Under pressure

When my friend Ivy convinced me to take up yogurt making last May— I blogged about it just recently —it was because she’d started making yogurt in her new electric multi-cooker/pressure cooker. Actually, my blog post about yogurt-making was also prompted by someone who’d bought an electric pressure cooker. That person was a stranger, but they’d posted to a cooking-related Facebook group of which we’re both members.

I have been making yogurt with a little $16 yogurt-maker, and it does just fine, but that doesn’t mean I’m not fascinated by the multi-cookers. I own a good old-fashioned stovetop pressure cooker, and I do use it every now and then for chili or to cook artichokes or something like that.

Anyway, I decided I was in a position to start thinking about getting an electric pressure cooker/multi-cooker. They come in a wide variety of price ranges, but not all multi-cookers are pressure cookers and not all of them have a dedicated yogurt-making function. I wanted something that was a true pressure cooker, and I wanted something that would replace my yogurt-maker. But I also didn’t want to spend a huge amount of money.

I decided that I would keep my eyes open. I might wait until I got my tax refund, or if I found a good deal I might jump on it right away.

I think I found a good deal. It’s by a company called GoWise USA. I jumped on it.

The cooker won’t arrive until late next week, but I’ve already downloaded a PDF of the manual online, as well as the manufacturer’s recipe book, and I ordered a generic electric pressure cooker cookbook for my Kindle.

Many of you, I’m sure, are already familiar with these devices, but you all know that I love Explaining Things, and so indulge me a little bit.

An electric pressure cooker is a self-contained countertop device that functions similarly to those stovetop pressure cookers. But the modern types have programmable electronic controls and sensors that make them a lot easier to use than the stovetop cookers.

Many of them also have functions that don’t involve cooking under pressure. Some of them, for example, can also function as slow cookers.

But let’s focus on the pressure cooking for a moment. When you’re cooking something on the stove, the hottest you can ever really get it is the boiling point of water at your altitude (it’s 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level). In the oven, you may think you’re cooking at 450 degrees, but a meat thermometer tells you that the center of that roast is only 165. (Good thing; you would not want a roast that was actually cooked to 450.) The 450 degrees refers to the air temperature in the oven, but the food never really gets that hot.

If you put some liquid in a vessel, seal it shut, and then heat it, the liquid tries to evaporate. But the heat raises the air pressure inside the vessel, which raises the boiling point of water. So food cooked in a pressure cooker gets hotter, which means it cooks more quickly. And the pressure holds moisture and nutrients in the food which might be lost in other cooking methods.

The pressure cookers of a century ago were dangerous and could explode if overheated. Today’s pressure cookers, including the stovetop models, have built-in safety valves and vents which prevent this from happening.

Stovetop pressure cookers cook things quickly, but they also require some fussing. You have to watch the cooker carefully while bringing it up to just the right pressure. My stovetop pressure cooker has a little rocker, a cylindrical weight that bobs up and down on top of a central vent on the pressure cooker’s lid. You want to get the cooker hot enough that the rocker jiggles and hisses a little bit, but not hot enough that it shakes violently.

When the cooker gets to the desired pressure, you cut back on the heat to whatever perfect setting will maintain the status quo— but sometimes, I cut back a little too much and the rocker stops moving altogether. Then I have to cut the heat back up a little bit. So I have to give back some of the time I’ve gained in quicker cooking because I have to pay closer attention.

Electric pressure cookers take care of all of this for you. If you program a cooking time of 10 minutes into an electric pressure cooker, you turn it on and it automatically brings itself up to the proper pressure, and maintains that pressure. It won’t start the timer until pressure is reached.

The electric units do not reach quite as high a pressure as the stovetop pressure cookers, but it’s high enough that they still cook foods quite quickly. And, unlike the stovetop models, they don’t have to be fussed with while cooking.

When cooking is done, the unit will beep and the heat will turn off. Depending on the recipe, you can either let the pressure reduce gradually, by itself, as the unit cools off and a few safety valves gradually release small amounts of steam. Or, you can release the pressure yourself, all at once, by opening a steam valve in the lid. Many electric pressure cooker recipes call for a combination of the two — let the cooker rest for 10 minutes, for example, and then release the remaining steam.

Most of the popular electric pressure cookers have a variety of buttons for pre-programmed settings — a “rice” button, a “beans” button, a “soup” button, a “meat” button, and so on. Please note — there are also some “multi-cookers” that have similar control panels and program settings but which don’t cook under pressure.

Because of the way pressure cooking works, these electric pressure cookers are praised for making possible quick, home-cooked weeknight meals. You can toss rock-hard frozen chicken breasts into an electric pressure cooker along with a little bit of flavorful broth, maybe some other seasonings, push a few buttons and cook them to juicy perfection in just a few minutes. You can cook dry spaghetti right in the sauce, just by adding a little extra water before sealing everything up. You can even, by using a lower-pressure setting, cook perfect hard-boiled eggs. The eggs don’t actually boil; you have them on a wire rack above the water, and they steam inside the pressure cooker.

You can also cook rice. In addition to replacing my yogurt-maker, the pressure cooker will replace my rice-maker.

The yogurt-making doesn’t actually rely on pressure cooking (you leave the steam vent open, so the machine never builds up any pressure). Right now, when I make yogurt, I must scald the milk to 180 degrees in a saucepan on the stove, using a clip-on thermometer to check the temperature, then cool it down before adding the starter culture and loading it into my yogurt maker, which holds the proper 110 degree temperature allowing the yogurt to ferment.

The nice part about doing this in a multi-cooker is that it handles both of those functions, all in the same pot, without the need to dirty a saucepan. The cooker scalds the milk for the proper time. Then you take the inner pot out of the cooker for a few minutes to allow the milk to more quickly cool off to 110 degrees. Add the starter culture, put the pot back into the cooker, activate the second half of the yogurt function, and the multi-cooker will hold it at 110 degrees, just as the yogurt-maker does, for eight hours or more.

I’m looking forward to steaming artichokes in the pressure cooker. They’re one of my favorite things to cook in my stovetop pressure cooker.

I’ve already told my editor that I’ll write some sort of cooking feature about the device after I’ve had the chance to try it out.

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