breakfasts and dinners in it—lunch is generally tupperwared leftovers. I tried out recipes that I typically make during the week–pasta with sauce, a whole chicken, chilis, and stews—plus a handful of recipes that I usually wouldn’t attempt between Monday and Friday (I’m looking at you, risotto).
I used two cookbooks: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook For Your Instant Pot by Kathy Hester and Paleo Cooking With Your Instant Pot by Jennifer Robins (I’m neither paleo- nor vegan, but I figured the two would balance each other out), as well as the vast number of recipes posted online by Instant Pot enthusiasts.
Here's what I learned.
The Instant Pot Is MUCH Simpler Than It Looks
Like a traditional pressure cooker—the kind you might use on a stovetop—The Instant Pot reduces cooking times by trapping the steam from boiling liquids. The trapped steam increases the pressure inside the pot, which raises the maximum temperature that the liquid can reach. In other words, cooking food inside a pressure cooker cooks at higher temperatures than you can reach with non-pressurized cooking. It’s a simple concept that starts to seem really, really complicated when you’re getting ready to cook with the Instant Pot for the first time.
The hardest part about getting started with the Instant Pot was, well, getting started with it. The thing has a control panel with 20 different labels, and the product manual felt as technical as the one for my station wagon. I finally put it away and instead referred to the introductory chapters of my two cookbooks, which helpfully zeroed in on the buttons I would use most:
- Manual: lets you adjust the pressure cooking time and temperature using + and – buttons.
- Sauté: is for sautéing right in the pot, for cooking onions and browning meat and such before adding ingredients for pressure cooking.
- Keep Warm/Cancel: to end the sauté function and transition to pressure cooking.
Once I realized I could ignore the rest of the buttons and labels, my panic subsided and I started cooking.
It Threw Off My Mornings
The first meal I made in the Instant Pot was breakfast. I followed a recipe for pear cardamom steel-cut oats with a pressure-cooking time of 3 minutes. I usually make overnight steel-cut oats in a rice cooker, so they’re ready when I roll out of bed, but 3 minutes in the morning didn’t sound like much more work! I added the oats, water, and cardamom to the pot, locked the lid, set the timer, and waited.
Which is when I learned that the Instant Pot doesn’t always save you that much time. In addition to the time that each recipe cooks once pressurized (3 minutes, in this case), there’s an unspecified interval when you are waiting for the Instant Pot to reach its pressurized state. In the case of the oatmeal, this was another 5 minutes. When it was done, it had made half the volume I was expecting. Happily, because it cooked so quickly, I was able to make a second batch in 8 minutes for the grownups while the kids ate theirs. Still, the waiting around for the Instant Pot to pressurize didn’t feel like time saved–it felt like time wasted.
Similarly, once the pot has pressurized, it needs to de-pressurize before it is safe to open. There are two ways to depressurize the Instant Pot: one is manually, by turning a valve on the lid to vent steam—a method that one cookbook called “manually releasing” pressure and another called “quick pressure release”. Whatever you call it, this is the faster way to get to your food—it takes just a minute or so. (Also, it is extremely important to wear an oven mitt and keep exposed skin far from the vent: steam jets out of the valve and shoots several feet into the air when you use this method.)
But not all recipes will turn out if you vent the steam manually. For some, instructions say to let the pressure release naturally—which is to say, you need to account for some waiting-around time as the pressure cooker depressurizes on its own. (There’s a little silver peg that drops down when the lid is safe to open). This can add anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes to your cook time.
It Gave Me Back My Evenings
Dinner was the magic meal for the Instant Pot in my household. This is where my skepticism well and truly evaporated.
I was super excited to find a recipe for one-pot pasta, which called for putting dried pasta noodles in the pot, covering them with a watery sauce, and pressure cooking them together. It took 25 minutes altogether and came out pretty well: the noodles cooked to al-dente (a little unevenly, but all were cooked through), and absorbed a lot of the sauce; and while that’s roughly as long as it would have taken me to make the same meal on the stovetop, I enjoyed the novel experience of ignoring the food and instead helping my older daughter with her homework while snuggling the baby. (Scroll through my efforts below to see how each dish went—and see recipe links at the bottom of the story.)
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One night, I made a whole chicken (showered with cumin and salt and cooked with a single chopped onion for 25 minutes). The meat was super juicy and suffused with the flavor of cumin, which had penetrated throughout the meat, and the skin had the sticky texture of steamed chicken feet from a dim sum cart (which I happen to love, but not everyone will appreciate). I shredded the breast meat for chicken tacos, saved the dark meat for a killer chicken salad, and that same night, tossed the carcass in the Instant Pot to make a 2-hour chicken stock. Ordinarily making stock would take 4 hours or more, and I’d do it on a weekend. Instead, the Instant Pot did its thing while my husband and I did ours: putting the kids to bed and binge-watching The Santa Clarita Diet.
I’ve Got Two New Tools For Weeknight Dinners
After a week of pressure cooking, was I sold on the Instant Pot? Definitely. But would I want to cook with it exclusively? Definitely not. I missed the caramelized flavors and the roasty crunch I get from cooking things in the oven, and I missed eating vegetables that still had some crispness to them.
But the more valuable thing I learned from my week with the Instant Pot was realizing what was missing from my standard routine. By engrossing myself at the stove from the minute I got home from work, I was missing out—on time with my young kids, on time with my spouse, and on time to myself. By committing to a mostly hands-off way of making dinner for a week, I found my weekdays could be way calmer and happier all around–and that we could still share a home-cooked meal together at the end of it.
It wasn’t so much what I was cooking before as how I was cooking that was stressing me out. Going forward, whether dinner gets made in an Instant Pot or in the oven or on the stove, I want to make a point of building in time to give more attention to my family, or myself, depending on what the day calls for. It might take a little longer for dinner to get on the table, but I think we’re all going to be happier when we finally do sit down to eat.
Want To Try Out The Instant Pot?
The version I tried out is the 6-quart Instant Pot IP DUO-60, retailing for $99.99 on Amazon.com.
My favorite recipes were: