(I’m a new author here at EatWisconsin. Hope you enjoy my first post! –Sonia)
Guess what? I can make a fork-tender beef stew from scratch in 25 minutes. And last week, I got home from work and whipped up some bean chili—starting with dried beans—in about a half hour. Want a totally mushy lentil dahl? Just give me 15 minutes.
What’s my secret?
A $20 pressure cooker purchased from Wal-Mart.
Somewhere along the line, the pressure cooker disappeared from the American kitchen cupboard along with fondue sets, homemade yogurt kits, and pistachio pudding, and is now condemned to a vague association with hippies and steam explosions.
But in other cultures, the pressure cooker is still relied upon as a hard-working, indispensable kitchen pal. It was the microwave before microwaves were invented, and still offers the best and fastest way to cook legumes, tough cuts of meat, and sturdy root vegetables.
To understand how pressure cookers work, you’ll have to think back to your high-school chemistry class. Remember how water boils at different temperatures depending on atmospheric pressure? At sea level, water boils at 212ºF (100ºC). At about a mile above sea level, water boils at 203ºF (95ºC), so it takes longer to cook your food. In a pressure cooker, the sealed cover on the pot traps the steam that evaporates from the boiling liquid. As the pressure inside the pot rises, the boiling temperature of water also rises. At 15 pounds of pressure per square inch (the level at which most pressure cookers work), water boils at 250ºF (121ºC), so food cooks much faster!
Here’s a picture of my cheap Mirro pressure cooker (yeah, nice stove, I know):
The black bell-shaped thing on the top is the weight the keeps the internal pressure at 15 psi. The red button on the lid is the safety valve, which is supposed to pop open if internal pressure goes higher than 15 psi (it never has). Most modern pressure cookers use a different, supposedly more reliable system for maintaining internal pressure. I’ve never had an accident or a bad experience, however, and I’ve owned mine—and used it regularly—for about 3 years. For more information on modern pressure cookers, recipes and other advice, you should check out http://fastcooking.ca/.
Here are two great recipes on Flickr that should hopefully get you motivated to get your own pressure cooker! One is a delicious Guatemalan Beef Stew (Estofado) and the other is a brown and wild rice pilaf that is a great paired with duck or fish, or as a filling for stuffed cabbage rolls.