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Pressure cookers can save money while cutting time

Turn your kitchen into a steam room with the addition of a pressure cooker. McClatchy-Tribune (McClatchy-Tribune / The Spokesman-Review)
Turn your kitchen into a steam room with the addition of a pressure cooker. McClatchy-Tribune (McClatchy-Tribune / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s the original fast-food.

Long before quick meals were passed out the drive-through window or zapped in the microwave, a clever French scientist figured out how to harness steam heat to cook foods under pressure.

“Called a ‘Digester’ or ‘La Marmite,’ it softened bones and otherwise wasted meat parts,” according to the “Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.”

That was 1679.

Since then, pressure cookers have scared scores of future cooks when faulty valves and shoddy designs created steam explosions that plastered kitchens (and anyone in them) with the soup or stew of the day.

Modern pressure cookers are sleek, stainless steel numbers with triplicate safety features. They’re quiet (mostly) and not really scary at all.

They can still help a harried cook cut kitchen time by 70 percent or more and wring savings out of a tight budget by tenderizing tougher cuts of meat and turning otherwise wasted scraps into stock for rich broths.

Manufacturers are touting the cookware as a way to reduce your “carbon footprint” because of the energy efficiency.

According to Vickie Smith, author of “Miss Vickie’s Big Book of Pressure Cooker Recipes” (Wiley, 2008), the term “pressure cooker” didn’t appear in print until 1915, when new, lightweight aluminum canners became available for home use.

The smaller pots became popular with home cooks and were used in hotels and upscale restaurants, until aluminum became tightly controlled during World War II, Smith writes.

“In 1945, with the war ending, the pent-up demand for pressure cookers was tremendous and soon there were 85 U.S. manufacturers vying for consumer attention,” she writes.

“Companies that formerly produced aluminum airplane components were suddenly in the cookware business, but they made better airplane parts than they did pressure cookers.”

It’s during that era that manufacturers began cutting corners, and the resulting pot failures gave the term “pressure cooker” new meaning.

The problems were briefly resurrected in the 1970s when people hauled out those vintage pans for another round of kitchen-redecorating explosions, according to Smith.

Don’t create a round three by dusting off those old pressure cookers yet again. New pressure cookers are equipped with precise pressure-regulating systems, spring valves, quick-release mechanisms and other safety features.

Here’s what to look for in the highest-quality pressure cookers:

•Heavy stainless steel construction with a heavy base.

•A spring-valve pressure regulator.

•A quick-release mechanism.

•Advanced safety features, such as an overpressure plug.

•An accurate pressure indicator to eliminate the guesswork about when the pot reaches the desired pressure.

•A standard 15 psi pressure setting.

•Long-term warranties and easily found replacement parts.

The highest-end cookers, made by Kuhn-Rikon and Fagor, can cost as much as $240 depending on the size.

Low-end pressure cookers (the kind you might find on clearance shelves at some department stores for $19.99) have some of those safety features, but rely on the old-style jiggle top weight to regulate the pressure. (Those with post-traumatic pressure cooker memories might want to avoid this style.)

The pots are generally made of aluminum, lack quick-release valves and operate at pressures lower than the standard 15 pounds.

Six-quart pressure cookers are considered the standard size, although most recipes work in pots that are a bit larger or smaller.

Just be sure to never fill a cooker more than two-thirds full, or food may clog the vent and block steam from escaping. After using the pressure cooker, clean the vent area well to remove any food.

Cooks should wipe the rim of the pot for any spills before attaching the lid; any food could prevent a proper seal and prevent pressure from building inside the pot. Checking the condition of the rubber gasket often is a good idea.

Even with all the safety features, “Pressure Cooking for Everyone” authors Rick Rodgers and Arlene Ward still recommend staying in the kitchen while the pressure cooker does its work. And they say a kitchen timer is essential for the short cooking times in some recipes, to prevent overcooking.

Rely on the manufacturer’s instruction book for the best information about how to use each specific pressure cooker.

Pressure cookers should not be used as pressure canners, says Lizann Powers-Hammond, a Washington State University Extension canning expert.

“In the past, there were directions to add time to the pressure canner time for a pressure saucepan,” she said. “As of the 1980s, the USDA states that a canner must be large enough to hold 4 quart jars to be used as a pressure canning ‘vessel.’

“The time it takes to bring the canner up to temperature and cool down is critical to the safety of the canned product. In a pressure saucepan these times are not standard, and happen more quickly than in a large canner. The risk is underprocessed food and potentially botulism poisoning.”

Cooking times for recipes made in pressure cookers begin when the pot reaches the desired pressure.

Recipes usually refer to three ways to release pressure: cold water release method, quick release method and natural release method.

Cold water release is the fastest way to stop the cooking and is often used for foods with very short cooking times. The pressure cooker must be carried to the sink and tilted to allow cold water to run over the outer edge of the lid and down the side of the pot.

Cooks must take care not to run water over the pressure release vent or valve. Also, be sure the path to the sink is clear.

Quick release can sometimes be confused with the cold water release. Quick release mechanisms release the steam with a knob turn or push of a button.

The idea is to drop the pressure quickly without lowering the temperature of the food, so ingredients can be added and the cooker can be returned to high pressure quickly. It should not be used for foods that can foam or froth, such as soup or broth.

Natural release is when the pressure cooker is removed from the burner so pressure can stop building naturally. The temperature releases gradually and allows the food to finish cooking inside the pot.

It can take about 15 minutes for the cooker to depressurize and unlock. The time depends on the size of the pressure cooker.

An updated cookbook will have detailed advice on using a pressure cooker and contain charts for the time it takes to pressure cook specific vegetables, cuts of meat and beans.

There are half a dozen available at Spokane public libraries, including “Miss Vickie’s Big Book of Pressure Cooker Recipes”; “Pressure Cooking for Everyone” (Chronicle Books, 2000) by Rick Rodgers and Arlene Ward; and “Pressure Perfect: Two Hour Taste in Twenty Minutes Using Your Pressure Cooker,” by Lorna Sass (HarperCollins, 2004).

Another great resource is Smith’s site, She covers everything from the basics for beginners to advice for converting recipes and fixes for common mistakes.

Cranberry Bean, Bulgur and Vegetable Chili

From “Pressure Cooking for Everyone,” by Rick Rodgers and Arlene Ward (Chronicle Books, 2000).

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 medium carrots, cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds

2 medium celery ribs, cut into 1/2-inch-thick pieces

1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 jalapeños, seeded and finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 1/2 cups dried cranberry or pinto beans, soaked and drained

3 cups water

1 (14 1/2-ounce) can tomatoes in juice, drained and chopped

1 cup fresh or thawed frozen corn

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup bulgur

In a 5- to 7- quart pressure cooker, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrots, celery, red pepper, jalapeños and garlic. Cook uncovered, stirring often, until the vegetables are almost tender, about 5 minutes.

Add the chili powder and stir until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl and set aside.

Add the beans and water to the pressure cooker. Drizzle with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Lock the lid in place. Bring to high pressure over high heat; adjust the heat to maintain the pressure. Cook for 5 minutes.

Remove from heat and quick release the pressure. Open the lid, tilting it away from you to block the steam.

Stir in the reserved vegetables, tomatoes, corn, tomato paste and salt. Lock the lid in place, bring back to high pressure over high heat and adjust the heat to maintain the pressure. Cook for 5 minutes.

Remove from heat, quick release the pressure and open the lid. Stir in the bulgur. Cook, uncovered over medium-low heat until the bulgur is tender and the chili thickens, 3 to 5 minutes. Serve hot.

Yield: 8 servings

Hunter’s-Style Chicken

From “Pressure Cooking for Everyone,” by Rick Rodgers and Arlene Ward (Chronicle Books, 2000). “A good way to serve this earthy dish is on a bed of orzo pasta,” the authors say.

1/2 cup (1/2 ounce) dried porcini mushrooms

1 tablespoon olive oil

8 ounces fresh white mushrooms, thinly sliced

1 medium onion, chopped

2 medium celery ribs, cut into 1/4-inch-thick pieces

1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1/2 cup hearty red wine, such as zinfandel

1 (14 1/2-ounce) can tomatoes in juice, drained and chopped

1/2 cup water

3/4 teaspoon Italian seasoning, or 1/4 teaspoon each dried rosemary, basil and sage

1/4 teaspoon crushed hot red pepper flakes

1 (4-pound) chicken, quartered, skin removed

1/4 teaspoon salt

Rinse the dried mushrooms under cold running water to remove any grit. Set aside.

In a 5- to 7-quart pressure cooker, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the fresh and dried mushrooms, onion, celery, red bell pepper and garlic. Cook until mushrooms begin to soften, about 3 minutes.

Add the red wine and bring to a boil. Stir in the tomatoes, water, Italian seasonings and crushed red pepper. Season the chicken with the salt. Place chicken in the cooker, leg quarters first, then breasts, meaty sides up.

Lock the lid in place. Bring to high pressure over high heat; adjust the heat to maintain the pressure. Cook for 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and quick release the pressure. Open the lid, tilting it away from you to block any escaping steam.

Transfer the chicken and sauce to a platter and serve immediately.

Yield: 2 to 4 servings

Garlicky Pork Chops with Balsamic Vinegar and Potatoes

From “Miss Vickie’s Big Book of Pressure Cooker Recipes,” by Vickie Smith (John Wiley and Sons, 2008). “The balsamic vinegar combined with the garlic makes this simple recipe taste and smell like a gourmet dish,” Smith says. “Don’t stint on the balsamic vinegar; use a good quality brand for a wonderful combination of sweetness and tangy tartness that gives these chops that extra zing.”

6 bone-in pork chops, about 1/2-inch thick

1 tablespoon lemon pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, diced

1/3 cup red wine

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons minced garlic

4 large potatoes, scrubbed and halved lengthwise

Rub both sides of the chops with the lemon pepper. Heat oil in the pressure cooker over medium heat. Add the meat, cook until browned on both sides and set aside.

Add the onions to the cooker and cook, stirring until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Deglaze the cooker with the wine, scraping up all the crusty brown bits from the bottom.

Add the vinegar, garlic and 1/2 cup water and stir. Return the chops to the cooker and add the potato halves, placing them on top of the pork chops. Lock the lid in place.

Bring to 15 psi over high heat, immediately reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting to stabilize and maintain that pressure, and cook for 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and use the natural release method to depressurize.

Carefully open the lid after the pressure drops. Transfer the chops and potatoes to a serving platter and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm.

Bring the sauce to a boil, uncovered, and continue to boil until the liquid is reduced by half, 2 to 3 minutes. Adjust the seasonings to taste and then spoon the sauce over the chops.

Yield: 6 servings

Yankee Pot Roast

From “Pressure Cooking for Everyone,” by Rick Rodgers and Arlene Ward (Chronicle Books, 2000).

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 (3-pound) rump roast, trimmed, but leaving the fat “cap” intact

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

1 medium onion, sliced into 1/4 inch-thick half-moons

2 bay leaves

2 cups homemade beef stock, canned low-sodium broth or water

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 tablespoons all purpose flour

In a 5- to 7-quart pressure cooker, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Season the roast with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Add the roast to the pressure cooker, fat side down. Cook, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides, about 6 minutes.

Transfer the roast to a plate. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat from the pot. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 3 minutes.

Add the bay leaves. Pour in the stock, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. Return the roast to the pot. Lock the lid in place. Bring to high pressure over high heat; adjust the heat to maintain the pressure. Cook for 1 hour.

Remove from the heat and quick release the steam. Open the lid, tilting it away from you to block any escaping steam. Transfer the roast to a serving platter and cover loosely with foil to keep warm.

Remove the bay leaves from the cooking liquid and let the liquid stand for 5 minutes. Skim the fat from the top.

In a small bowl, using a rubber spatula, work the butter and flour together until smooth. Whisk 1 cup of the cooking liquid into the butter/flour mixture to make a thin paste.

Return the uncovered pot to the stove and bring the skimmed cooking liquid to a boil over medium heat. Whisk in the paste and cook until the liquid reduces slightly and thickens into a light-bodied gravy, about 6 minutes. Season with additional salt and pepper.

Slice the roast. Pour about half of the gravy over the meat. Pour the remaining sauce in a sauceboat and pass with the meat.

Yield: 6 servings

Pressure Cooker Risotto

From “Cooks Illustrated” magazine. Proper timing is essential with pressure cooker risotto. If you cook it too long, you end up with a sticky, glutinous pot of mush. Better to undercook the rice and simmer it on the stovetop for a few minutes. During this final cooking, you can stir in wild mushrooms, fresh spinach, slices of thin asparagus, almost any cheese, diced tomato or ham, chopped olives, scallops or small shrimp, or fresh herbs.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, chopped fine

1 1/2 cups Arborio rice

1/2 cup white wine

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated, plus extra for garnish

Table salt

Ground black pepper

Heat butter and oil over medium-high heat in 6-quart pressure cooker. Add onion; sauté until softened, about 2 minutes.

Stir in rice to coat with oil. Add wine; simmer until almost absorbed.

Increase heat to high; add 3 1/4 cups broth. Cover cooker, securing lid, and bring to high pressure. Reduce heat to maintain high pressure; cook 4 minutes. Quick-release pressure.

When pressure has dropped, carefully remove lid away from you. Return slightly soupy risotto to medium heat. Continue to stir, adding additional broth if necessary, until rice is swelled, yet firm at its center and liquid has thickened, 2 to 3 minutes longer.

Stir in cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Yield: 6 servings

Reach staff writer Lorie Hutson at (509) 459-5446 or

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