For many of us, our first recollection of a pressure cooker is of a scary pot that rattled, clanged and spluttered on our grandmother's stove. Some of us recall pressure cooker disasters where the lid was lifted too early, and the dinner was sprayed across the kitchen. Of course modern pressure cookers have come along way and are very safe and easy to use. They are great time-saving and energy-efficient cooking devices.
At a glance a pressure cooker looks a lot like a standard saucepan, but the lid has special seals and locks in place to maintain the steam pressure when cooking.
How does a pressure cooker work?
The temperature inside the sealed cooker can be increased above the boiling point of water (100 degrees Celsius) to about 120 degrees Celsius, using the build up of steam to increase the pressure and temperature. This allows a higher cooking temperature to be maintained using less heat over less time, and hence the pressure cooker will cook food faster and use less energy.
The pressure cooker has undergone a renaissance in the last few years as busy families discover the time-saving benefits of this cooking method — often with a reduction of up to 70 percent to standard cooking times. And often you can cook using just the one pot for tasty casseroles, as well as cooking larger quantities to be stored for later on.
Electric pressure cookers
Electric pressure cookers are relatively new to the market, and they may be an ideal choice if you have limited cooktop space. They have a built-in heating element, and many models offer digital controls to help you to monitor and maintain the cooker’s steam pressure, as well as set the cooking time. Generally electric pressure cookers operate at a slightly lower pressure level than a stovetop pressure cooker. Remember the heating element may wear out over the pressure cooker’s lifetime, so be sure to consider the warranty provided and the cost of replacing the element.
Stovetop pressure cookers
Stovetop pressure cookers, as the name suggests, sit atop your stove and the primary benefit is that many are able to be disassembled and put in the dishwasher for cleaning. Generally there are more stovetop models on the market, and they range in price based on the extra features and the material the pot is made from.
If you want the best quality pressure cooker — and one that is long lasting — select one with a heavy base made from stainless steel. This material is less likely to be damaged over time compared to the aluminium. Some cooking pots will have non-stick surfaces, which will aid in cleaning.
A good quality pressure cooker will come with a steam release valve or mechanism. This steam release means that you won’t need additional cooling time once cooking has finished. Be sure to ask how the steam is released: does it pour out in every direction, or does it flow upwards in one direction, which is better.
A pressure regulator or valve is another useful safety feature, as this will indicate when it is safe to release the lid on the pressure cooker. By adjusting the pressure settings, you can monitor and adjust the overall cooking time depending on the dish. Some cookers will have an LED display so you can monitor the cooking progress. The number of pressure settings may vary and some cookers will only have one; two is standard.
It’s important to remember that these safety features, when used correctly, make modern pressure cookers a breeze to use. If the pressure gets too high, the steam is released by the valve, thereby reducing the pressure and ensuring the pot doesn’t explode.
Size and weight
Pressure cooker sizes are measured in litres, and depending on the volume of cooking you plan to do the most versatile size is generally 6-8 litres, although a 6-litre capacity will not fit an entire chicken. Volumes of up to 12 litres are available. The weight of a pressure cooker can vary from 2.7kgs to over 5kgs. As noted above, a heavy base is important for even cooking and ensuring the food doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. But remember: if the cooker doesn’t have a steam release value you may need to lift it over the sink, so weight is an important factor. Note that the stated weight on the packaging may not include the lid, handles and the food within the cooker.
Make sure the pressure cooker’s handle mechanism is easy to use and locks the lid securely in place. Do the handles make the cooker easy to carry and to stir? Can they be removed for cleaning or to place them in a dishwasher? Is the lid as well as the pot dishwasher-safe?
Many pressure cookers also include extra features such as a steaming basket, which will keep the food above the liquid line and is handy if cooking vegetables for example. A rack, or trivet as it is also known, is generally standard with a pressure cooker. The racks will be made of aluminium of stainless steel, or, in the case of electric pressure cookers, plastic. The rack is used to lift the food off the bottom of the cooker and limit the chance of scorching the food during the cooking process.