When I told my mother I was going to mess around with the Kuhn Rikon Duromatic pressure cooker that a friend had given me, she immediately feared for my life. "Do you not remember the time the pressure cooker blew up and there was chicken and rice all over the ceiling and the walls?" she asked me, dumbfounded that I would do something so foolish. "Please, just be careful."
Relax, Mom. Though pressure cooking, by definition, means messing with superheated liquids and steam, the old-style pressure cookers that Grandma used only had one safety valve to vent the steam that builds up during the process; thus, explosions were pretty common. Today's pressure cookers (a.k.a. "second generation" cookers, as opposed to the old "jiggle top" cookers) have a whole bunch of safety valves and features, and explosions are virtually impossible.
Nonetheless, pressure cookers' fearsome reputation meant I approached the thing with trepidation. Pressure cookers work by sealing in the steam created by boiling liquid. The trapped steam increases the internal pressure and temperature, cooking foods much faster than conventional boiling or braising. In fact, it only takes about a third of the time to cook soups, stews, and other foods.
A third? That's the magic word to anyone who has to get dinner on the table quickly after a workday. My family, for instance, loves beans, but I almost never have the forethought to soak them overnight, nor do I have long hours to spend boiling them slowly on the stove at the end of a workday. I'd heard that pressure cookers were magic for turning dried beans into cooked beans, no soaking needed. So I gave it a shot, putting one cup of chickpeas into the cooker with three cups of water, sealing the cooker, and turning on the high heat on my gas stove.
Different cookers have various ways of indicating the pressure inside the pot; Kuhn Rikons use a valve at the top of the cooker that rises higher as the pressure builds. There are two red rings on the valve; once the second one has peeped out of the pot, the atmospheric pressure inside is at 15 pounds per square inch, and the food is cooking away briskly inside. It took about 15 minutes for the second red ring to show itself, and, using the advice of Lorna Sass's Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure, I then turned down the heat on my stove and let the beans cook at that same pressure for 45 minutes.
Once the time was up, I used a long-handled wooden spoon to press down the valve on top of the pot; steam hissed out in a scary cloud, but my hand was safely distanced. Once the pressure was released, I could open the pot, drain my beans, and take a taste. Mmm! The beans were cooked all the way through, silky inside, skins a tiny bit grainy—not absolutely perfect—but easily the equal of canned beans, my usual fallback at dinnertime, and ever so much cheaper. At an hour start to finish, I could get these little beauties in the pot at 6, put some rice on at 6:15, make a salad while we're waiting, and have a nice dinner on the table by 7. Tonight, however, I just made some nice, fresh-tasting hummus. Looks like I have a new toy to play with. I hear the pressure cooker makes great pot roast, curries, soups, chili ...
Image source: kuhnrikon.com