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Under pressure: When dinner’s calling, make it quick

Pressure cookers are particularly good for cooking rich, belly-warming soups and stews, such as this oxtail stew with potatoes, pearl onions, carrots and parsley. (Adriana Janovich / The Spokesman-Review)

I never owned a pressure cooker until a new Instant Pot arrived on my doorstep last summer – a gift I was too scared to use for months.

My fear had been re-confirmed that spring when readers wrote in about kitchen disasters, including – of course – a couple of exploding pressure cookers.

Their stories were more terrifying than humorous, particularly the one from Kathleen Pauley of Spokane Valley. She had been making stuffed cabbage when the top of her pressure cooker burst through the overhead cabinets and into attic, leaving some $20,000 worth of damage in its wake.

“The walls in three rooms had buckled and cracked,” Pauley wrote. “Pipes had been disconnected. The ceiling in three rooms had been lifted off the foundation. Steel window frames were bent outward from the pressure. Many other items were broken and damaged” – and Pauley and her son were injured. “An ambulance took us to the hospital to be treated for burns, shock and damaged ear drums.”

Her story reminded me of the root of my longtime pressure-cooker fear, which dates – as many things do – to childhood. Not even my childhood. Mom’s childhood.

I grew up hearing the story about how Grandma, then in her early 20s and newly arrived in America, left Mom, a toddler, with relatives I don’t remember ever visiting let alone meeting. Perhaps it’s for this reason that when I picture their pressure cooker exploding and raining down its contents upon little-girl Mom that I envision the scene taking place in the kitchen of our old house.

“I vaguely remember, but I think Aunt Sally was canning vegetables – which was very common during that time for people who had vegetable gardens,” Mom said. “She had to go to the bathroom, and she asked her husband to merely watch the needle, which had to be within a certain range. I remember she clearly told him not to touch or remove the bobbin.”

Needless to say, he touched the bobbin.

According to family lore, these particular relatives – Grandpa’s sister and her husband – were never allowed to babysit again. More than 60 years later, they’re long dead and Mom still sports scars on her shoulder.

“Thinking back as an adult, all he had to do if the pressure got too much was to move the pot to the side since it was a coal- or wood-burning stove,” Mom said. “Instead, he did what he was told not to do. It just took a second to blow the lid off the pot.”

As a child, the story was the stuff of nightmares.

The story wasn’t brought up often. But, I can still remember Grandma, now 87, wailing, “She could’ve been killed!” every time it was.

I thought of both of these explosions as I regarded my new pressure cooker.

But I have been determined to get over my fear with the help of my modern appliance. The contraption was described online as “an intelligent multi-cooker, capable of completely replacing pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker/porridge maker, sauté/browning pan, steamer, yogurt maker and stockpot warmer.”

All of these uses sounded good and useful. But I remained nervous about the pressure-cooker piece, even though the device allegedly “has 10 fool-proof safety protections.”

I read the FAQs online at I kept the manual handy. And I didn’t use the pressure cooker when I was alone in the house. Just. In. Case.

With each recipe, I became more and more fond of the thing, particularly for its capability of cooking large chunks of meat to falling-off-the-bone tender in less than half of the time the oven would take.

Pork carnitas. Kalua pork. Mocha-rubbed pot roast. And, most recently, oxtail stew.

Nearly a year later, it’s more fun and less scary to try out and adjust different dishes. In fact, the most difficult thing these days is waiting for the pot to depressurize, something it does all by itself.

In fact, I find the entire thing very easy to use. Push a couple of buttons, and you’re cooking.

I’m looking forward to trying out even more recipes. Of course, I remember the story of what happened to Mom, and I reread the Too Many Cooks blog post about what happened to Pauley, and I exercise caution.

I still don’t use my pressure cooker every day or even every week. But it sits on the counter top, at the ready.

Pressure Cooker Mocha-Rubbed Pot Roast

From, adapted from “Performance Paleo” by Stephanie Gaudreau

This is one of the first recipes I tried in my Instant Pot. If you want more of a mocha flavor and less spiciness, consider halving the amounts of aleppo pepper and chili powder.

2 tablespoons finely ground coffee (you can substitute decaf)

2 tablespoons smoked paprika

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon cocoa powder

1 teaspoon aleppo pepper (you can substitute red pepper flakes)

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 pounds beef chuck roast, cut into 1 1/2- to 2-inch cubes

1 cup brewed coffee (you can substitute decaf or broth)

1 cup beef broth or bone broth

1 small onion, chopped

6 dried figs, chopped

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Kosher salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Mix ingredients through sea salt in a small bowl. Brew a cup of coffee.

Place the beef cubes in a large bowl and add 3-4 tablespoons of the mocha rub. Toss well until the beef is evenly coated. Save remaining unused rub in an airtight container for another use.

Combine the brewed coffee, broth, onion, figs, and balsamic vinegar in a high-powered blender. Blitz until liquefied.

Transfer the seasoned beef to your pressure cooker and pour the sauce on top. Cover and lock the lid of your pressure cooker.

If you’re using an Instant Pot, turn it on and press the “Meat/Stew” button to switch it to the pressure cooking mode. And if your cubes are smaller than mine, you can press the “minus” button to decrease the cooking time from the preset 35-minute cooking time. Once the pot is programmed, walk away.

When the stew is finished cooking, the Instant Pot will switch automatically to a “Keep Warm” mode. At this point, turn it off and let the pressure release naturally (about 15 minutes).

Pop open the lid. The meat should be fork tender. If it’s not, cook it under high pressure for 5 more minutes.

Transfer the cooked beef to a serving platter. Shred the meat with two forks.

If desired, heat the remaining sauce to a boil to reduce and thicken it. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle the sauce on the beef and dig in.

Yield: 4 servings

Pressure Cooker Kalua Pig


Bacon adds smokiness to this dish, reminiscent of pork roasted in an underground imu oven. I tried this recipe for the first time earlier this year after returning from a Hawaiian vacation, and this hearty and comforting dish reminded me of the luau I had attended – only the cooking time was much faster.

3 slices of bacon

5 pound bone-in pork shoulder roast

5 peeled garlic cloves (optional)

1 1/2 tablespoons of red Hawaiian coarse sea salt, or about 1 tablespoon of red Hawaiian fine sea salt (smoked or kosher salt works, too)

1 cup water

1 cabbage, cored, and cut into 6 wedges

Drape three pieces of bacon on the bottom of your Instant Pot. Press the “Sauté” button and in about a minute, your bacon will start sizzling.

Slice the pork roast into three equal pieces. With a sharp paring knife, stab a few slits in each piece of pork, and tuck in the garlic cloves. Sprinkle the salt evenly over the pork.

As you’re seasoning the pork, you’ll hear the bacon sputtering in the pressure cooker. Don’t forget to flip the slices, and turn off the heat when the bacon is browned on both sides.

Place the salted pork on top of the bacon, keeping the meat in a single layer. Pour in the water. Cover and lock the lid. Select the “Manual” button and press the “plus” button until you hit 90 minutes. Once the pot is programmed, walk away.

When the stew is finished cooking, the Instant Pot will switch automatically to its “Keep Warm” mode. If you’re at home, press the “Keep Warm/Cancel” button to turn off the cooker and let the pressure come down naturally.

Once the cooker is depressurized, check that the pork is fork-tender. If the meat’s not yet fall-apart tender, you can always cook the pork under pressure for another 5-10 minutes to get the right texture.

Transfer the cooked pork to a large bowl, and taste the cooking liquid remaining in the pot. Adjust the seasoning with water or salt if needed.

Chop the cabbage head into six wedges and add them to the cooking liquid. Replace the lid and cook the cabbage under high pressure for 3-5 minutes. When the cabbage is done cooking, activate the quick release valve to release the pressure.

While the cabbage is cooking, shred the pork. Once the cabbage is cooked, pile it on your shredded pork.

Yield: 8 servings

Instant Pot Pork Carnitas

I’ve made this recipe several times since getting my Instant Pot, and it’s quickly become a favorite. It’s even better with homemade corn tortillas.


1 tablespoon ground ancho chili powder

2 teaspoons ground chipotle chili powder

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon coriander

1/2 teaspoon oregano

1 tablespoons salt

3-4 pound pork shoulder roast

2 tablespoons coconut oil

1 bottle of beer (lager is best)

Juice of 2 oranges

1 onion, quartered

3 cloves garlic

2 bay leaves

Combine the chili powders, cumin, coriander, oregano and salt in a small bowl. Take the pork out of its netting, cut into 2-inch cubes and rub the spice mixture all over, getting into all the nooks and crannies.

Using the “Sauté” setting on your InstantPot, melt 2 tablespoons coconut oil. Brown the meat on all sides in 3-4 batches. Remove browned pieces of meat and set aside.

When all the meat has been browned add the beer and orange juice to the pot. Scrape up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Add the onion, garlic and bay leaves to the pot and place the pork pieces on top.

Place lid on the InstantPot, lock into place and press the “Meat/Stew” button.

When done, remove the roast from the pot, leaving the cooking liquid. Turn the InstantPot back to “Sauté” and allow the cooking liquid to simmer until it has been reduced by half.

Heat your broiler oven to high. While the liquid is reducing, shred the meat with 2 forks. Place on a parchment-lined sheet pan. When the liquid has reduced, turn off the pot, spoon some of the reduced cooking liquid over the shredded pork. (Just enough to keep the meat from drying out too much). Broil the meat until crisp and brown.

Serve on a platter with guacamole, lime wedges, salsa and a basket of hot tortillas.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Pressure Cooker Oxtail Stew


Oxtail tends to be a bit fatty, so be sure to skim it off the top of this rich and belly-warming stew. I found oxtails at Sonnenberg’s Market and Deli in Spokane.

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3 pounds oxtails

3 shallots, chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons tomato paste

6 cups beef broth

2 bay leaves

Sprig of rosemary, thyme or sage or all three

1 cup pearl onions

1 cup carrots, sliced

2 pounds potatoes, chopped

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon oil

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

Season oxtails liberally with salt and pepper. Heat a heavy skillet over high heat with oil and brown oxtail on all sides, about 10 minutes. They are kind of oddly shaped, so move them around so they brown on all sides. Remove oxtail and set aside.

To the same pot add chopped shallots and minced garlic. Sauté for about five minutes to get a little brown color on them and soften them up a little bit. Add 1 tablespoon of butter and 2 tablespoons of flour. Make a quick little roux to thicken this really rich, really delicious stock. Reduce the heat to medium, and cook the flour for about three minutes. Then add 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, which will give the stew some color and nice acidity. Return the oxtails back into the pot and pour in the beef broth. Add bay leaves, rosemary/thyme/sage, salt and pepper. Give it a stir and set the pressure cooker for 40 minutes on high.

Skim off any excess fat accumulated at the top and add the potatoes, carrots and pearl onions to the pot. Set the pressure cooker for another 10 minutes to cook the vegetables. Add chopped parsley and serve hot.