The single best way to save money on food, experts say, is to cook at home instead of eating out. Yet, according to the Washington Post, Americans these days cook less than ever – mostly because they don’t have the time.
This means any tool that saves you time in the kitchen can also save you money, because it helps put home-cooked meals back within your reach. Most people know they can save time by cooking with microwaves and slow cookers. However, fewer know about another kitchen gadget that can be an even bigger time-saver: the pressure cooker.
Until recently, most people thought of pressure cookers as old relics of the ’70s – like the massive tub that used to sit on my parents’ counter, its pressure valve hissing and rocking on top as it cooked our veggies. But these days, pressure cookers are coming back into vogue. The Instant Pot, an electric pressure cooker that doubles as a slow cooker, is one of the hottest items on Amazon.com, selling more than 215,000 units on Prime Day 2016 alone, BusinessWire reports. Pressure cookers have even been featured on popular cooking shows like Iron Chef.
But the pressure cooker is more than just a fad. It’s a genuinely useful device that can save you both time and money in the kitchen. Here’s a closer look at how pressure cookers work and how they can help you fit home cooking into a busy schedule.
How Pressure Cookers Work
A pressure cooker works by cooking food with high-pressure steam. It has four basic parts:
- A sturdy metal pot
- A lid that completely covers the pot and locks into place
- A flexible gasket that fits inside the lid to create an airtight seal
- A valve on top of the lid to release excess steam
When you heat water in the pot, it turns to steam, raising the pressure inside the pot. As the pressure builds up inside the pot, it makes it harder for water molecules in the remaining liquid to turn to gas, raising the boiling point of the water. Water normally boils at 212°F (100°C), but inside a pressure cooker, the boiling point can get as high as 250°F (120°C).
Pressure cookers speed cooking in two ways. First, the higher heat inside the pot cooks food faster than you can with ordinary boiling water or steam. Second, the high pressure forces the moisture into the food, so it heats through quickly.
A pressure cooker can cook nearly any food faster than baking or boiling. For foods that take an hour or longer to cook on the stove, such as dry beans or brown rice, the pressure cooker can cut cooking time by as much as 70%. Faster-cooking foods like white rice can be ready in a matter of minutes.
Pressure cooking has other advantages, too. The high-pressure cooking preserves the flavor of food in a way that ordinary steaming can’t. And the high temperatures inside the pressure cooker can even allow food to brown and caramelize, producing rich, complex flavors that you normally can’t get when cooking with water.
How a Pressure Cooker Saves You Money
A pressure cooker doesn’t just save you time in the kitchen; it also saves you money. Cooking with a pressure cooker saves energy and opens up a whole new range of cheaper food options for busy cooks. Here are a few of the ways this magical kitchen device can put money in your wallet.
It Uses Less Energy
Because a pressure cooker can get dinner ready in less time, it also uses less energy. For example, let’s say you want to cook a beef pot roast. Normally, you’d have to brown the meat first, then cook it in a 300°F oven for two to three hours. In a pressure cooker, you could cook that same pot roast in just one hour after browning.
Because you’ve cut your cooking time by about 66%, you also cut your energy use by the same amount. According to energy expert Michael Bluejay, a typical electric oven on medium heat uses about 2,000 watts of energy. That means running it for three hours would use 6 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy. Cooking the pot roast in the pressure cooker instead would cut your energy use down to around 2 kWh.
Now, let’s say you did this once a week. Over the course of an entire year, you’d save a total of 208 kWh. According to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the average cost of electricity across the country is $0.127 per kWh. Thus, cooking one meal a week with your pressure cooker would put an extra $26.42 in your pocket from electricity savings alone.
It Keeps Your Kitchen Cool
Cooking a meal in the summertime can pump a lot of heat into your kitchen. Your air conditioner has to work harder to remove all that excess heat, which jacks up your electric bill. So, anything you can do to reduce the amount of heat in your kitchen can also help you save money on air conditioning.
A central air conditioning system consumes about 3,500 watts of power, so for every extra hour you use it, you’re adding 3.5 kWh to your electric bill. If you cut your summer AC use by just 2 hours per week over the course of an entire summer, you could save around 50 kWh, for an extra $6.35 in electricity savings.
You Can Use Cheaper Cuts of Meat
One of the best ways to save money on meat is to use cheaper cuts, like shoulder of lamb, shin of beef, chuck roast, or flank steak. Unfortunately, these cheaper cuts also tend to be tougher. It usually takes long, slow cooking over low heat to make them tender and tasty.
Unless you have a pressure cooker. The high-pressure steam inside is great for breaking down those tougher muscle fibers. With the pressure cooker, you can enjoy a tender roast without having to choose between paying $7 a pound or waiting three hours for dinner.
It Cooks Dried Beans Fast
Another way to spend less money on meat is simply to eat less of it. Food price lists from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that a pound of meat costs anywhere from $1.40 for whole chicken to $8.70 for sirloin steak. By contrast, you pay only $1.40 for a pound of dry beans that turns into roughly three pounds when cooked – about $0.47 per pound. Substituting just one pound of cooked beans for a pound of meat each week could save you anywhere from $50 to $400 per year.
Unfortunately, while dry beans are a cheap and healthy source of protein, they can also be a pain to work with. If you want to make a bean dish for dinner on a weeknight, you have to put the beans in a pot of cold water to soak before you leave for work. Then, when you get home, you have to drain them, rinse them with fresh water, and cook them for another 60 to 90 minutes before you can even add them to your recipe. For most people, that’s too long to wait for dinner.
However, a pressure cooker can cut this cooking time in half. Once the beans have been soaked and rinsed, the pressure cooker can have them tender and ready to use in anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes total. According to Pressure Cooking Today, you can even cook beans in the pressure cooker without soaking them first. It adds between 20 to 40 minutes to the cooking time, but if you choose quick-cooking beans, you can still go from completely dry beans to a cooked meal in under an hour.
It Makes Homemade Meals Fast
It’s no surprise that after a long day at the office, the last thing many people want to do is come home and spend an hour making dinner. Picking up a pizza sounds a lot quicker and easier. Unfortunately, it’s also a lot pricier.
A 2015 analysis in the Los Angeles Times found that a large cheese pizza can cost anywhere from $8 to $23.49, depending on where in the country you live. By contrast, the USDA calculates that a whole week’s worth of home-cooked meals for two adults can cost as little as $78.70 – about $3.75 per meal. That’s a savings of $4.25 to $19.74 per meal. If that couple could manage to cook at home one extra night per week instead of ordering take-out, they could save $221 to $1,026.48 per year.
With a pressure cooker, that’s a much easier choice to make. You can come home from work, toss some ingredients in the pressure cooker, and have a complete one-pot meal ready in half an hour. The best part is that you don’t have to plan ahead like you do with a slow cooker. Instead of having to throw dinner into the pot while rushing to get out the door in the morning, you can start cooking when you get home and still have dinner on the table at a reasonable hour.
It Helps You Eat Healthier
Cooking at home isn’t just cheaper – it’s also healthier. A 2017 study at the University of Washington School of Public Health found that people who cook at home more often, instead of eating out, tend to meet more of the federal guidelines for a healthy diet.
That’s important, because eating right is one of the most important things you can do to stay healthy. Better health means lower medical bills, fewer sick days, and more productivity at work – all of which add up to more money in your pocket.
A pressure cooker is a particularly good tool for making healthy meals. For example, cooking vegetables in a pressure cooker uses less water than boiling or steaming them, which helps them retain more of their nutrients. It also preserves flavors better, so you won’t need to add as much salt to your meals.
Pressure cooking also makes it easier to work with healthy ingredients. For instance, it allows you to use dry beans instead of canned beans, which come with a side helping of salt and preservatives. It can also shorten the cooking time for all kinds of nutritious whole grains, such as brown rice and whole oats.
How to Buy a Pressure Cooker
These days, you can buy pressure cookers pretty much anywhere kitchen wares are sold. Home goods stores like Bed Bath & Beyond have a wide selection, but you can also find them in department stores like Sears and big-box stores like Target and Walmart.
There are two basic kinds of pressure cookers: electric models and stovetop models. What to look for in a pressure cooker depends on which type you’re shopping for.
Electric Pressure Cookers
Electric pressure cookers, such as the Instant Pot, contain their own heating elements that are powered by electricity. These are ideal for the cook who likes to “set it and forget it.” You can just load in all the ingredients, seal the pot, switch it on, and walk away.
Most electric pressure cookers are actually multi-cookers, which means they can also function as a slow cooker, rice cooker, or steamer. However, all these features can also make electric pressure cookers complicated to use. Their arrays of buttons, menus, and electronic displays can be intimidating, especially at first. Experts recommend looking for a model with a simple, intuitive user interface that’s easy to read.
Some electric pressure cookers have nonstick interiors. This can make them easier to clean, but they’re also vulnerable to being scratched. Uncoated stainless-steel pots are more durable.
Electric pressure cookers typically range from 6 to 8 quarts in size. They can cost anywhere from $60 to over $200, but most models fall into the $100 to $150 range.
Stovetop Pressure Cookers
Stovetop pressure cookers get their heat from a stove burner, just like any other pot. This design gives you a little more control over the cooking process than you get with an electric model. For example, you can quickly depressurize the pot by running cold water over the lid. Some stovetop cookers offer two pressure settings: low for delicate foods like fish, and high for heartier fare.
Stovetop pressure cookers also heat up hotter than electric models. This means they work slightly faster and are better for searing meat or caramelizing vegetables. If you’re planning to use your pot for browning meat, a wider shape with a large surface area works better because you can cook larger batches.
Stovetop pressure cookers come in a wide range of sizes. You can get a 4-quart models to make meals for one or two people or a 10-quart model that can feed a crowd. In general, the larger the cooker you choose, the more you should expect to pay.
Prices for stovetop pressure cookers vary widely. You can pay as little as $20 for a small, basic model, or upwards of $300 for a larger, high-end model with top-quality construction. Experts say you can get a sturdy, 8-quart cooker with two pressure settings for $100 or less.
Using Your Pressure Cooker
A pressure cooker isn’t just for stewing meat and cooking beans. This incredibly versatile tool can be used for all kinds of food, from chicken soup to cheesecake.
However, there is a learning curve to using it. Cooking with a pressure cooker is a very different experience from browning meat in a pan or boiling potatoes in a pot. You can’t watch your food as it cooks, adjusting the heat and tasting it to see how it’s doing. To enjoy the many benefits of a pressure cooker, you have to start by learning a whole new cooking process.
Steps in Cooking
Pressure-cooking sites often talk about how certain foods take only a few minutes to cook in the pressure cooker. However, what they don’t say is that this is the amount of time the foods spend cooking after the cooker has come up to full pressure. The entire cooking process has more steps than that, so overall cooking time is a bit longer.
Here’s how you prepare a meal in the pressure cooker:
- Prepare Your Ingredients. Like any other cooking method, pressure cooking can’t start until you have your food prepared. Ingredients like veggies and herbs have to be chopped. Also, if your recipe includes meat that needs to be browned, doing this is a separate step. Some electric pressure cookers, such as the Instant Pot, have a sauté function that you can use to brown meat right in the pot before you add the other ingredients. If yours doesn’t, you’ll have to brown it in a separate pan before adding it to the pot. If you’re using a stovetop pressure cooker, you can brown the meat in the pot the way you would with any other pan.
- Load the Pot. Load in all your ingredients, then pour the appropriate amount of liquid into the pressure cooker. Be sure to use exactly the amount the recipe calls for, as too much or too little steam will mess up the cooking process. If you browned meat in the pressure cooker, you’ll need to let it cool a bit before you add the rest of the ingredients. Otherwise, some of the liquid could evaporate when it hits the hot pot.
- Lock the Lid. It’s important to make sure the lid is properly locked in place before you start cooking. For safety reasons, modern pressure cookers are designed so they can’t come up to pressure if the lid isn’t locked. Most pressure cookers have markings on both the pot and the lid that you can line up to show you when the lid is locked in place.
- Add the Pressure Valve. Some pressure cookers have the pressure valve built into the lid, but others have a separate pressure regulator that balances on the top. If your pressure cooker has a separate rocking valve, screw it into place once you’ve locked the lid. It will sit loosely on top of the vent pipe, not actually touching the lid.
- Bring It Up to Pressure. Start heating the pressure cooker. If you’re using an automatic electric cooker, you can walk away at this point – the machine will take care of the rest of the process on its own. If you have a stovetop cooker, you’ll need to keep an eye on it. As steam builds up inside, the pressure will rise until the float valve on top starts to rock back and forth, letting off little puffs of air and steam. Eventually, the pressure indicator on top of the cooker will pop up, showing you that the cooker has reached full pressure.
- Watch the Clock. Once the valve on top of the cooker starts rocking, start your kitchen timer. Adjust the heat under the pressure cooker to keep the valve rocking at a slow, steady rate. If it rocks too fast, too much excess steam will escape, and your food could burn. Now, let your food cook for the required amount of time. Most pressure cookers come with a chart that shows how much time they need to cook specific types of food, or you can rely on your recipe for guidance.
- Release the Pressure. Once cooking is complete, you need to release the pressure inside the cooker before you can remove the lid. The simplest way to do this is a slow release: Turn off the heat and let the pressure cooker stand until all the pressure is released. However, this takes 10 to 20 minutes, so it’s not useful for any delicate foods that could overcook. If you need to release the pressure quickly, there are two ways to do it. With some pressure cookers, you can simply push a button to let off all the steam in a minute or two. Alternatively, if you have a stovetop cooker, you can take it to the sink and run cold water over the top to cool it down quickly.
- Remove the Lid. Once the pressure is completely reduced, you can remove the lid. If you have a screw-on pressure regulator, remove this first before unlocking the lid. Then turn the lid in the opposite direction from the way you put it on. Don’t force the lid; if it won’t turn, that means there’s still some pressure inside. Let the pot continue to cool until the lid turns easily.
People who remember the old pressure cookers of the ’60s and ’70s often think of these tools as unsafe. These old-school pressure cookers rattled and hissed alarmingly, and they were easy to misuse. They could scald you if you opened the lid too soon or even explode if the pressure got too high. Many people who used pressure cookers in those days recall horror stories about hot soup or tomato sauce splattered all over the kitchen.
Modern pressure cookers have safety features to prevent these problems. Their locking lids prevent you from opening the pot while it’s still under pressure. They also have backup pressure valves to let off steam if the main valve gets blocked.
However, it’s still important to handle your pressure cooker with care. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for filling, cleaning, and maintaining it to the letter. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Don’t Overfill. If the cooker is overfilled, the pressure relief valves can become blocked. The instruction manual for your pressure cooker should say how much it’s safe to fill it.
- Keep It Clean. After using your pressure cooker, make sure to clean the gasket and pressure valves thoroughly. If anything blocks them, the cooker won’t work properly. Examine these parts to make sure they’re clean and unclogged before you use the cooker again.
- Make Sure the Lid is Locked. It shouldn’t be possible to use your pressure cooker if the lid isn’t locked in place. However, you should still check each time to make sure it’s properly sealed. If the lid manages to come loose, it could go flying off when the pressure builds up.
- Never Force the Lid. You shouldn’t be able to remove the lid until the pressure has gone down. But if you force the lid, it could come off while the contents are still under pressure, sending a stream of hot food into your face. Don’t open the lid unless it turns easily.
- Replace Parts as Needed. Pressure cooker valves and gaskets wear out over time and need to be replaced. Your manual should have instructions about how often to replace yours. However, if you see that either part looks cracked, worn, soft, or sticky, you should replace it right away. You should also replace the ring if you ever see steam leaking out around the edges while you’re using the cooker.
What to Cook
The pressure cooker has countless uses. Here are a few of the dishes experts say it makes particularly well:
- Stock. Many cooks say the pressure cooker is the best way to make stock because the water can’t boil off the way it does in an open pot. Instead, it condenses back into the pot, carrying all the flavor of the original ingredients. Nathan Myhrvold of Modernist Cuisine says the pressure cooker can produce stock with only one-eighth as much material as a regular pot, and in as little as one-quarter of the time.
- Risotto. Making risotto on the stove is a hassle. To give this dish its signature creamy texture, you have to stir it constantly over low heat for at least 20 minutes while slowly spooning hot stock over it. However, when you make it in the pressure cooker, the rice stays bathed in moisture with no effort from you. Rob Mifsud of Slate says he was able to produce “superior, stir-free risotto” after just five and a half minutes at pressure. The same method also works for polenta.
- Braised Meats. Braising is a technique that involves frying meat lightly, then stewing it slowly in a closed container until it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender. This takes a long time on the stovetop, but the pressure cooker can do it in under an hour. Mifsud says his pressure cooker made “sublime” braised short ribs quickly enough for a weeknight dinner.
- Whole Grains. The pressure cooker can prepare whole grains in less than half the time they take on the stove. You can cook pearl barley in about 20 minutes at pressure, steel-cut oats in under 15 minutes, and wild rice in 25. Mifsud says his pressure cooker helped him discover the nutty flavor and “meaty” texture of oat groats, which he’d never ventured to try before because of their 45-minute cooking time. His pressure cooker makes them in only 18 minutes, and he finds them equally good topped with short ribs for a main course or cherries and Greek yogurt for dessert.
- Cheesecake. Amazingly enough, the pressure cooker even makes delicious cheesecake. When you make this dessert in an oven, you have to use low heat and let it cool slowly in the oven with the door open so it doesn’t dry out and crack. But if you simply place your cheesecake pan on a trivet inside the pressure cooker, with water underneath, it stays perfectly moist.
However, experts caution that pressure cooking isn’t ideal for every dish. The Slate article quotes Myhrvold as saying it’s not a good tool for any dish where “precise temperature control is critical.” Chef Laura Vieira, speaking to Reader’s Digest, says the pressure cooker can easily overcook delicate foods, such as fish and greens. However, she notes that after you’ve finished cooking the rest of the meal in the pressure cooker, you can add these ingredients to the hot pot and let them “gently simmer without the pressure.”
Pressure Cooker Recipes
There are several cooking sites that feature recipes for the pressure cooker. They include:
- Fagor America. Fagor is a manufacturer of pressure cookers. Its website offers recipes for a wide variety of dishes, including soups, stews, meats, seafood, veggies, grains, and desserts. There’s even a small section devoted to vegan and gluten-free dishes.
- Fast Cooking. The Fast Cooking site is run by Circular Input Products Ltd., a Canadian retailer of pressure cookers. You can find recipes here for meat, poultry, vegetables, beans, grains, soups, and desserts. If you want even more recipes, the site also sells cookbooks, such as “Pressure Cookers for Dummies” and “The Ultimate Pressure Cooker Cookbook.”
- Hip Pressure Cooking. At Hip Pressure Cooking, you can find not just recipes, but everything you ever wanted to know about pressure cookers. The site has cooking times for different foods, reviews of different pressure-cooker models, and all kinds of general information about using a pressure cooker.
- Serious Eats. Although Serious Eats isn’t specifically about pressure cooking, it has a roundup of 26 pressure cooker meals that can be made in an hour or less. The collection ranges from classic dishes like French onion soup to exotic recipes like pulpo gallego, a Galician octopus dish.
If you’re looking for a simple recipe to get you started, try this “1-Minute Quinoa,” from the Fagor America site. It requires only four ingredients – black quinoa, water, salt, and a lime – and one minute of cooking time at high pressure. (However, it also calls for the pressure to be released naturally after cooking, so total cooking time is closer to 20 minutes.)
Even if you have no fears about the safety of modern pressure cookers, it’s easy to be put off by their size and relatively high price tag. An 8-quart pressure cooker – either stovetop or electric – can cost around $100 and take up a good cubic foot of precious cabinet space. It’s easy to conclude that it’s not worth either the money or the space for an item you aren’t sure you’ll use.
However, most cooks are willing to devote just as much money and space to a large cooking pot – and a pressure cooker is just a pot with extra features. You can use it like any other pot for basic cooking tasks, but you can also turn on the pressure feature to make superb stock or perfectly cooked risotto. If you don’t have room in your kitchen for both, it makes more sense to choose the versatile pressure cooker, which can do everything a cooking pot does and then some.
Have you ever used a pressure cooker?