The greatest trick the Instant Pot played on people was convincing them that they were trying something new.
Pressure cookers, slow cookers, rice cookers, steamers — these are appliances that have been around for years. Sure, they are all combined into one shiny device, along with a few other ones, but they now have the cachet of a catchy new name. Your grandma used a pressure cooker. You have an Instant Pot.
While the device has been riding an incredible wave of popularity over the past couple of years, most of the guides showing the best way to use it have lived online on blogs and message boards. That changes this fall, as a slew of new Instant Pot cookbooks hits the shelves, all trying to convince you to jump on the multicooker bandwagon. (Prices range by size, from $69.99 to $159.99; we used the 8-quart at $129.99.)
As for me, I knew I’d like it before I ever opened the box. It wasn’t the fawning praise from the hundred of thousands, if not millions, of ardent fans. No, it’s because I already love electric pressure cookers, and despite what anyone may have told you, the Instant Pot is basically an electric pressure cooker spruced up with some extra features.
While designs have changed over the years, all pressure cookers do basically the same thing. By increasing the pressure inside the pot, the temperature of water can be raised from a maximum of 212 degrees to nearly 250. This allows you to transform tough cuts of meat and dried beans into dinner in less than an hour.
You may remember a hulking stovetop pressure cooker from your past. While it did the job, it also hissed and sputtered, and required constant attention to maintain the right heat. Electric pressure cookers, on the other hand, are the ultimate set-it-and-forget-it devices. Just add the food, set the time and walk away as it cooks in almost silence. It’s a godsend in my kitchen, and I’ve been using mine regularly for the past two years. Even if you don’t buy an Instant Pot, consider picking up an electric pressure cooker.
But the Instant Pot also promises the functionality of six other appliances — a slow cooker, rice cooker, steamer, saute pan, yogurt-maker and warmer. My only question was whether it worked as well as the products it is intended to replace.
Some of these claims immediately sounded off to me. First of all, what is a warmer? Also, does a saute pan really count as an appliance?
But after testing an Instant Pot for a few weeks, I, like most who give the machine a go, have fallen under its spell. The Instant Pot pressure cooks, slow cooks, makes phenomenal rice, steams, sautes and actually makes yogurt. It also can keep things warm, if that’s what you’re into.
In fact, I like everything about the Instant Pot except how it looks. The interface is riddled with so many buttons, it’s hard to know where to start. On the other hand, my Cuisinart electric pressure cooker kept its interface intuitive and streamlined. (The Cuisinart also sautes and keeps things warm, if you’re keeping score at home.)
Plus, a lot of those buttons give you a false impression of how the Instant Pot works. Some of the buttons are labeled with different foods (Beans, Soup, Poultry, Rice), which suggest that all you have to do is add the necessary ingredients, press a button and wait for dinner. Finally, the convenience of “The Jetsons” has arrived! You can do that and hope for the best, but I never use any of them, because I want to be precise.
Take the Beans button. Not all beans finish cooking in the same amount of time. The difference between pinto beans and black beans might seem slight, but black beans have thinner skins, and if cooked as long as pintos, they will get blown out. Nobody wants that. The Beans button does allow you to adjust the cooking time, but only in 5 minute increments. That’s an eternity in pressure cooking time, when beans can go from tender to mushy in 2 minutes.
Instead, if you plan to cook things under pressure, disregard all those food buttons, acquaint yourself with the Manual button and all will be fine. This allows you the flexibility to pick the proper time for each component.
It also means that I never use the Rice button, because doing so will pressure-cook the rice on the low setting, and that takes an absolute age. Rice prepared on the stovetop or in a cheap rice cooker is much faster.
I can already hear you say, “But I thought you said it makes great rice?” It does, but you’ll have to once again reach for that Manual button. Just add 1 cup of well-rinsed basmati rice, 1 ¼ cups of water and a pinch of salt. Press the Manual button, and set the timer for 3 minutes. Yes, 3 minutes. When the time is up, turn off the unit, and let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork, and get ready to dig into distinct grains of fragrant, tender rice.
But the Manual button can lead to apprehension. Once any electric pressure cooker is fully pressurized, you can’t open the lid, so you can’t check the progress of your dish. Accurate recipes are essential. Fortunately, the people behind the new Instant Pot cookbooks are true believers.
Deb Brody, the editor behind “Instant Pot Miracle,” (out now) first noticed people on social media talking about the device. Curious, she tried it for herself and was a quick convert. “It’s amazing what it can do,” Brody said. “One of the first things I made with the Instant Pot was pulled pork. It maybe took an hour and a half from beginning to end, and it was outrageously delicious.”
Brody thinks the Instant Pot’s incredible success came because it hit a sweet spot for the cooking public. “I think it appeals to people across the spectrum,” Brody said. “The foodie people love it. But if you look at the Instant Pot Facebook page, (you’ll see a lot of comments from) the busy parent who is trying to put food on the table every night. There aren’t that many appliances that do that.”
Coco Morante, the author of “The Essential Instant Pot Cookbook” (out now), says she first heard about the Instant Pot from one of her food-writing friends. “Two people in my group were really obsessed with it,” Morante said. “I love kitchen gadgets, I love cooking sous-vide, but I’d never used an electric pressure cooker.” That quickly changed. “It’s become my main method of cooking,” Morante said. “It’s amazingly convenient.”
If you’re still feeling apprehensive about giving the Instant Pot a try, I can also recommend Daniel Shumski’s “How to Instant Pot,” (out Oct. 31), which goes into great detail about what each button does and the best way to accomplish simple tasks. In fact, his book is where I realized the power of the Manual button.
While I never use the other functions of the Instant Pot as much as the pressure cooker one, I did try them all to make sure.
I can’t remember the last time I used a slow cooker, but the Instant Pot does what it says. My batch of harissa-and-honey-braised eggplant with chickpeas from “Adventures in Slow Cooking” (released Oct. 10) by Sarah DiGregorio came out supple and luscious. Plus, it required about as little effort on my end as possible. I’ve made yogurt at home before, using nothing more than a pot and a cheap cooler, but the Instant Pot does make the process painless and straightforward.
I use the Instant Pot less for one-pot meals, and more for cooking components that would take ages otherwise. Beans don’t need to be soaked and can be done in less than an hour. Chicken broth tastes richer and takes less time than it would simmering on the stovetop. Fresh tomatoes transform into a bright and rounded pizza sauce in 12 minutes.
But just as important as figuring out what the Instant Pot can do is identifying what it can’t. Learning what is worth it and what’s not is part of the process. “Seafood and some vegetables are tricky,” Morante said. “Once it gets to pressure, a delicate fish fillet or asparagus will get ruined.” Brody admits that while the Instant Pot braises and steams with ease, it has a real hard time with anything that’s supposed to be crispy.
In other words, it’s another tool in kitchen. For many, including me, it’s already an indispensable one.
Harissa-and-honey-braised eggplant with chickpeas
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 5 to 6 hours
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
This recipe from “Adventures in Slow Cooking” by Sarah DiGregorio is adapted for the Instant Pot, and I loved the results. Look for harissa, a North African and Middle Eastern spicy condiment, in specialty stores, or sub with another chile paste, such as sambal oelek.
1 1/2 to 2 pounds small to medium eggplants, such as Japanese or Graffiti eggplants, or very small Italian eggplants
1/4 cup harissa sauce
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons honey
Juice of half a lemon
1 can (15 ounces) chickpeas, drained, raised rinsed
Feta cheese and fresh flat-leaf parsley
Leaving the stem ends of the eggplants completely intact, cut each eggplant into lengthwise quarters by making 2 perpendicular slices up from the bottom of the eggplant to the stem (but not through it); this way, the eggplant stays together, but the flesh is separated into 4 quadrants, almost like the petals of a flower.
Combine the harissa, oil, honey, lemon juice and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt in an Instant Pot or a 5- to 8-quart slow cooker. Add the eggplants and rub the seasonings all over them, including inside the cut pieces, so that all the exposed flesh is stained red. If using an Instant Pot: Put on lid and press Slow Cooker button. Press adjust button to Normal, and press the + button to set the time to 5 hours. If using a slow cooker: Cover and cook on low until the eggplants are slumped and very tender, 5 to 6 hours.
With the Instant Pot or slow cooker on warm, toss in the chickpeas, cover and cook until the chickpeas are just warmed through, 3 to 5 minutes. Taste and add more salt, harissa or honey, if needed. Serve in bowls topped with feta and parsley.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com