Risotto in seven minutes? Chicken stock in less than an hour? Steel-cut oats in 5 minutes? It's all possible with a pressure cooker. I received a review copy of The Easy Pressure Cooker Cookbook several months ago, but without owning a pressure cooker, it was tough to test out any recipes and understand the magic of cooking under pressure. Thankfully my office had a pressure cooker sitting around that I could borrow (I think about food and cooking at my day job too). And it's been a veritable pressure-cooking festival at my house ever since.
How exactly does a pressure cooker work you ask? When liquids come to a boil and begin to steam, the lid of the pressure cooker seals. The pressure created causes liquids to boil at 250 degrees Fahrenheit instead of the usual 212 degrees. This causes food fibers to break down in up to half the time. That means tough cuts of meat like oxtail, shortribs, and pork shoulder all cook in minutes, rather than hours. Dried beans and legumes still need to be pre-soaked, but cook quick enough to make a reasonable weeknight meal.
In Easy Pressure Cooker, author Diane Phillips begins by demystifying the pressure cooker. No, they won't blow up in your face (new models have built-in safety features), but yes, you can cook almost anything in a pressure cooker. She's included chapters on the standard pressure cooker favorites: various meats (lamb, poultry, beef, pork, etc), pasta & rice, whole grains, and legumes. But she also has recipes for sauces & condiments, seafood, baby food, and desserts. There's crème brulee and pots du crème (cooked inside the pressure cooker in individual ramekins), Bolognese sauce, applesauce, and jambalaya.
The introduction of most chapters includes a chart with the average cooking times for each item. Lamb meatballs, 5 minutes; pork shoulder, 45 minutes; black beans, 30 minutes; cauliflower, 5 minutes. The chapter on legumes alone has all the tips you need for cooking cheap and convenient dried beans in minutes, which you can turn into soups, stews, spreads. These cooking times, along with the "baker's dozen tips for successful pressure cooking" in the book's intro, are about all you need to get started using a pressure cooker. But there are also 300+ recipes. Unfortunately, the ones I tried were not very good.
Phillips cautions that flavors are intensified when cooked under pressure, so you should use about half the seasonings. The recipe for baked beans must have called for too much dried thyme then, because they tasted like dried tree trimmings. The beans were really soupy too. If I'd been cooking the beans the standard slow-cooked method, I could just uncover them and cook down the liquid. With the beans already cooked however, cooking them much longer would have turned them to mush. That was OK with the refried beans. The recipe for basic pressure-cooked pinto beans resulted in soupy beans, but when strained for use in the refried beans recipe, they were perfect.
I generally follow recipes pretty closely, particularly when reviewing a cookbook. When I made risotto in the pressure cooker last night, this cookbook provided good advice and general tips, but I adlibbed the recipe. I don't love this book and don't entirely trust the recipes based on a couple failures, but still think the general advice and cooking times is solid. When I cooked chickpeas (in 15 minutes), I used the ratio of water to beans explained in this book, and they turned out great.
Even though this cookbook isn't my favorite, pressure-cooking is pretty great. I've been using this really nice Fissler model, but think the Fagor one at 1/3 the price is probably good enough for my needs. If I can cook less expensive cuts of meat in a fraction of the time: pork shoulder in 45 minutes; lamb shank in 30 minutes; short ribs in 25 minutes; the investment is well worth it. Do I want to cook risotto in 7 minutes? Not necessarily. I have to admit enjoying the process of stirring risotto for 20 minutes. Do I want Bolognese sauce in 5 minutes? I'm not sure. I kind of like smelling a pot of sauce bubbling on the stove all day. But brown rice in 18 minutes, steel-cut oats in 5 minutes, and beans in minutes is a worthwhile time savings.