The pressure cooker I was gifted last year has supplanted my homemade immersion circulator as cooking toy of the year. I’m using this bad boy on the regular – probably a couple times a week. Pressure cooking has an stigma of being dangerous, but I assure you it’s safer than the electrical fire waiting to happen that is my sous vide cooking device, which I hand wired, and will shock you if you happen to be touching something metal (my sink, for example) while touching the water bath. It’s a fun jolt of cooking excitement.
Today’s pressure cookers are much safer than those associated with most horror stories, with more modern and reliable release valves, which if cleaned properly, will not explode into a potentially dangerous kitchen nightmare. Instead, a nervous whistle reminds you to turn down the heat a bit.
It’s easy to Google how these things work and why, but the short of it is – a pressure cooker increases pressure (duh) and forces water to boil at higher temperatures, and the steam hits higher temps too and the steam is not allowed to escape and instead that heat transfers to the food and cooks it quickly. Very quickly. Dry beans cook in 20-40 minutes, depending on the type. Braising cuts of beef, which could normally take two or three hours to achieve that melty texture, when the collagen converts to gelatin, can be perfect in under 45 minutes. Rich sauces come together much more quickly, and normally long-simmered stocks couldn’t be easier. Some people claim the stocks aren’t as good, and there may be some truth to that, but this experiment and other myths have been challenged by Dave Arnold of Cooking issues, and I assure you I notice no difference when using my stocks down the road.
There are plenty of other pressure cooking tricks, like making eggs. In fact, many argue that steam and pressure are the absolute best way to create easy-to-peel hard boiled eggs, even with “new” eggs.
Another useful bit comes from the Modernist Cuisine crew – pressure cooking induces Maillard reactions (the chemical reactions of sugars and amino acids sugars which creates great flavor, maybe most commonly mentioned when discussing the browning/crusts of steaks and other meats) to more rapidly occur. The full explanation is here. Adding baking soda only furthers the development of the reaction, a nudge they use in their carrot soup recipe, which is fantastic and so simple. It’s carrots, butter, and carrot juice pressure cooked for twenty minutes. All the excess straining and carotene butter in the recipe is just for show and is not necessary – it’s an amazingly intense carrot soup, decadent with caramelized flavors. But the same principles can be used with many root vegetables – squash, sweet potatoes, cauliflower will all be astounding when cooked this way.
In fact, the same idea was used when I used the Modernist Cuisine method for making French onion soup. Two jars of sliced onions, some butter, and baking soda in a short water path in the pressure cooker for forty minutes. I had to stop the cooking mid-way to take out the jar and redistribute the onions, but I eventually had two jars full of golden caramelized onions, ready to go for soup.
Pressure cooking can simply be a time-saver, as when I made the beef bourguignon above. I had limited time to put together a dinner, so I seared the meat directly in my Fagor Duo then pressure cooked the wine, stock, vegetables and aromatics, and beef until not quite tender enough. I then removed the vegetables, and reduced my sauce for a while, added new carrots and potatoes, removed the beef, strained the sauce, added my buerre manie and it was basically ready to go. There were some other minor steps – I basically used this recipe as my guide, changing steps along the way to accommodate my cook method, such as changing the amount of liquid needed (much less) because I wouldn’t have near the amount of evaporation.
I also tried out a pressure cooked wings recipe from the guys doing great work over at Chef Steps for the Super Bowl. I was bringing wings to the party, and I was interested in recipes that would allow me to cook once at home, then finish them off with a quick fry at the party. In the past I’ve accomplished this by frying once, cooling, then frying later. This was even easier, and much cleaner. The wings remain very tender, and fry in just two minutes at near 400F.
The flats become very soft and gelatinous, making it easy to debone them, as they do in the recipe. Below is a poor photo of two flats, deboned, then fried and tossed in a killer homemade sauce I found in the Wall Street Journal.
I didn’t debone the rest of the wings, but everything worked out very well. I didn’t spend much time frying at the party, even with five batches of wings, and in my opinion I thought they were excellent. Oh, and after a trial run a few days prior, I decided not to use the corn starch they recommend in the Chef Steps recipe, but a very light dusting of rice flour right before frying. Not enough to be a discernable batter, it just added some nice texture. Most people won’t even know, even the wing purists. That idea will definitely be making another appearance.