Our food editor, Barney, talks us through the merits of one of his favourite pieces of kitchen kit - a hob-top pressure cooker.
Last year, I discovered the joys of pressure cooking when a clever food stylist, stuck for time, ignored the instructions to slow-roast some ribs for three hours and simply popped them in her new pressure cooker for just 30 minutes. The ribs were so tender, the meat literally slipped off the bones. They were the best ribs I’d ever tasted and, straight after the shoot, I went off and bought a pressure cooker.
Since then, it has become one of my most-used bits of kitchen kit, and revolutionised the way I cook on weeknights. I’m as short of time as anyone else, but I can now make a stew, casserole or braise meat in under an hour, and a risotto can be on the table in half the usual time, with very little stirring. Speed isn’t the only advantage of pressure cookers – they also preserve nutrients and vitamins, as well as being a more economical way to cook.
Buy the best
If you still think of pressure cookers as that pan rattling away on the stove, about to blow a gasket, then think again. Today’s pressure cookers have been updated and are simple to use.
• There are some high-tech models on the market that come with detachable timers and easy-lock systems. These are good, but I find a good-quality, simple pan with a long handle more versatile, as you can also use it as a large saucepan.
• All pressure cookers work on the same principle, but they can differ hugely in price. As a pressure cooker is just an extension of a saucepan, the same quality points apply. Generally, the more expensive models are made of better quality metal and have a thicker base.
• Pressure cookers come in a range of sizes, but as they are ideal for batch cooking, it doesn’t make sense to buy one any smaller than 5 litres.
• The one I use at home for my family of four is the Swiss-made 5-litre Kuhn Rikon Duromatic Inox pressure cooker, which costs about £100. It’s big enough for a whole chicken or to make enough stew for 12 servings.
• It’s worth buying a trivet or steamer basket, so you can also cook ingredients that don’t need to be in direct contact with liquid, like a steamed pudding.
Get the best out of it
While they are invaluable when it comes to braising, stewing and transforming tough cuts of meat, and cooking ingredients like dried pulses from scratch, pressure cookers are less successful with delicate foods like fish or green veg, as they use such a high heat. There are ways around it though. You can add fish to your dish at the end of the cooking time (simmer it gently without pressure), after the other ingredients are done, for example.
• With pressure cooker recipes, all cooking times should be taken only from when the level of pressure is reached, at which point you should lower the heat but try to maintain the same level of pressure for the time stated. This can involve turning the heat up and down during the cooking process or moving the pan to different sized gas rings.
• Remember that pressure cooking is a wet cooking method and you should never try to cook anything in a pressure cooker without at least a 2cm layer of liquid in the bottom of it.
• Pressure cookers are great for stews and making tough cuts tender but the liquid used doesn’t reduce while cooking, so be prepared to simmer things down to intensify the flavour once the lid comes off.
• For a pressure cooker to work there needs to be space for steam to build into pressure, so never fill it up any more than half way.
• With stovetop pressure cookers there are two ways of releasing the pressure. Firstly you can let the pressure drop naturally which will mean that the food continues to cook as the pressure drops. When you want the pressure to drop quickly, place the pan under the cold tap.
How it saves money
• Food cooks in around a third of the usual time, so you use less fuel.
• If you favour cheaper cuts of meat over more quick-to-cook (and pricier) cuts, this is where your pressure cooker will help, by stewing or braising in about the same time it takes to roast or pan-fry.
• Pressure cookers are ideal for cooking very cheap ingredients like dried beans and pulses from scratch – saving on cooked or canned varieties.
Barney's top tip
It’s essential to use the timer, as the food cooks so quickly that just one or two minutes can be the difference between a perfect or ruined dish – especially when cooking with vegetables.
Try one of our pressure cooker recipes...
A pressure cooker delivers the creamiest risotto without constant stirring - and it takes only 20 minutes to cook.
I’m convinced that a pressure cooker is the best way to cook cheap cuts like these short ribs (above left), and braising them with Asian flavours makes a change from the norm. This has been a big success at dinner parties. When people ask how I got the meat so tender, I proudly say: ‘With my pressure cooker!’
Do you use a pressure cooker? We'd love to hear how you use it. Plus, if you're a fan of kitchen kit, we have a guide to slow cookers, too...