How about being able to savor lentil soup
some 20 minutes after getting a yen for it? Or pork ribs that are falling-off-the-bone tender in a mere 15 minutes?
Such typically long-cooking fare can go from idea to plate in record time if you set a pressure cooker on the stovetop and turn up the heat. And, unlike food zapped in a microwave, pressure-cooked meals can treat you to a rich homemade flavor that's much more soul-satisfying.
So how exactly how do pressure cookers perform their speed-cooking magic? Normally, water boils at 212°F, but once a cooker is up to high pressure, water boils at 242°F. At this higher-than-normal boiling point temperature, a food's fiber breaks down quickly, cooking in one-third the standard cooking time. This not only is a boon to busy cooks, but it's also fuel-efficient and ecofriendly.
Though pressure cookers are commonplace in kitchens the world over, many quake in fear when the phrase pressure cooker is uttered. There's just something about that rattling pressure gauge to get a pulse racing. The good news is this: Since Lucille Ball infamously let hers blow up on I Love Lucy, pressure cookers have been redesigned. And with the newly designed cookers, even if you leave the flame turned up and accidentally go out to walk Fido, numerous backup mechanisms will automatically release excess pressure that builds up inside the vacuum-sealed pot.
In essence, the new cookers are entirely foolproof. And they're perfect for wintertime, when pressure-cooked foods tend to fill a home with warmth.
So take heart. Be secure with the wisdom Irma Rombauer expressed in the 1946 edition of The Joy of Cooking: "There is a gadget on the market that permits a cook to scoff at time. It is a pressure cooker..."
Before you hit the stove running, sit down for a minute and check the owner's manual that comes with your cooker. It's very important to learn how to lock and unlock the lid, to recognize when high pressure is reached, and to tell the difference between the natural release and quick release of pressure.
Don't be tempted to stint on the initial 2 tablespoons of oil; it controls the foaming of the beans and barley as they cook under pressure.
Looking for a Cooker?
We tested various cookers in the Rodale kitchens and found that the Swiss-made, stovetop Kuhn Rikon Ecomatic offered the best quality-to-price ratio. It retails for about $100 and is available in some cookware shops and from various online sources (see kuhnrikon.com for more information). Although many people are drawn to electric cookers because they're programmable, be aware that they cook more slowly and they're more difficult to clean. And they are not as long-lasting as stovetop models, since eventually their motors burn out.