Send Help: I'm (Kind Of) Falling in Love With the Instant Pot
There’ll be no tragic ending to the Instant Pot love story. (Sigh of relief!)
When we asked you last month if this $99 electric pressure cooker (and slow-cooker, and yogurt-maker, and milk-pasteurizer, and sautéer, and rice-cooker…—an all-in-one sensation that hundreds of thousands of people adore for its speed and, yes, versatility) had changed the way you cooked, many of you echoed a resounding “YES!” in the comments.
And since then, the Instant Pot (not named the “InstaPot” despite your deepest desire to call it that) has been written up by Buzzfeed, TASTE, and the New York Times. That means that all of my teenage cousins know about it—and so do my parents, grandparents, and many a stranger I pass on the street.
All that word-of-mouth praise and all of that subconscious marketing had surely seeped into my cranium (that’s how marketing works)—so much so that I lugged the thing home to my Brooklyn apartment (no easy feat—it’s big and heavy and not at all subway- or staircase-appropriate) and challenged myself to the Instant Pot equivalent of Tough Mudder: Never having used an Instant Pot (or a pressure cooker of any sorts), I would cook “all” (more on this later) of my food for the week in one half-day. What fun! I would wear an apron, but only because I couldn’t find my sweatband.
Let’s Get Started! (kIND OF)
Some parameters first. You’ll know, if you’ve skimmed the aforementioned articles or the comments of our own, that most Instant Pot reviews hold the same thesis: The IP is better for some purposes than others; while it may enter every competition, it doesn’t always win (let’s say it gets a bronze, though). To break it down…
- The good: large hunks of meat you’d like to tenderize without sacrificing your whole day; lean meats (Food52er ktr uses it to cook moose and venison); stocks; stews; dried beans; yogurt; soft- and hard-boiled eggs that peel like a dream; and ricotta.
- The not so good: whole chickens; anything that’d take less than 20 minutes on the stove; and, as Melissa Clark writes for the Times, Instant Pots “just don’t do crisp or crunchy.”
I tried to keep these guidelines in mind as I picked my staples, which, since I’m a vegetarian, wouldn’t include any tender moose stews or revitalizing bone broths. Instead, I chose sweet potatoes, eggs, a pot of chickpeas (from dry!), steel-cut oats, braised cabbage (not a “staple” per se, but I had one languishing in the fridge), and a lentil, potato, and kale stew. It wasn’t “all” the food I’d need for a week, but it was a mighty fine head-start.
I also decided that I’d cook in a sequence that would sidestep “the odor issue.” As many of you wrote in the original article’s comments, the flexible plastic sealing ring can take on the smell (and, I imagine, the color?) of the most pungent, turmeric-heavy concoctions. So I started with neutral- and/or inoffensive-smelling foods (sweet potatoes, eggs, steel-cut oats) and saved the stinkier stuff (chickpeas and lentil stew) until the end of the day.
Before I could begin, however, I had to set it up. This was easier than assembling IKEA furniture but harder than getting out the Dutch oven. I washed the inside of the lid and the stainless steel bowl, then spent an embarrassing amount of time figuring out how to plug it in. Once that was done (and it beeped a “Hello!”), I had to affix the “condensation collector”—and that I could not do without watching multiple YouTube videos telling me how.
oKAY, FOR REAL NOW: Potatoes
Fifteen minutes later (oh well), I was ready to make the sweet potatoes. Following the directions from A Pinch of Healthy, I rested two clean sweet potatoes on the steamer insert (a metal tray that props your food up from the bowl’s bottom), poured 1 1/2 cups of water over top, and set the IP to pressure cook mode for 18 minutes.
The IP doesn’t start doing anything apparent (as in, it’s hard to tell that your command has registered) until it comes up to pressure, and it’s only at this point that the timer starts counting down. And this can take a while—sometimes 20 or 30 minutes, depending on how much liquid is in the bowl.
Once the IP reaches pressure and the timer counts down, the Instant Pot then has to depressurize—another snag I knew but hadn’t quite acknowledged: When you let the process happen naturally, it’ll take an additional 20 minutes (so, with the sweet potatoes, we’re looking at about an hour total—about as long as it takes to bake a small potato in a hot oven).
When you depressurize instantly (“quick release”), you open the vent, which shoots steam loudly into your kitchen—this is exciting (like a steam room! or a water park!), but will scare any unwitting animals and make your entire house smell like the most pungent version of whatever you’ve just cooked. Or, you can take the middle road: Let the cooker depressurize on its own for 15 minutes, then twist the vent and let the steam spew. “Instant” is, obviously, a generous term.
For the sweet potatoes, I let the IP depressurize on its own (this was my first rodeo!), but that may have meant that they had too much time in the hot tub: When I took them out (with tongs), they were almost too soft: great for mashing, but a little delicate to wrap in foil and gnaw on throughout the day, as is my habit.
In the meantime, the third potato—an enormously long fellow who couldn’t fit in the IP—was in the oven. He took about 1 1/2 hours to cook, but I was able to monitor his doneness more closely (open oven, poke a bit), which can’t happen in the IP.
Next Up: Eggs
Next up, eggs—which presented new challenges (and new cooking modes). I nestled them on the steaming insert in a single layer and set the IP to “steam” for 3 minutes, as per the advice of Kirbie’s Cravings. This time, once the IP came to pressure and counted down 3 minutes, I had to engage the quick release and scoot the eggs into an ice bath, pronto, to prevent overcooking.
I must have been too hesitant with the quick release (did I mention the spewing steam?) because my eggs—which did, indeed, peel very easily (some even had little cracks straight from the cooker, helping me along)—were not quite as soft-cooked as I’d intended.
Oats of *Steel*
Once I was familiar with the timing of the instant pot (as in, the process takes longer than you think) and the quick release versus natural release distinction, the remainder of my cooking was a breeze (but, a slow, gentle one: I started at 2 P.M. and finished at 7:30).
I decided to make steel-cut oats, which I’ve never made on the stove because of the daunting soak and cook times, according to a recipe in the accompanying booklet. The biggest disappointment was having to use almond milk instead of whole (as dairy milk tends to scorch, according to the headnote); the biggest joy was how hugely fat and sweet the 1/4 cup of raisins got after only 3 “active” (neither pressurizing nor depressurizing) minutes in the ol’ cooker. They were practically grapes.
Chickpeas, I Love You
Then, it was time to move on to the smellier foods, like dried chickpeas. Well…. sort of. Even though you can cook chickpeas from dry in the IP (and any pressure cooker, for that matter), I backpedaled a bit and decided to do The Kitchn‘s one-hour quick-soak method. Soaking reduces the pressure-cooking time (from 35 minutes to 12, according to Eat Within Your Means) and ensures fewer split beans. But even with the quick-soak, the process was exceedingly faster than anything I could’ve done on the stove or in the oven.
As for the taste, the beans—neither seasoned nor silky-smooth—sort of tasted like… they came straight from a can? Since knowledge that they did not actually come from a can couldn’t fix that problem, maybe more flavorings would.
The Final Countdown (A.K.A. THE smelly stuff)
For my penultimate challenge, I made Sweet and Spicy Braised Cabbage from The Kitchn. This was my graduate school recipe: It required searing the cabbage with the “sauté” function (since the vegetable would soon slump under pressure, this seemed pointless) and then, once it had been pressure-cooked in a water-vinegar-sugar-cayenne mixture, removing it and reducing the sauce. I thought the final product was super strange, like a hot, ultra-acidic slaw-kraut, but Kenzi Wilbur liked it, so I count that as a win.
With the cabbage done, it was time for dinner, which was an extremely modified version of Pressure Cooker Lentil Soup from Eat Within Your Means. At this point, I knew how to use the sauté function, which I found to work fairly pretty effectively, to cook down the onions and garlic. And I wasn’t terribly scared when it took the pressure cooker 20-plus minutes to reach pressure and start counting down. The soup was fine—the lentils and potatoes perfectly cooked—but sort of watery.
After spending half the day “cooking”—but not chopping or stirring or boiling or straining—, I felt like I hadn’t done much at all. I had learned a lot about an appliance (and dipped a toe into the Instant Pot online community), but it was more like ticking off a to-do list than making art. But considering the quantity of food I cooked, that has to be fine.
After my marathon Instant-Pot-ing day, I thought I was done forever. Nothing was spectacular, and I hadn’t accomplished anything I couldn’t have accomplished before, albeit I did it with less hands-on hassle. I was feeling curmudgeonly. I’ve gotten along without it this far, I thought: Why do I need this new thing now? And where would I store this hulking device—which is deep and wide enough to bathe my overfed cat in—in my pint-sized apartment?
But at 9 P.M. a few nights later, when I wanted to cook a couple more sweet potatoes but the idea of turning on the oven (and waiting for it to get to temperature) felt like a barrier, I powered on the IP, put in my barely-scrubbed potatoes, and poured 1/2 cup of water inside. With a friendly beep and the pushing of a few buttons (plus a shortened cook-time and a quick release, all to lessen mushiness), my sweet potatoes were done in just 30 minutes.
by Sarah E Daniels
by Mei Chin
What had I “tested,” really, in my obstacle course: the idea of having the Instant Pot and only the Instant Pot? Any one of the tasks—cooking sweet potatoes in under an hour or dried chickpeas in under two—would have been useful on its own. The Instant Pot might not handle all of your cooking, but it makes possible the dishes and kitchen tasks that seem otherwise inconceivable on a rushed weeknight. When you’ve forgotten to soak the beans or cook the meat overnight, the Instant Pot’s your guy. As Ali Slagle put it, “It’s anti-weekend cooking, almost.”
Besides, if I did have to choose just one appliance, the Instant Pot would probably be it: It can do what your oven and stove can, but faster; it’s electric and it can pop popcorn, bake a cheesecake, make moose palatable. “I now MUST have an Instant Pot,” wrote Kristie. “We are building an outdoor kitchen and I won’t have a cooktop but who needs one when you have an outlet? Wahoo!”
Wahoo, indeed. Tonight, I make tapioca pudding.
For more Instant Pot resources, check out Pressure Cooking Today and Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure by Lorna Sass, both of which come recommended from our readers. You might also read the list of tips the New York Times compiled from readers who read and responded to the story.
What’s your favorite dish to make in the Instant Pot? And where have you found your go-to recipes? Tell us in the comments below.
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