Monday, September 19, 2011
Pressure Cooker Experience
It was my foodie sister’s birthday recently and I pulled the trigger and gifted her a pressure cooker. I had never used one, and they almost sounded too good to be true. She has mastered the art of the slow-cooker/crock-pot but I thought taking the cooking times in a different direction might widen the array of dishes she prepares. We both have a mutual and deserving respect for hand crafted stocks of which I thought a pressure cooker would be quite effective. I am happy to see how well this gift has worked out.
The earliest pressure cooker was designed by Frenchman Denis Papin in 1679. The devise is most often used during the process of canning in the United States. Outside the food industry worldwide hospitals and laboratories use modified pressure cookers to sterilize their equipment. On top of those two very trivial and not so inspiring facts most all our mothers assure us that we are going to blow up the kitchen dare we even fathom the use of a modern food quality pressure cooker. Fortunately this has not happened just yet to us.
I purchased a 6 quart T-Fal pressure cooker through an E-bay store. It has three built in pressure safety devices which erased any lingering idea I had that Mom was right about catastrophic failure. The 6 quart is a very handy size for making meals for 3-5 people. Eight quarts might be ideal for making slightly richer/larger batches of stock, but then finding a place to store it becomes an implication. Meat sears nicely in the pot before braising which is great not to have multiple pans involved. To my surprise it takes only one minute to reduce the pressure of the unit enough to remove the lid. On the other hand the unit works great on our flat glass topped stovetop. It comes to heat nicely and it didn’t take long to find the lowest possible temperature to hold the pressure steady. This has as much to do with the quality off the stovetop, but the directions included with the pressure cooker warn of complications using a flat glass topped unit. We experienced none.
For our first experience we cooked boneless western style pork ribs with apples, potatoes, cinnamon, coriander, thyme and smoked pork neck bones. We seared the seasoned meat in the pot then nearly covered it with chicken stock and cooked it following the procedure described in the unit’s instruction book. This involved cooking the meat for 20 minutes, reducing the pressure till we could safely remove the lid then we added the apples and potatoes and returned to the heat and cooked another 10 minutes under pressure. Under running tap water for about 30 seconds the unit can be disassembled. This was no big deal in my opinion. After cooking under pressure for 30 minutes (about 40 total) the meat was very tender, juicy, and flavorful. The apples completely disintegrated, but the potatoes come out perfectly cooked. We strained out the solids and returned the quite flavorful liquid to the same pot and thickened with cornstarch. I was very surprised by how well the final meal came out, but even more impressed with the ease and speed of using the pressure cooker.
A lot of home cooks seem to have a misguided romantic relationship with their slow-cooker and instinctively think that the amount of time spent cooking increases the quality of the final product. Personally I find that sometimes using a slow-cooker with disregard for cooking times leads to meat that is in fact overcooked meaning they are either dry, lacking in texture or both. I’m sure you can end up with the same problems in a pressure cooker, but at least you only invested an hour or so! Secondly, using a single pot to sear, braise under pressure, and reduce/thicken broths is infinitely more efficient than starting 4 hours out, searing in a sauté pan, transferring to a slow-cooker, waiting, and finally using another pot to create a sauce. On the other hand you have plenty of time to clean dishes while the cock-pot chugs along like the little engine that could….I think I can…I think I can.
We also used the pressure cooker to make a quick corn stock with corn cobs and vegetable scraps to complete corn chowder. In nearly 20 minutes we had a stiff corny broth to use. This leads me to believe a rich roasted chicken stock is in the near future.
If you have ever thought about using a pressure cooker I suggest you give it a try. They are priced reasonably, come in an array of sizes, and deliver as promised. I’m sure you’ll find more than a handful of gadgets around your kitchen that see much less use.