As much as Thanksgiving is a celebration of family, friends, and general gratitude, it’s also notorious for being a source of stress, especially for the cook. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can approach holiday cooking as meditation, make sure you have a detailed plan to tackle all the minutiae, and make as much food as possible ahead of time. If you add a pressure cooker to that mix of methods, you can pull off a truly epic feast with practically zero stress (at least when it comes to the food; your relatives are another matter).
Although pressure cookers may seem like a relic of the 1950s—and the stovetop models were quite popular then—the first version was actually invented back in 1679 by French physicist Denis Papan, whose “steam digester” was also a precursor to the mechanical marvel of the steam engine.
Early pressure cookers were far too expensive for home use, but in 1938, Alfred Vischer presented a Flex-Seal Speed Cooker as a domestic kitchen tool. Then, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the National Pressure Cooker Company (which later changed its name to Presto and is still in business today) debuted its own variant.
Still, pressure cookers didn’t really take off until around World War II. First, they were endorsed as an efficient way of canning in order to preserve the produce from Victory Gardens. After the war, they were more widely touted as a thoroughly modern gadget that would bring women (because of course it was primarily women who cooked at home) out of “the dark ages of housekeeping.”
Not only would it save them time (for instance, Boston baked beans could be done in 40 minutes, versus the 8 hours they usually took), it would also make clean-up easier, save money on fuel, prevent cooking odors from filling the house, and lock vital nutrients into the food whereas other cooking methods squandered precious vitamins and minerals. If you have 24 minutes to spare, this vintage video about the wonders of pressure cookers/infomercial for Presto cookers is pretty entertaining, as well as genuinely informative:
Despite the assurances of safety, a large part of the reason that pressure cookers’ popularity plummeted was the fear that they would explode, splattering dinner all over the ceiling (and the stove, and the walls, and the floor, and…well, everywhere), if not worse. Coincidentally, pressure cookers are intentionally turned into crude bombs even today, but when used per the manufacturer’s directions, they’re not inherently dangerous. In the 1950s, as convenient as pressure cookers were, the advent of TV dinners allowed one to cook an entire meal all at the same time and temperature and in the same appliance, without dirtying any pots or pans. This, and the subsequent invention of the microwave, had much to do with the pressure cooker’s banishment to dusty corners of the cupboard and boxes in the garage.
Modern pressure cookers that look and perform much the same as their 1950s forebears do exist, although they have even more sophisticated and reliable safety features. Still, the big name now is the Instant Pot. Its chief virtue, like the stovetop pressure cooker’s, is its ability to dramatically cut down cooking time, but it can also serve as a slow cooker, rice cooker, and yogurt maker. Truly, you can use it to make just about anything. And it plugs in on your counter top, leaving your stove totally free.
It makes sense that these tools could come in particularly handy for Thanksgiving, especially if you don’t have the option of choosing to simplify your menu and make something scaled down. If you must serve the more traditional blow-out feast, pretty much every single course can be prepared in a pressure cooker or an Instant Pot. Yes, you can only do one thing at a time (assuming you only have one such appliance), but not only is each course speedy to make, most everything can be prepared in advance and simply gently reheated on the big day. For many, that has to sound a lot more appealing than juggling a bunch of different cooking times and temperatures when company’s coming (or is already there).
Unsurprisingly, some ingredients are better suited to pressure cookers and Instant Pots than others, and making every part of Thanksgiving dinner in a shortcut-friendly appliance is probably more of a stunt than a necessity—but that doesn’t make it a bad thing! People enjoy spectacles; most people also enjoy convenience, so why not combine the two? Or at least consider incorporating one or two of the below recipes into your Thanksgiving repertoire, to help take the pressure off yourself.
Admittedly, the star of the show might be a bit of a challenge; if you want a big, picture-perfect bird with crispy skin, your best bet is the tried-and-true method of roasting (a high heat turkey recipe helps cut time if that’s a priority). If you happen to have a very small group for the holiday, you can make turkey legs, mashed potatoes, and gravy all at once in your Instant Pot, and it’s a reliable way to cook a turkey breast as well. If you go with a more traditional whole roasted bird, you can still make a great pressure cooker turkey soup from the carcass, but if you’re determined—and you either have a really big pressure cooker, or only need a smaller sized turkey—you can cook the entire thing in the pot in just one hour, sacrificing nothing but the skin. Get the recipe.
If you stick with roasting your bird in the oven (or go with a deep-fried turkey, or smoked turkey on the grill for that matter), you can still use the pressure cooker to make gravy for smothering the meat, mashed potatoes, and all the other sides. This recipe does make use of the giblets (aka the turkey organs usually packaged in a bag inside the cavity), but if you’re adamant about throwing that sachet away, make pressure cooker stock with a pack of turkey wings instead, and then use that to make your gravy. Get the recipe.
Make creamy, fluffy, smooth mashed potatoes in 15 minutes, in a single pot, with no draining or boiling-pot-watching required? Yes! Make mashed potatoes every night now that you have this recipe? Maybe! Get the recipe.
Okay, this might be one of those instances where the Instant Pot is not your best bet; to paraphrase Ian Malcolm, sometimes you’re so preoccupied with whether or not you could, that you don’t stop to think if you should. It’s not because the results look bad, but simply because it doesn’t save appreciable time or effort, and you still have to crisp it in the oven anyway. However, if you want to try it out, and you actively desire or just don’t mind your stuffing being in a ring loaf shape, go ahead and break out the pressure cooker for this one too. Get the recipe.
The quickest way to cranberry sauce, of course, is to open a can. However, homemade is extra easy in a pressure cooker, whether you like a chunky texture or smooth and gelled. This cran-apple version, made in the Instant Pot, includes a little apple brandy, because cranberries and booze are a perfect pair. Get the recipe.
Much as it makes miraculous mashed potatoes, the pressure cooker is great for sweet potatoes too. This casserole cooks in only eight minutes (plus a little chopping and mixing time), and is topped with candied pecans instead of mini marshmallows. Broiling is optional. Get the recipe.
You need at least one green vegetable on the table, and brussels sprouts have been in vogue for a while now—because when cooked properly, they’re really good. Bacon helps, too. For something a little spicier, try this variation, or for a vegan version, you can go with these maple-mustard sprouts also made in a pressure cooker. Super simple, perfectly cooked, and fuss-free, these bacon-honey brussels sprouts will be delicious with anything on your table. Get the recipe.
Green bean casseroles are a must for lots of families on Thanksgiving. If you are not in that camp, the Instant Pot can make crisp-tender garlic green beans for you in five while you attend to other things, but it also makes green bean casserole a snap—without even calling for canned soup. Get the recipe.
Yes, you can even make dessert in your pressure cooker. If you must have a traditional flaky crust, you’ll probably be better off skipping the Instant Pot (although you can use it to make your own pumpkin puree for pie filling). If you’re okay with a nicely crumbly press-in crust made from cookies and pecans, though, this pressure cooker pumpkin pie is perfect for you. Get the recipe.
While there are several sources for crockpot pecan pies, there don’t appear to be any official pressure cooker pecan pie recipes out there yet. Since the Instant Pot can double as a slow cooker, you could always try it, or if you’d rather wait for someone else to do it and document it first, why not make this low-carb pecan pie cheesecake in the meanwhile? It’s ready in just 30 minutes. Get the recipe.
Don’t forget about drinks! Slow cooker apple cider is a perfect set-it-and-forget-it treat, but if you forget to set it far enough ahead of time, it won’t be as flavorful as it can be. This pressure cooker version solves that problem by producing a big batch of warm, wonderfully spiced apple cider in no time. It’s nonalcoholic and keeps warm indefinitely, so the whole group can enjoy it at their leisure (though adults who are so inclined can certainly doctor their cups with a little extra holiday cheer, and it’s equally good served chilled if you make it that far in advance). Get the recipe.
For more Thanksgiving tips, hacks, and recipes, check out our Ultimate Thanksgiving Guide.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.