“If I already have a slow cooker, why do I need an Instant Pot?” the anchor asked when the kids and I went on the news to talk about how the Instant Pot helps people meet their healthy living goals. You can see our reasons live on TV here, but today I really want to dig into WHAT in the world an Instant Pot is and how it works.
We’ll dish out on the science geek background of pressure cooking but more importantly, the benefits of a pressure cooker that makes everyone want one, knowing your way around the appliance, and the first things to cook in your new Instant Pot (or the one you’ve had around for a while but have been afraid to get out of the box!).
VIDEO: What is a Pressure Cooker? How Does it Cook so Fast?
For today, let’s get the basics down, and you can check out this post to find out whether a pressure cooker is still healthy for your food and safe:
If you can’t view the video above, see it directly on YouTube by clicking Definition: How a Pressure Cooker (Instant Pot) Works.
The Science Geek Definition of an Electric Pressure Cooker (like an Instant Pot)
An Instant Pot is technically a “multi-cooker” appliance, a totally new category as of a few years ago for testing and awards. This means it does many things, but the function that sets it apart from slow cookers and rice cookers and yogurt makers is that it’s an electric pressure cooker. It works by trapping steam inside until pressure is built up – the opposite of the loss of pressure as you climb a mountain.
To make it clear, the air molecules get farther apart as altitude increases, decreasing air pressure (and making it harder to breathe and food take longer to cook). Inside an Instant Pot, the air molecules are closer together, more dense, so the pressure is higher – food cooks faster simply because the boiling point of water increases.
You could boil water all day long and it won’t get above 212F – but inside a pressure co, ker it boils at 235F, possibly up to 250F. Cooking food in hotter water cooks it faster – it’s as simple as that!
Also “wet” and “direct” heat in cooking transfers heat faster: think sautéing vs roasting veggies. Sautéing in a frying pan over direct heat is much faster than roasting, when the heat is coming from all side but isn’t direct. When learning to make homemade yogurt and dehydrating crispy nuts, I got lessons in enzymes – enzymes and bacteria die at 116F in wet heat (i.e. heating milk on a stove in a pot) but they don’t die until 150F with dry heat like in a dehydrator or an oven.
We don’t need to worry about all this being unhealthy or unsafe – 250F is still lower than most oven baking/roasting, so it’s not like we’re using abnormally or unnaturally high heat – it’s similar to a slow cooker as far as temperature overall. More info on how a pressure cooker works from Hip Pressure Cooking, an excellent resource!
To recap, the Instant Pot is wet, direct heat, at a higher temp than is possible at normal atmospheric pressures – all of those things make it cook FAST!
And that’s advantage #1 why people really love their Instant Pots.
Make your Instant Pot work for you!
I won’t tell if your Instant Pot is still in its box, pinky swear. 😉
I left mine abandoned in the basement for almost a YEAR because I have a new-thing-instructions phobia, but now I have TWO Instant Pots and they’re both in constant use!
Turns out it’s so easy, a kid can do it — I’ll send you a quick video of my children unboxing and setting it up when you grab your FREE download mini eBook:
Get the Instant Pot Guidebook for FREE!
What’s in the Guidebook?
You’ll love the simplicity of your Instant Pot, and the free downloadable guidebook will help you:
- Adapt your own favorite recipes from the slow cooker
- Cook FROZEN ground beef
- Hard boil eggs perfectly
- Cook squash, steam veggies, and make applesauce in your IP
- Make dry beans in an hour and perfect rice without boiling over
- Steam veggies al dente and make Paleo cauli rice in minutes
- Cook a whole chicken and make FAST bone broth
Whether yours is still in the box or you’ve used it a little but want to know more about those techniques, or if you’re still pining for an IP on your wish list, I can’t wait to give you these simple baby steps to success!
How to Use a Pressure Cooker
A friend of mine told me that she said the Instant Pot looked neat to her husband, and he just looked at her quizzically. Her interpretation? “He didn’t know what it was, he can’t make cereal!”
Luckily, the Instant Pot really is easy to use, even for the rookie cook. This is all you really need to know:
- Any pressure cooker, whether stovetop or electric, must have at least a cup of liquid to get up to pressure.
- You must not overfill it because there needs to be room for air and steam to build up to create the pressure!
- 2/3 full for most recipes
- 1/2 full for legumes and grains (because they expand and foam)
- Always check the sealing ring and valve area for food or debris before starting.
- Remember that the cooker works by locking in the steam – so the lid must be properly sealed to work – and DON’T even think about trying to open it when the pin is still up (that means there’s pressure inside).
- Almost all pressure cookers nowadays, both stovetop and electric, have many safety mechanisms in place – you can’t lock it if something is wrong, you can’t unlock it if there is pressure inside, it won’t allow pressure to build up if the lid is not locked, ETC.
- It’s totally normal for steam to come out of the valve/pin area for a minute or two before the pin goes up and the pressure is sealed in. Let that happen. (If it’s longer than 3-4 minutes you may have a sealing problem.)
- Once the pin is up, the pot is up to pressure (same for stovetop or electric). The timer now begins for your recipe (which means you need to add 10-20 minutes to the timing of every recipe to determine how long it will REALLY take, start to finish).
- There are two ways to release the pressure when your recipe is complete:
- Quick Release (QR) – With the stovetop style pressure cookers, this entails putting the whole pot in the sink under cold water. With an electric PC like an Instant Pot, you can just use a wooden spoon to open the valve. It takes about 2 minutes for all the steam to release, and then the pin will go down and it’s safe to open the lid. This is necessary for tender steamed veggies, for example, any recipe that calls for adding various ingredients at different times, and many other reasons.
- Natural Pressure Release (NPR) – Just ignore the pot for 20 minutes. When you see pin go down, you can unlock the lid, carefully open it aiming the steam away from you, and your food should be done. NPR is important for beans and legumes, tough meats, and anything that is thick like chili or grain-based recipes like our Instant Pot Lentil Lasagna or Taco Quinoa Chili. That last category may sometimes call for a quick release, but be sure to wait until the pressure is 100% out and give the pot a little jiggle back and forth to make sure there aren’t any pockets of steam hidden in the thick food. Read more on that safety precaution here.
- Note: Always read the manual that came with your appliance fully.
That’s it! Following well-written recipes should not be difficult or harrowing.
Where to find a Pressure Cooker
This is the 6-quart Instant Pot I started out with. After a few years, we added an 8-quart partly because I knew I would use two at the same time often enough, partly because it was the Prime Day sale, and also because I wanted more space for certain recipes. Both are a pretty basic model and you don’t need more bells and whistles than that!
If you’re deciding on size, most people say it’s better to get a deal on the 6-quart and just have 2 rather than go big, BUT if your family has 5 or more people or you really like to batch cook or do more than a pound of beans, the 8-quart may be the best choice. You can even get a carrying case to travel with it!
If you really want an old school pressure cooker for the stovetop, you can browse them at Amazon – this is the set that I got for our wedding so very long ago. Mine is actually a 7L size (which is over 7 qts) and the one included here is only a 6-quart.
The best thing about these is that they have a glass lid for normal cooking, and they are the two pots we use MOST of all in the last 14 years! So if you have no extra space, just replace a big pot with a pressure cooker and you only need to store the lid additionally. I admit I’m not sure I ever used the pressure function with the smaller pot, but I love both sizes for normal cooking.
If I had to do it over, I’d get this set because it has an 8-quart pot and a larger steamer basket that could also do pasta or potatoes. The members of our Kids Cook Real Food eCourse often ask about how to help kids heft a heavy pot of water to the sink to drain, and this is the best solution – pulling out a basket insert rather than lifting boiling liquids around.
What to Make First in Your New Instant Pot
People ask me this question all the time, and I usually recommend something easy like hard-boiled eggs or rice – a quick success makes anyone feel more confident!
Then a recipe that can really show off what the Instant Pot’s pressure cooking feature can do, like a slow cooker recipe for tough meat that would usually take all day. Our BBQ chicken or Chipotle Style Beef Barbacoa are great, EASY choices.
There are definitely plenty of advantages to having an Instant Pot. I heard from a winner of a giveaway we hosted last December, and after just a few weeks, Shana said:
“The Instant Pot is such a time saver. I am finding myself turning for it and planning for it a lot.”
I also have a friend in real life who read my posts a few years ago and decided to get one. She told me that she was nervous her husband would be upset about a new gadget if she never used it, but she trusted me and hoped it would work out. #nopressure #punintended
She did find a few meals to put in the family’s regular rotation in the ol’ IP and was a fan after the first year, but not a super fan. I actually borrowed her Instant Pot to be the third one on TV with the kids, and I knew I needed to return it ASAP because she told me recently that she is now using it all the time and cannot IMAGINE life without it! It happens that way!
My dear friend Wardee at Traditional Cooking School can do just about anything with her Instant Pot – cakes, bread, main dishes, veggies, even “stacking” multiple kinds of food at once!
She’s offering a free sourdough cornbread Instant Pot recipe!
This cornbread is delicious, nutritious, super easy to make, and it only needs 12 minutes of cook time.