A few years back, in that now-forgotten time before Instant Pots were a thing, I reviewed an electric pressure cooker and struggled mightily with it. It was supposed to be a safe, fast way to speed up cooking and promised to make slow-cooker style dinners appear in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, stovetop pressure cooker cookbooks didn’t really work for their slightly-less-powerful electric counterparts, and this one came with a mini-cookbook with recipes that tended to flop.
Flash forward to last fall when Instant Pot Mania was in full swing and I put the company’s Ultra cooker (a souped up version of their classic Duo) at the top of my Christmas list. Once I popped it out of the box, though, I quickly realized that sub-par manuals and not-so-great included recipes are par for the course.
Turns out that Instant Pot is notorious for this, so much so that it’s rumored to be reworking its manuals. The Instant Pot Community group on Facebook is too much of a jungle for beginners, and while my friend Lylah secured an invitation for me to Facebook’s secret Instant Pot for Indian Cooking group, it was clearly over my head.
While there is a mushrooming number of electric pressure cooker cookbooks out there (many with those awful, mansplainy covers), it’s hard to know which one will allow you to kick the tires and give you the foundation you need to bring this new tool into heavy rotation in your kitchen while making tested, tasty recipes.
Yet here we are with our own electric pressure cookers, or, more precisely, “multicookers” (they also do things like sauté and slow cook), and our excitement to make everything we can in them, and I was still missing the manual I needed.
All that to say that I was excited to see America’s Test Kitchen had a new book in the works.
I am a full-on cookbook devotee and faithful to my favorites: Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories, Cook’s Illustrated’s Best Recipe, and almost any cookbook with Naomi Duguid’s or Julia Child’s name on it. If I were looking for common threads running between them, they would be trusted palates and fail-proof recipes. They may be simple or complicated, but follow them to the letter and you’re guaranteed success.
My short-term goals with the America’s Test Kitchen book were to find similar success making chicken stock, cooking a pot roast at warp speed, whipping up risotto for lunch, and understanding how to quick-cook dried chickpeas, beans, and lentils. From there, I hoped I’d have the hang of it well enough to wing it and pressure cook something adapted from Hugh Acheson’s The Chef and The Slow Cooker.
America’s Test Kitchen’s new Multicooker Perfection spends the first 15 pages of the book both educating users and setting expectations. It should also be pointed out straight off that the Instant Pot Duo is not ATK’s favorite. The fact that it’s “recommended with reservations” is a mighty blow to the hallowed brand. Instead, among the six multicookers reviewed, it’s in fourth place, behind two Fagor models and one by GoWISE USA.
Everybody breathe. ATK’s big beef with the Duo is that it slow-cooks poorly. In short, the testers found that Instant Pot’s slow cooking temperature is so low that slow cooking becomes extra-slow cooking. In fact, ATK both customizes recipes for the Duo or it just says, “Do not use Instant Pot to slow cook this recipe.” Ouch!
It’s not the main reason you buy a pressure cooker, but slow cooking with a multicooker can be useful as it’s occasionally more practical to let something bubble away all day than to have to be around at the end of a short cook to let off the pressure.
Knowing this, I read all of those 15 first pages in Multicooker, picked out a few tasty-sounding recipes and started making tortilla soup. I sautéed tomatoes, onions, and garlic, added broth, whole chicken thighs, sealed the lid and set the pressure cooker function for five minutes.
Wait, what? Five minutes from onions to almost-done soup? Holy cow! All is forgiven!
It’s not quite that quick—multicooker users know that the countdown doesn’t begin until the unit is pressurized, which can be a couple minutes for meals without much liquid in there, or a while longer if you’re waiting for six cups of broth to heat up enough to build the pressure.
No matter. After those five minutes were up, I let the pressure out, shredded the thigh meat and put it back in the pot, sprinkling Cotija cheese and cilantro over my bowl, then adding a dollop of sour cream and a squeeze of lime. Along with some toasted tortillas, it made for a fantastic dinner.
I switched gears for the next meal, this time opting to understand the fuss around pressure cooker mac and cheese. The key here is that it’s not a quantum leap forward in macaroni technology, but it’s a dinner that allows you to dump uncooked pasta in cold water with some mustard powder and cayenne and hit start. After five minutes under pressure you stir in evaporated milk, cheddar, and Monterey Jack cheese, make sure the pasta is al dente, and Bob’s your uncle.
The more I cooked, the more I learned. Two keys I figured out were to get all the prep done ahead of time, and read the recipe all the way through before you do anything. Yes, you should do both of these anyway, but they’re more urgent with the pressure cooker. Things often move quickly from one step to the next in pressure cooker recipes, so it was particularly necessary to have everything ready for something like the Thai-braised eggplant, where you sauté several ingredients then add 1/2 cup of broth, which halts the browning and provides the liquid to make the steam and build pressure. If that half-cup isn’t measured out, you could end up with a scorching problem.
Cooking through these recipes also taught me what to watch out for and the limitations of multicookers. I learned to make extra sure to scrape all of the flavorful fond off the bottom of the pot after sautéing or browning food, especially if it was a dish with a thicker sauce, otherwise I’d get an unwanted “burn” message on the Ultra’s screen during the pressure cycle.
Speaking of searing, temper your expectations. My Ultra, which has the same searing capability as the Duo, left me wanting more. It could capably sauté onions but browning something like chicken legs was slow enough that I asked the manufacturer to ship me another Ultra just to make sure it wasn’t just mine. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
This isn’t just an Instant Pot problem. America’s Test Kitchen points out that some cookers have low, medium, and high sauté functions, while others have a “brown” option, and that you should use the hottest one. Regardless, an ATK spokesperson told me that “once you take that into account, the models all perform about the same.”
Now I know two things: it’s not my fault—yay!—and for a nice sear without a lot of waiting, I’ll use a skillet on my stove and transfer the browned food to the pot when it’s done.
I plowed on, picking up the pace, gaining confidence, and even riffing a bit. I made a pot roast from ATK’s 2013 Pressure Cooker Perfection, which hit the market before stovetop pressure cookers had been overtaken by the electric models. Since stovetop pressure cookers can build up a bit more pressure, they cook faster, so I cross-referenced what I was doing with Multicooker Perfection and it worked out very well. I also made Multicooker‘s chicken broth recipe, a classic of the pressure cooker genre, as it’s fast, flavorful and done in an hour. One very nice touch? After browning chicken wings and onions, the 12 cups of water that the recipe called for brought it right up to my six-quart pot’s fill line for pressure cooking.
Risotto was next, another pressure cooker classic since there’s no need for constant stirring. In fact, it goes so quickly that you can have the whole yummy shebang on the table in half an hour.
My only quibble with Multicooker Perfection is the curious omission of short sections for rice and grains, beans, and cuts of meat or vegetables cooked on their own. These were right up front in Pressure Cooker Perfection, and having that reference is a invaluable, especially for weeknight dinners.
Still, I’d run through enough recipes in the book that I felt comfortable enough to start spreading my wings. I had other recipes and cookbooks I wanted to explore, like the tamarind baby back ribs in Melissa Clark’s Dinner in an Instant. I also wanted to cross reference recipes in The Chef and The Slow Cooker, using the timing for similar food done in Multicooker.
You might find another book that does a great job getting you up to speed. For me, after making a host of recipes in ATK’s new book, the wilds of pressure cooking didn’t seem so wild anymore. I’d built the foundation I needed and was ready for more. So ready, in fact, that I logged into the secret Instant Pot for Indian Cooking group and looked up a recipe for dal makhani.
Food writer Joe Ray (@joe_diner) is a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of The Year, a restaurant critic, and author of “Sea and Smoke” with chef Blaine Wetzel.
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