Back in the day, the pressure cooker was a thing to be feared, an unpredictable device that could maim innocent bystanders with a flying lid and boiling splatter.
"You cannot cook that way with children in the house — too dangerous," Mom used to say, even though it saved busy housewives precious time.
So when a reader wrote in recently about his love affair with the modern-day version of this appliance, I realized my subconscious had kept Mom’s trepidations tucked away. The first thing I thought was "scary."
Turns out there’s nothing to fear anymore. Safety measures standard in today’s pressure cookers lock the lid to the pot until pressure is completely released, transforming the appliance from threatening to friendly — especially if you’re the type who wants to economize on time. And who doesn’t?
"I use it for all manner of cooking," raves Waianae resident Ken Williamson, a pressure cooker devotee. Some of his favorites recipes include beer-braised short ribs and corned beef and cabbage.
"I’m retired, so I’m running the streets all day long. When I come home, I don’t feel like eating in a restaurant, and geez, I don’t want to spend one or two hours cooking for one. I’m up to about three nights using the pressure cooker.
"I can do a whole meal in less than 20 minutes."
SO JUST HOW does the pressure cooker work?
When the lid is sealed shut on the pot over heat, steam gathers from boiling liquid, building pressure, which in turn raises the temperature above boiling. This causes food to cook quickly. Generally, pressure cooking cuts down cooking time from 30 to 50 percent.
The high temperature, high pressure and steam also lock in nutrients and soften food fibers.
Because of this softening effect, one of the most common uses of the pressure cooker is for braising tough cuts of meat, a timesaver that would otherwise take hours on the stove when cooked conventionally.
"Pressure cooking is more efficient, but it also offers another benefit," says chef Grant Sato, a cooking instructor at Kapiolani Community College. "Because of the pressure in the pot, the liquid penetrates the meat faster, so the meat has more intense flavor."
STEP BEYOND the obvious uses, and the pressure cooker’s level of fabulous rises even further.
Chef Alyssa Moreau’s own food allergies led her to building a career as a private chef for folks on special diets. Clients include healthy eaters, the elderly, those with serious illnesses and people with food allergies and sensitivities.
Moreau has found the pressure cooker to be one of her best friends in the kitchen, and she shares her knowledge in classes at Kapiolani Community College.
Moreau prepares vegetarian dishes and says the pressure cooker is particularly good for cooking any kind of bean. "It makes the beans soft, not hard to digest."
"It does risotto, or any kind of rice dish, so well. You can make polenta in 5 minutes. You can make desserts, like poached fruit. I make barley soup, Thai curry, kabocha stew, black bean soup," she says, running through a list of favorite recipes.
Moreau also uses the device to save time on conventional preparations.
"Certain things do better in the pressure cooker," she explains. "I love eggplant, for instance, but if it’s not cooked right I don’t like it. I try to cook healthy, but eggplant absorbs too much oil, so I steam it in the pressure cooker, then when it’s soft I broil it with a miso glaze.
"If I need a yam for a dish, I prep it in the pressure cooker. You can streamline other recipes if you do prep in the pressure cooker."
Moreau owns three pressure cookers and has mastered cooking with them all at once. She says it takes just two to be able to make enough dishes in one day to last the entire week.
"You can theoretically make four dishes in 1 1/2 hours, including prep time," she says.
One version of this technique is to cook a large quantity of one staple ingredient and prepare it in various ways.
Pressure cookers can also offer one-pot convenience with the technique of "stage cooking." This means adding ingredients to the pot according to cooking time. The technique ensures that nothing is overcooked, a hazard in pressure cooking.
But pressure cooker recipes can also entail a two-step process that includes more browning or baking.
Either way, Williamson, the Waianae retiree, is sold. "Pressure cooking doesn’t require much knowledge. There are only a few simple rules to follow," he says. "Once I got used to my pressure cooker, I asked myself why it took me so long to do this."