Considering Getting a Pressure Cooker
I've periodically considered getting a pressure cooker, have read the Chow threads and various online reviews, etc. Recently saw a Good Eats episode in which Alton Brown cooked a stewing chicken in a PC for chicken and dumplings, and I've renewed my thinking more seriously. But I still wonder about two kinds of things:
1. Can anyone give me some concrete stories to illustrate what a PC actually allows you to do, beyond saving time? How practically useful is it for someone like me, who has several days a week when I am not in a time rush before dinner?
2. For equipment, it really seems to come down to a Fagor model at about $100 or a Kuhn Rikon at about $200. I'd get the more expensive one if I learned something about how it was actually better. By the way, threads here suggest that the PC maven at missvickie.com is mucho disappointed with Cooks Illustrated's review of this type of equipment some time ago (no longer on their website), a review that, to judge by her comments, was basically incompetent. She does like the Fagor that they recommend, but she feels that they basically didn't even figure out how to work the Kuhn Rikon properly at all (her own overall favorite brand).
Ever tried to cook anything like brown beans and rice at over 8,000 feet in altitude? I have. I could have cooked the beans and rice for days and they still would have been hard, crunchy, and inedible.
Pressure cookers cannot be beat if you cook at alititude.
Regarding timing and being over or under done - It really hasn't been a problem for me. Like most things, when you figure it out it's not that hard. I also generally use the pressure cooker only for the harder and tougher things. Vegtables can be steamed or cooked to mush any number of ways. They also can be done right with minimal practice and thought.
Personally, if money is tight nothing beats a tough cheap cut of meat done to perfection in a pressure cooker.
For years I had been thinking about a pressure cooker, and finally I got one last winter. For the first month or so, I tried maybe a dozen and a half dishes. Since then, I think I've pulled it off the shelf maybe 3 or 4 times. It's just not that useful to me, and I kind of regret spending the money for it.
I agree with Politeness about steaming vegetables -- it does do a good job and sometimes seems to give more flavor than regular steaming, though it won't save you time with that. About the only thing I've found it useful for is getting starchy vegetables done in a hurry -- if you're trying to make a quick squash or pumpkin soup, or you want parsnips or rutabaga done for a quick sidedish, it's a good option.
But honestly, for other things, I haven't found it saves very much time at all. Why? Because I keep poorly timing things and ending up with stuff that's underdone or overdone. I've followed recipes as recommended by Miss Vickie or by the "Pressure Perfect" book, and many times they've been off by a mile in terms of doneness. It's really annoying with a pressure cooker to have to bring it back up to pressure after waiting 15 minutes for a natural release just because something's underdone -- it often eliminates most of the time savings. Even when making the same dish again, I ran into problems -- a different bag of dried beans was a little older than another, so it needed a longer cooking time. If I were simmering the beans slowly, I could have just monitored them every 20 minutes or so. Instead, I ended up playing this game where they weren't done, I got to pressure again, they still weren't done, and then I ended up simmering for a half hour to get them right. I dislike overdone beans, so this was the only way to get them to the correct doneness. (They were quite good in the end, but I've gone back to my old method of cooking a giant pot of dried beans every month or two and freezing them.)
I tend to be pretty picky about texture and doneness for things, so the pressure cooker is not that useful. I suppose if I were the type of person to cook the same dishes week after week, it would be better, because you could figure out the perfect timing. But I tend to experiment a lot as well -- just throw a dish together based on what's in the fridge. Perhaps with a lot of experience, one could time things perfectly in a pressure cooker, but given I've encountered very few things where anything was actually *improved* by pressure cooking, I don't see why I should bother.
Finally, just about anything that I'd save significant time with (pot roasts, stews, etc.), I'd prefer to cook in a slow cooker or in a low oven, where I could monitor it more carefully. Also, for some things, I did find a significant flavor difference -- slow cooking is obviously still better.
Obviously other people love pressure cookers. I thought I would, but I've found that it's not very useful for me. If you're on the fence, I might suggest borrowing one from a friend if you know someone who has one and using it a few times to see what you think before investing the money.
By the way, I have a Fagor, and from a mechanical/construction standpoint it's sturdy and works great.
Thanks, everyone, for these replies. And to athanasius in partcular, I find your points about timing and doneness pretty striking. Maybe I'm also a texture devotee: I know that when I'm cooking a pot of beans, I make sure to try a bean every 5 or 10 minutes until things are just the way I want them for that type of bean.
So I wonder: how long would it take for the pressure to be back in place if, say, you open an 7ltr (8qt) pot half full of bean soup? And is close timing really something that works at all with pressure cooking?
re: Bada Bing
If you do a quick release and let off the steam then open the pot you can get back up to pressure quickly. If you do a quick release with cold water then it will take a little longer of course to get back to pressure. I've done this when cooking beans. Also it's best to test at least 5-6 beans for doneness, not just one. If you follow the cooking times listed at Miss Vickie's website which includes soaking the beans first you will be pretty much in the ball park for cooking times. Certainly some batches of beans will need to cook longer than others due to age and storage issues..
Politeness and scubadoo97 make excellent points risotto, artichokes, pasta, and stock. Apart from the many ways I use the PC just to save time, I also find it convenient for steaming corn on the cob (seems to come out crisper and tastier than boiled or microwaved corn); steaming a whole head of cauliflower (much easier to cut it up after it's cooked); making whole grains without stirring or scorching; and cooking meat and poultry without having to use the oven, which tends to overheat my small kitchen.
I have both Kuhn-Rikon and Fagor cookers, and I like the K-R slightly better because its valve design creates a completely closed system from which virtually no steam escapes. You can thus reach and maintain high pressure with very little liquid, so no danger of things getting soupy if you don't want them to. I believe the Fissler and WMF cookers work the same way. Most other brands, including Fagor, use a valve design that emits small amounts of steam during cooking, so some extra liquid may be necessary to keep the pressure up and/or prevent scorching in certain dishes. That being said, Fagor makes a good cooker at a decent price. I use mine often, and I certainly prefer the Fagor type of valve to the jiggler type--never been able to get the hang of those, even though people all over the world have been successfully using them for decades!
I strongly second kleine mocha's recommendation of Lorna Sass's "Pressure Perfect," and would add two of her earlier books: "Cooking Under Pressure" and "Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure."
Bada Bing: "Can anyone give me some concrete stories to illustrate what a PC actually allows you to do, beyond saving time?"
We are fans of pressure cooking (we have two Kuhn-Rikon pieces, same diameter, so they take the same tops). Saving time has been secondary for us. We have not found a better way to prepare risotto, but the time savings is negligible. (The time consumer is getting the onions to the translucent stage, and that works the same way with or without a pressure cooker.)
Once you have cooked artichokes in a pressure cooker, on a trivet above the water rather than immersed in the water, you never will be able to abide artichokes cooked by any other method. The artichokes come out dark green, not medium green, and the flesh of the artichoke is soft, but al dente, not mushy. The same cooking technique makes better freshly picked corn on the cob than any other way of cooking.
A tall pressure cooker pot -- affixing the lid as if pressure cooking but immediately AFTER turning off the energy source, makes the best pasta. (Boil the water with salt, add the pasta, let the pot return to a boil, and then -- more or less simultaneously -- turn off the heat and seal the lid of the pot; let the pasta sit in the sealed pot for the regular cooking time. When you unseal the pot, the water that you pour off the pasta will be completely clear.)
I don't think it does anything that you could not do with more time. But one thing I really like it for is stock. Even when I'm not in a rush stock on the stove takes a long time. Too long for me to want to do it often. With the PC you can make a small batch of stock in an hour.