Pressure Cooker Basics, Fear Included

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By Monica Bhide
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

It's been decades since "the big accident," but Raisa Berriz hasn't forgotten it. She was just a girl, in Miami, when her brother put a can of sweetened condensed milk in a pressure cooker to make dulce de leche, a favorite of her Cuban American family.

You already know where this is going. "He lay down on the sofa and forgot about it," says Berriz, 46, an American Airlines flight attendant who now lives in Gainesville, Va. "The cooker went dry, and both it and the can blew up all over the kitchen."

That mishap, in the 1970s, wasn't enough to keep Berriz's mother from continuing to use a pressure cooker to make dishes such as boliche, a Cuban pot roast. But stories of belching steam, popping jigglers and exploding dinners were enough to keep Berriz from going near one once she started cooking for herself.

You'd think time-starved home cooks would welcome a device that helps them get dinner on the table faster, but memories -- real, imagined or exaggerated -- are long. When I use pressure cooking in my Indian cooking classes, many students take two steps back from the stove as soon as they hear a whistle. Even though today's cookers use multiple safety valves and often have built-in pressure-release systems, "It's sometimes hard to deal with this fear," says Lorna Sass, who has written three pressure-cooker cookbooks.

Beyond the improvements, the most convincing argument for pressure cooking remains the time savings. And as awareness of the importance of whole grains in the diet grows, the cookers are worth considering for their speed with that particular ingredient alone. Brown rice, for instance, takes 50 minutes or longer in a regular saucepan, but under the pressure of the pot's trapped steam, the time drops to a mere 20 minutes.

Sass, whose most recent book is "Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way" (Clarkson Potter, 2006), says her favorite is hominy: It takes only 45 minutes in the pressure cooker, as opposed to three hours.

Legumes and tough cuts of meat also succumb to the revved-up power of a pressure cooker, making the device a natural for soups and stews. When it comes to legumes, many pressure-cooker recipes don't call for pre-soaking, speeding up the process even further. Victoria Wise, author of "The Pressure Cooker Gourmet" (Harvard Common Press, 2005), uses pressure to make chicken and beef stocks in a flash and finds the technique "particularly fabulous" for black bean chili and soups made of potatoes or squash.

Wise says the cooker "even turns out terrific steamed pudding cakes and cheesecakes," but that's a point of dispute. Christopher Kimball, editor of Cook's Illustrated magazine, says he tried to make a cheesecake from Sass's "Cooking Under Pressure" a few years ago but couldn't get the cake out of the pot. "Then, of course, it dawned on me," he says. "Why was I cooking a cheesecake in a pressure cooker?"

Indeed, pressure cookers are not suited for just any food: Their speed and intensity make them overkill for delicate, quick-cooking foods such as shrimp or fresh green vegetables. "Crisp" is not a texture generally associated with pressure cooking.

Another downside: Because the lid is locked onto the pan during the pressurizing, cooking and depressurizing, users lose the ability to interact easily with the food as it cooks.

Sass's favorite cookers are made by Switzerland's Kuhn Rikon and feature an integrated lid-locking system and five safety-release systems. News of such advances has inspired some formerly reluctant cooks to take up the cause. Charlie Adler, president of TasteDC.com, counted himself among the fearful until Alton Brown persuaded him otherwise with a recent episode of "Good Eats" on the Food Network. "That sold me," says Adler, 44, who has used a pressure cooker to make Brown's take on chili.

But safety improvements don't mean cooks can be careless. Users should follow their model's use and safety instructions.

Ultimately, even for those who embrace them, pressure cookers demand attention; the mentality must be at the opposite end of the spectrum from the "set it and forget it" strategy of slow cookers or infomercial rotisseries.

"Don't take Fido for a walk while the cooker is on the stove," Sass advises. Follow guidelines, and whatever you cook will end up on your table, not your ceiling. In a flash.

Monica Bhide is a cooking teacher and author who lives in Northern Virginia.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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