By now I am hoping that you a) have a pressure cooker and b) have taken it out the box? Let’s now look at using it for the first time.
First of all, apologies in advance for the CAPS LOCK. I feel the need to highlight the most common mistakes pressure cooker users make – this is based on years of troubleshooting and discovering that the root of most issues is often a fundamental misunderstanding about the process. With that in mind, this post isn’t just for absolute beginners - if you have a niggling feeling that you aren’t using your pressure cooker right (you would be amazed how often I realise people have been using them wrongly for YEARS), or just want to double check, this is a post for you too.
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A pressure cooker cooks in several stages:
1. Any pre cooking (sauteeing/browning etc)
2. Bringing up to pressure
3. Cooking at high/low pressure
4. Dropping pressure
If you are using a stove top, understanding each of these stages and what you need to do between each one is key. It isn’t so relevant with an electric pressure cooker because the process is automated, but it is still useful to know for example how long it takes to come up to high pressure.
The easiest way to use your pressure cooker for the first time is to do a quick water test. This will help you get to grips with all the different stages of pressure cooking without the added stress of cooking something at the same time.
First of all, we’re going to pretend that you have done any initial cooking you need to do in the base of your pressure cooker – this will often include sauteeing or browning, followed by deglazing, which I will talk about a lot in a later post.
Here are the steps:
1. Add water to your pressure cooker.
100-200ml should be enough, just make sure the base of your pressure cooker is covered with around 1cm water. Measure exactly how much water you add, I will tell you why, later. You will often use much less than this but this is a good average amount to start with. And I should say that the amount of water needed to bring a pressure cooker up to pressure is much less than most manufacturer’s recommend. Much more on this in a later post.
2. Fix the lid into place.
Most pressure cookers will have arrows on the rim of the saucepan and top of the lid which you align together so you know exactly where to place the lid. You will then twist it round until the handles line up, and/or until you hear it click into place. With some pressure cookers you need to use a slide on the handle to lock it into place. Others have a central locking system. At this point, the lid will be in the right position and locked, but hasn’t yet created a sealed vessel - you will find that until it comes up to pressure you will be able to move it/take it off very easily.
3. Make sure your pressure cooker is on the right setting.
This doesn’t apply to all pressure cookers, but some models allow you to select whether you want to cook without pressure, at low pressure, or high pressure. This usually involves twisting a dial on the lid. For the purposes of this test, make sure it is set to high pressure.
4. Set your pressure cooker over a HIGH heat.
DO NOT PUT YOUR PRESSURE COOKER OVER A LOW HEAT! This is the first mistake a lot of people make – in fact, when I trouble shoot for people who have had issues with burning, it is usually because of this. I know it seems counter intuitive as we associate a high heat with burning, but the pressure cooker needs a high heat to generate the steam fast enough and in enough quantities to bring the cooker up to pressure. The longer this takes, the more risk of burning. As soon as the pressure cooker is up to pressure, the risk of burning completely disappears.
5. Stay close as your pressure cooker comes up to pressure. (And for the first few times you use it, time how long it takes).
NEVER LEAVE YOUR PRESSURE COOKER UNATTENDED WHILE IT IS COMING UP TO PRESSURE, unless you are using an electric model which is automated. There are several ways to tell that a pressure cooker is coming up to pressure. Most have a pressure gauge – an indicator which will either gradually rise as it comes up to pressure, or will suddenly pop up. These are usually flush with the lid until the pressure rises. You might see them jig around very slightly with a little steam escaping around them until they are fully at pressure, then they will stop moving and remain above the lid until the pressure drops again. There are other indications to note - when the pressure cooker gets close to coming up to pressure, it will make slightly more noise – not a lot of noise but you will often hear what sounds a bit like a kettle coming up to boil. This noise will rise in pitch then will suddenly stop completely – at this point the pressure cooker will be at high pressure and should be very quiet - in some cases virtually silent without letting out more than the very occasional wisp of steam. At the same time you will find that the lid/handle will no longer be easy to move.
Why time? The time your pressure cooker takes to come up to pressure will vary a lot, depending on what you have in it (eg., the difference between a cooker two thirds filled with cold water, or one with just a splash in the base), but it is useful to know roughly how long it takes for various things, because you can factor that into your meal planning. And knowing that it is taking longer than expected can help you realise that something might be wrong - eg., because you haven’t deglazed properly.
So to recap. You are looking for:
- elevated pressure indicator
- quiet/near silence
- very little/no steam
- lid and base locked firmly together/hard to move handle
Note: in terms of steam, this is true of most reengineered models. Indian style whistling models and some others based on the old style will let out steam periodically. If you are unsure what your model should be doing, please get in touch!
6. REDUCE THE TEMPERATURE OF YOUR HEAT SOURCE TO MAINTAIN HIGH PRESSURE
(and set a timer).
This is so important. The most frequent cause of accidents before pressure cooker design improved was due to pressure cookers being left on a high heat when they had reached high pressure. Once a pressure cooker has reached high pressure, it needs very little heat to maintain that pressure. If you leave it on your highest heat, it will want to continue to build pressure and when there is too much steam in your cooker, it will have to get rid of it. All the safety valves will be engaged and the steam will be expelled. You will end up with a boiled dry pressure cooker, burnt food and a kitchen filled with steam. Much better than a kitchen covered with food from an exploded pressure cooker, I think you will agree, but still not ideal.
To give you an example of how this works in practice, when I am using my gas stove, I bring a pressure cooker up to pressure on my largest ring, and once it has reached high pressure, I move it to my smallest ring and set it to the lowest setting. That is usually enough, occasionally I need to give it slightly more heat.
You will very quickly get used to adjusting the heat and recognise if your pressure cooker is going over pressure. The main indication is that either droplets of liquid or steam is coming out of it – this is showing that there is too much steam inside and it needs to expel some of it. All you need to do is lower the heat slightly until it stops giving out steam. There are some pressure cookers which will always give out a little steam – but it should be almost imperceptible. Some pressure cookers have audible alarms too. For example, the WMF makes an extremely loud noise – a bit like a train hooting through a tunnel – when it is very over pressure. It has brought me in from other rooms frequently and once from the garden. But it is nothing to be alarmed about – it is purely a warning, and a quick pressure release and a reduction in temperature does the trick.
And yes, it is important to set a timer! A lot of the pressure cooker timings are quite specific – you will find the shorter the time, the more the need for precision. An electric model, and some stove tops too, have in built timers for you to set. I keep a double magnetic one on my stainless steel splash back. For the purposes of this test, just leave it to cook at high pressure for 2 minutes.
7. Release the pressure
Once your pressure cooker has cooked for the right time at high pressure, remove it from the heat. At this point, you will need to either fast/quick release the pressure, or simply leave it to drop pressure naturally. Sometimes you will need to do a combination of both. I am going to go into detail about all of this next week. Today, as we are just doing a water test, we’re taking the easiest option of just removing the cooker from the heat and leaving it until the indicator drops back down again. At this point you can safely open your pressure cooker. A little steam will come out at this point – just as if you were taking the lid off a saucepan.
Pour out the water remaining water in your pressure cooker and measure it again - you should find that there has been minimal evaporation. This is because most of the steam should have condensed back down into liquid as the pressure drops. This will hopefully show you that a) your pressure cooker is completely sealed and b) you can safely leave it on indefinitely, knowing the amount of liquid will stay the same. But more on this later.
That’s it! Next week I’m going to talk about the different ways to release pressure. As always, if there is anything you aren’t sure about, please get in touch!
You make a great teacher Catherine! Very reassuring for beginners. I’m fed up as I noticed my gasket had been damaged so have ordered two replacements. Hope they arrive quickly.
LOVING the extremely useful and practical insights, Catherine. Great stuff!