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You may be thinking; "Pressure cooker" and "modernist cooking" in the same sentence - what's wrong with that picture? That's hard to believe, my grandmother used a pressure cooker.
It's certainly true that modernist cooking sometimes takes advantage of the latest in cooking equipment. However, more often than not modernist cooking simply uses existing equipment and ingredients in new and different ways.
But pressure cookers have been around for a really long time. In 1679, a French mathematician and physicist Denis Papin invented the "steam digester," the first known pressure cooker. But pressure cookers didn't really catch on until after World War II when interest in time and labor saving devices increased significantly. In the 1950's nearly 40% of US households owned a pressure cooker. However, over time their popularity began to wane and had been cut in half by 2011. This precipitous drop was primarily due to two factors.
As a result of some questionable manufacturing quality and design, occasionally pressure cookers would explode. Although these incidents were not widespread, paranoia began to spread around the use of this product.
The second factor impacting the popularity of pressure cookers was the availability of "TV dinners" and the microwave. This gave the home cook another option to quickly provide meals for their family. And since convenience trumped flavor, the pressure cooker lost this battle.
So why now are pressure cookers once again gaining popularity? Today they are being viewed by home cooks as the new healthy, time-saving, and energy-saving way to prepare food. Moreover, today's pressure cookers have numerous devices built in to guarantee their safe use.
Pressure cookers are surprisingly simple to use and in less than an hour can produce food that tastes as if you spent all day over the stove preparing it. They make cooking faster, flavors more intense, braised meats more tender, stocks richer, whole grains easier to handle and root vegetables more flavorful. And perhaps the best part is that the piece of equipment which provides all these benefits is relatively inexpensive.
So how's a pressure cooker work? As the steam builds up in the sealed pot the boiling point of the water inside increases from 212°F to about 250°F. This superheated steam makes the food cook faster, and because the pot stays closed, it requires much less liquid than usual, thus concentrating the flavors.
Another advantage is that at these high temperatures the food will also develop Maillard reactions, which produce the complex flavors associated with browning and caramelization. The final bonus is that using a pressure cooker takes less energy than traditional methods.
Unlike some kitchen appliances, the pressure cooker is a very simple piece of equipment. Consequently, there are not a large number of features that you need to compare when you're making your purchasing decision. I will touch on a few factors that you may want to consider while doing your shopping.
Probably the most obvious factor is the size of the pressure cooker itself. The 6-quart cookers are probably the most popular as well as the least expensive. But keep in mind that you can only fill a pressure cooker no more than two-thirds of the way, which limits the available space. So you may find that some recipes will need to be reduced in order to be cooked in the 6-quart model. That's one of the reasons that my recommended pressure cooker is an 8-quart model.
The shape of the pot should also be considered when shopping for pressure cookers. Cookers that are wider and lower have an advantage over those that are taller and narrower. The reason is that the wider cookers provide a larger cooking surface which makes it more efficient to brown food prior to cooking it under pressure. The cooker I recommend has an interior cooking surface of 9 inches in diameter which is almost as much space as you get across the bottom of a 12-inch skillet. This gives you more space to spread out the meat as it's being browned and also requires fewer batches, thus speeding up prep time.
In addition to the width of the pressure cooker's base, the thickness of this base is also important. The thicker the base the quicker the unit will reach the required pressure, but more importantly, it will be easier to maintain a steady temperature during the remainder of the cooking cycle.
I recommend the Fagor 8-Quart Stainless-Steel Pressure Cooker. This cooker (pictured at the top of this page) is constructed from 18/10 stainless steel for long-lasting durability. It has a stay cool safety lock handle as well as a visual pressure indicator and auto pressure release to ensure that the lid won't come off unintentionally. There are two pressure settings: Low (8 psi) and High (15 psi).
The cooker also comes with a basket insert, with legs and a loop handle, making it ideal for draining pasta or steaming vegetables. An instruction manual and recipe book are also included. The pressure cooker can be used on all heat sources, even induction, and has a 10 year warranty.
The Fagor Duo was well rated and in the top five Best Sellers of pressure cookers on Amazon. Consumer Search awarded it their "Best stovetop pressure cooker" and Cook's Illustrated named it their "Best Buy", stating that it, "Performing much like our winner at a fraction of the price..." The winner cost $280 versus $110 for the Best Buy.
There are numerous other pressure cookers I could have recommended that would certainly be satisfactory. However, I would suggest that you not consider aluminum or electric pressure cookers. Aluminum pressure cookers are lightweight, inexpensive, and heat evenly. However, with heavy use aluminum cookware can stain and pit, and is more likely to warp.
The purported advantage of electric pressure cookers is that you can just set it up and leave it. This is typically the case, and many models can produce great tasting food without any constant monitoring by the cook. However, there are several disadvantages to electric pressure cookers which I feel are significant.Electric cookers typically hold only 6 quarts which may require you to reduce some recipes in order to use them. They do not get as hot as stovetop models making it more difficult, or in some cases impossible, to properly brown meat. Finally, electric pressure cookers are much larger than their stovetop counterparts requiring a larger chunk of counterspace or cabinetry.