The pressure cooker has been out of vogue longer than most modern cooks - or their children and grandchildren - can remember. Perhaps its reputation as the source of kitchen nightmares - a hissing, spitting pot threatening to erupt its contents everywhere but on the serving plate - is to blame.
Fortunately, today's pressure cooker has overcome those kinks, and is in fact, well-suited to today's demand for healthy, flavorful cooking that saves money, energy and time.
Back to the Future
Though Mom's (or Grandmother's) first-generation pressure cookers are still available, the safety features, simplicity and versatility of newer models make the upgrade the clear choice. The characteristic "jiggling" valve, which indicates when the pot has reached pressure, has been replaced by a simpler, quiet pop-up spring valve, along with a quick-release button that releases steam and pressure, along with several safety features to protect against a blowing lid.
No longer made of aluminum, new pressure cookers are usually stainless steel with triple-ply bottoms, which makes them functional for regular stovetop cooking without the lid, and allows for a quick saute of ingredients before pressure cooking.
Anything that requires liquid can be cooked in a pressure cooker, because it's the steam produced by the boiling contents that cooks the food. Trapped inside the pot and unable to evaporate, steam increases the pressure above the 212 degrees F boiling point.
Pressure cookers vary in pressure from between five and 15 pounds per square inch, which brings cooking temperatures to between 220 degrees F and 250 degrees F - the higher the pressure, the shorter the cooking time.
Since the first cast iron pressure cooker was made in France in 1679, it has been used for many purposes, but primarily canning. Recent adaptations have moved it more into the mainstream.
"It's the modern appliance that's really become modern," says Jill Nussinow, M.S., R.D., pressure cooker expert and author of "The New Fast Food." Less time spent in the kitchen is one of the reasons behind the pressure cooker's comeback, explains Nussinow. It's also an energy-efficient way to cook that can help save money and preserve nutrition.
Home cooking can be challenging in today's busy lifestyle, which is one of the main appeals for using a pressure cooker. Not only is it ideal for cooking one-pot meals, but most dishes cook in one-third to one-half the time of stovetop cooking. Beans (presoaked) take an hour on the stove, but only six minutes in the pressure cooker.
Whole grains, such as wild rice, barley or spelt take no longer than 25-30 minutes in the pressure cooker, compared to an hour on the stove. A whole chicken cooks in 25 minutes. Shorter cooking time saves the cook's energy, as well as gas or electricity consumed. It can also mean savings when cooking with dried beans and whole grains, which are less expensive than canned products.
The pressure cooker's quick-cooking method also preserves foods' healthy nutrients. A study in the March 2007 Journal of Food Science found pressure-cooked broccoli retained 90 percent of its vitamin C compared to 78 percent when steamed, and 66 percent when boiled. By using very little water to cook, built-up steam stays inside the pot with the food and all of the beneficial nutrients.
If there is water left when the food is done, it can be consumed with the meal, or used for making stock, sauce or stew so those vitamins and minerals are not wasted. Not only is pressure cooking a healthy choice, Nussinow says, "Your food is going to taste great." The lack of air keeps the flavors intact and colors vibrant. Nussinow adds, "I believe the pressure cooker could revolutionize peoples' eating and cooking."