It’s winter: We’ve nested inside, we’re ready for stews and braises, but we’re still strapped to that infernal invention, the clock. There are rarely enough minutes, at least not when we want them. That’s why some of us cooks want comfort food fast from the latest countertop pressure cooker; some depend on the all-day, no-fuss convenience of a slow cooker; and some prefer the stove-top Dutch oven, which requires a bit of finesse. (Is that sauce too thin?)
In the end, most of us want all three: fast for busy nights, all-day slow when we have enough energy (and forethought) to get the meal going in the morning, and perhaps a more organic and hands-on approach for a quiet weekend at home.
Modern electric multi-cookers get us closer to one-pot convenience. They offer both slow-cooker and pressure-cooker settings (as well as rice-cooker and even yogurt-maker settings).
In fact, some of these multi-cookers have become culinary celebrities. The official Instant Pot group on Facebook has a roster of almost 300,000 members. Those and other pots come with lots of presets for chicken, risotto and more. Dump things inside, cover, and dinner’s almost done.
Manufacturers are going all in. Next-generation models will even be wirelessly connected to your phone. Patricio Barriga, chief executive of Fagor America, cites these multi-cookers as the major area of growth for his company. The pots “provide peace of mind with no fear factor,” he says.
If you want to follow recipes in the provided booklets, your problems are solved. Or almost solved. What if you want to take one of those recipes for the pressure cooker and turn it into a slow-cooker meal? Or what if you find a Dutch oven recipe you like and want to convert it for a pressure cooker? Unfortunately, recipes don’t translate well among the applications.
Using a single recipe among the various methods often yields poor results. J. Kenji López-Alt, managing culinary editor of Serious Eats and author of “The Food Lab,” has demonstrated that when he used the same recipe (but adjusted the timing), slow cookers produced inferior food compared with Dutch ovens or pressure cookers. Clearly, the methods aren’t instantly interchangeable. And good recipes are written for the specific device in hand.
Thankfully, recipes can be translated across devices — and across functions on a multi-cooker. Here are five general rules for doing it:
Use the timing for a traditional braise as your base. As a very general rule, an electric pressure cooker on high will need about 60 percent of the original timing of a Dutch oven recipe (not counting the time the pot comes up to pressure or any time for the pressure release). A stovetop pressure cooker will need around 50 percent of the original timing, maybe even just 40 percent, depending on the cut of meat or the amount of root vegetables (see sidebar). A slow cooker on LOW multiplies the time by a factor of 2.5, sometimes 3.
For most braises, stews and soups, traditional stove top cooking requires the greatest amount of liquid because of the constant reduction, even under the tightest lid. In a slow cooker, by contrast, the liquids from vegetables and even proteins never come to a boil, so they never reduce and can swamp the dish. Thus, a slow cooker requires the least amount of liquid: sometimes half, even a third, of that required for a stovetop braise.
A pressure cooker usually splits the difference, requiring about three-quarters of the liquid of a Dutch oven braise, a little more if it’s a stove-top pressure cooker. There’s also no reduction in an electric pressure cooker, but the fast cooking time doesn’t leach as much liquid from the ingredients.
Because of the long cooking and the high-moisture environment, slow cookers compromise the efficacy of seasonings, particularly dried herbs. That teaspoon of dried thyme in a stove top braise will be almost lost after eight hours in a slow cooker.
A successful slow-cooker dish requires a big punch of flavors for the long haul, sometimes twice or even three times what a stove-top recipe requires. We once tested a chicken stew in an eight-quart slow cooker and couldn’t get any basil flavor until we upped the dried herb to ¼ cup!
That said, a successful pressure-cooker adaptation again falls somewhere between the two, although it’s still harder on dried herbs than on dried spices. As a very general rule and starting from a Dutch oven recipe, double the dried herbs for a slow cooker and increase dried spices by 50 percent. For a pressure cooker, keep dried spices the same but increase dried herbs by 50 percent. For large-batch slow cooking (more than seven quarts), you may even need to triple dried herbs and double dried spices. What’s more, the taste of fresh herbs is muted and dull in a slow cooker (although relatively intact in a pressure cooker). It’s best to stir in the stated amount of fresh herbs during the last hour of slow cooking.
Stove-top and pressure-cooker recipes almost always advocate good browning. It’s simple. You’re already there. The pot is on the stove top, or the electric pressure cooker has a browning setting.
But a slow cooker can make browning a hassle. You have to pull out a skillet, dirty it at the stove, and then scrape everything into the pot. Slow-cooker mavens often resent that extra step.
Fortunately, the new multi-cookers change the game. They have a browning setting (as do a few newer, high-end slow cookers). It’s now easier and faster to brown first, so there can be more flavor in the final dish.
In general, stove-top braises accent natural sugars, intensifying the sweetness all around. Slow-cooker recipes, by contrast, lop the highs (and lows) off the flavor register, rendering a somewhat bland sameness to the dish. Both applications can often benefit from a small acid spark just before serving: lemon juice, vinegar or even chili sauce.
Pressure cookers tend to keep sour accents intact. However, capsaicin, the hot stuff in chilies, is almost destroyed during pressure cooking. If you want heat in a pressure-cooker dish, you’ll most likely have to add it at the table.
With a little knowledge and patience, recipes are indeed adaptable among these applications. Even if that infernal clock is now confined to flashing digital lights on the stove, our phones or even our electric pressure cookers, we can figure out a way to beat the minutes and cook dinner on our own schedules.
Weinstein and Scarbrough are the authors of dozens of cookbooks, including “The Great Big Pressure Cooker Book” and “The Great American Slow Cooker Book.” Their website is bruceandmark.com and their podcast is Cooking With Bruce and Mark on iTunes. They’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
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