Cooks have forever been looking for ways to make food preparation, easier, quicker, and more nutritious.
Cooking food can reduce a number of vitamins, and natural minerals contained in the ingredients, and also the distinctive flavor.
So, any way to make the cooking process less detrimental to the original ingredients would be a good thing. That’s basically, how the pressure cooker came to be invented.
Although the idea of a pressure cooker had been around for hundreds of years, it was not until the early 1900s when commercial pressure cookers became available.
It took another 30 years before a pressure cooker was sold in stores for home use. They soon became a must-have in the then modern kitchen, as they saved time, energy, and money.
The situation is still the same today, with top chefs and home cooks taking advantage of the benefits of using a pressure cooker.
The Appliance of Science
We all learned at school that water boils at 212F (100C), which is true only at sea level. If you go to a higher altitude, the boiling point of water drops. At 4,000 ft, water boils at 204F(96C), and at 8,000ft it‘s down to 170F(77C).
Because the air pressure is lower, this allows the water molecules to escape from the surface of the water more easily. Because the molecules are escaping as steam, water can never get hotter than 212F(100C) at sea level. Now, if you put the water in a pressure cooker for example, and increase the pressure, the opposite happens, and the boiling point of water rises.
A pressure cooker will usually increase the air pressure by 15 pounds over that at sea level, in turn, that increases the boiling point of water from 212F(100C) to 250F(121C). By cooking at pressure, and therefore an increased temperature, the time can be cut by as much as two-thirds, saving energy and costing less in the process.
Advantages of Pressure Cooking
The simple answer to this question is that using a pressure cooker food cooks faster, uses less energy, and keeps all the nutrients in the dish.
Cooking on a stove top is much slower than using a pressure cooker. Boiling 2lbs(1kg) of beef could take up to 3 hours to cook properly using an open pan on the stove. A good modern pressure cooker will reduce that time by up to 70 percent, bringing it down to around an hour. That means your meal can be prepared much quicker, and give you more time to do other things.
A quicker cooking time, means less energy will be used, either electricity or gas, saving you money.
Because you are cooking in a sealed container, none of the essential vitamins and nutrients within the food being cooked can escape. Thus your dish, as well as being tasty and delicious, will be better for you.
As the temperature used to cook is so much higher than the boiling point of water, the extreme heat will kill any microorganisms, which makes it ideal for sterilizing food jars for canning, or glass baby bottles.
Modern electric pressure cookers can be programmed to turn off when the food is cooked, and then keep it warm until needed. Non-stick cooking pots mean they are easy to clean, and some are dishwasher safe.
Disadvantages of Pressure Cooking
A pressure cooker is more expensive than a regular cooking pot.
The rubber gasket which seals the cooking pot and the lid is delicate and needs to be checked regularly and replaced if nicked by a fork or knife.
Many pressure cookers, particularly the stove top models, cannot be put in the dishwasher, and it is recommended that cleaning is done carefully by hand making sure any food particles are removed from around the gasket especially.
Pressure cookers are heavier than regular pans, so handling is a concern.
What Types of Pressure Cookers Are There?
There are two basic types of pressure cookers readily available on the market today. There is the stove top pressure cooker, with the modern versions being referred to as the second generation. The first generation pressure cookers only had one pressure level, were very heavy. They have gone out of fashion and are not an attractive choice.
Along with the second generation stove top models, there are electric stand alone pressure cookers. These models feature digital controls and added safety features. The newer pressure cookers allow the cook to alter the level of pressure to give more control on how the food is cooked. The pan temperature can also be changed, giving an almost endless variation of pressure cooking techniques to get just the right tenderness in a dish.
Additionally, pressure cookers that offer multiple other cooking functions are available in recent years. See our instapot reviews for a full round-up of the top models.
Features of a stove top pressure cooker:
- At least two or more pressure settings
- Made from aluminum or stainless steel
- Releases steam only when opened, and can be reduced beforehand
- Cheaper than an electric pressure cooker, and can be used as a regular cooking pot
Features of an electric pressure cooker:
- At least two or more pressure settings
- Made of stainless steel
- No need for a stove has electric heat source
- The electric heat source regulates the pressure
- Spring loaded valve for releasing the steam
- Exterior insulated to reduce accidental burns
The stove top pressure cooker
Until the electric pressure cooker came on the market, the only type available was the stove top model. The design has been modified over the years to meet newer safety standards and user’s requirements.
Stove top pressure cookers usually take less time to build up enough pressure. A typical model will take a little over 10 minutes to get to the right pressure, whereas an electric model could take about half as long again to reach the best operating pressure.
Getting the cooking pot open once the food is prepared can be done in three ways. The cold water quick-release method takes about 30 seconds. The regular release method takes a little longer at about two minutes, and the natural method longer still at around ten minutes.
The locking lid and the over-pressure release valve on the top are the main safety measures.
A stove top pressure cooker can be used on a gas or electric hob, and can even be used on an open fire or barbecue.
When not in use the stove top pressure cooker is just like any other kitchen pot and can be stored with all the other pots and pans.
One of the drawbacks is that as it is not electric, it will not come with such things as a timer or a time–shift function. However, a diligent cook should be able to keep an eye on the time.
The Electric Pressure Cooker
The advent of the electric model of pressure cooker, adds a whole new capability for pressure cooking and versatility. Because of the electronic controls, users can change the temperature and pressure inside the cooker at the push of a button, and thus broaden the uses and the food you can cook inside the appliance.
Everything is under control. The electronics in the appliance allow a cook to alter the pressure and temperature, as with the stove top model the only way to vary either is to change the heat being supplied from the stove.
Lots of models have pre-programmed settings for different pressure levels, and even for cooking such things as rice.
The heat inside the pressure cooker is regulated automatically once the pressure and cooking time are set.
An electric pressure can be left to cook by itself and does not need to be constantly watched. The appliance can work for a particular time, at a controlled pressure to get the job done.
The electronically controlled sensors in an electric pressure cooker prevent the buildup of excess pressure and helps in stopping accidents.
Electric pressure cookers are generally bigger than the stove top models, and therefore can be harder to store.
Except for some newer models, electric cookers can only be used for pressure cooking.
Because they are electrically operated, one can not use the cold water quick-release method for reducing the pressure inside the cooker.
How do stove top and electric pressure cookers compare?
Some cooks will say there is no comparison, as they would go for the stove top type every time. It’s the cooker they are most familiar with and have learned how to get the best from it. Even so, those who try an electric pressure cooker, agree that it has one distinct advantage over its rival; simply that it is much more convenient.
The electronics inside an electric pressure cooker take a lot of the uncertainty and worry out of cooking at an increased heat and pressure. The sensors make sure that things stay perfectly safe, and there is little chance of an electric pressure cooker exploding in the kitchen.
Most electric pressure cookers have heating elements which are not just on the bottom, but the sides as well, so they can provide a more even cooking, and reduce the chance of food being scorched. If you are cooking foods like rice, then this is something you need to take into account.
Electric pressure cookers are generally more energy efficient than stove top models, as the cooking pot is insulated within a surround, and there is little heat dissipated as happens with a stovetop model. The energy goes into cooking your food, not heating your kitchen.
Searing: An electric pressure cooker is limited by the heat coming from the elements, and although most can sear meat pretty well, none have the ability to sear like a stovetop model, which as we have said is just like a regular pan. You can crank up the heat on your stove to get the meat properly seared with no worries.
Size: Electric pressure cookers are generally about six quarts, which is enough for a family of four. Whereas stove top models come in all sizes, from small, catering for just a couple, to huge cookers big enough for canning.
Pressure: Nothing can beat a stove top pressure cooker for the pressure and heat it can generate. A normal stove model works at 15psi, and a temperature of 250F (120C). The best modern electric pressure cookers can manage about 12.5psi and a temperature of 245F(118C).
It may be just a small difference, but it does mean that food takes longer to cook in an electric pressure cooker than a stovetop model.
Versatility: The clear winner here has to be the electric pressure cooker, as most can work as a slow cooker, steamer, or a pressure cooker. With precise control of temperature and pressure, it can be used in such delicate cooking processes as yogurt making.
The stovetop model is more of an ‘unguided missile,’ it‘s about getting things hot and the pressure high in the shortest possible time to cook as quickly as possible.
Ease of Use: A stove top pressure cooker needs to be tended. You can not walk away from the stove for any length of time in case something disastrous might happen. The temperature and pressure must be carefully looked at during the cooking process to ensure there is not a dangerous buildup of pressure.
On the other hand, the electric model is much for a fill and forget appliance. Once programmed, the countertop model should not need to be looked at again until the food has finished cooking.
Cleaning: The stovetop model is just like any other pan, and can be cleaned in just the same way as the rest you have in the kitchen.
Care must be taken with the rubber seal as if this gets damaged in any way it will need to be replaced. With the electric countertop models, the cooking pots are removable and are generally dishwasher safe. The lids can be more of a problem, as they provide the pressure seal, and need careful cleaning.
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What Safety considerations to make when buying a pressure cooker?
Safety should be your first consideration when buying a pressure cooker of any type. Cooking at pressure means, you have a metal pan, at a high pressure and intense heat. If anything were to go wrong, it could cause serious injury.
However, modern pressure cookers have three protective devices to protect the user. There is the pressure regulator on the top of the pan, and a safety valve, which will open when the pressure gets too high. Also, the rubber seals will open up if either of the other two devices fails.
Regulator: There are three different types of regulator used on pressure cookers. They are the weighted valve pressure regulator, the modified weighted regulator, and the spring valve pressure regulator. Make sure the regulator works at 15psi, which is the standard for domestic pressure cookers, and most recipes work to this pressure.
The weighted valve pressure regulator is sometimes known as the jiggle top. The regulator sits on top of the vent pipe of the pressure cooker, where steam is allowed to escape. It will start gently rocking in position, when the cooking starts, as it is a sign the inside of the cooker has reached the right pressure and temperature.
The noise the rocking makes gives a clear indication everything is working correctly. If it should stop for any reason, check the condition of your stovetop cooker immediately. If you think something is not right, remove the heat immediately.
The modified weighted regulator, allows steam to escape in small bursts. There is no exact timing on when the steam will escape, so users need to take extra care. The spring valve regulator has a pop-up that regulates the pressure inside the cooker. The advantage of this type of regulator is that it can be adjusted to pressures from 10psi to 15psi.
Interlock Mechanism: Always look for a pressure cooker with an interlocking mechanism for the cover or lid. This safety feature will automatically lock the cover of the cooker when there is a high pressure inside. You will not be able to unlock the lid and take it off until the pressure has fallen inside the cook pot.
Pressure Release: Once the food inside has been cooked, it is important to reduce the pressure before opening the cooker. To do that, there are two simple methods which manufacturers advise consumers to use. They are often found as part of the recipe.
If it calls for cool cooker at once, the whole pan can be plunged into a bowl of cold water, or run under the cold water tap. Some pressure cookers have quick–release controls to reduce the pressure. However, one has to be very careful as this will release steam at a high temperature and pressure, which can be very dangerous.
The other pressure reduction method is the natural pressure drop, which means allowing the cooker to cool by itself.
What we looked for in our top pressure cookers
For stovetop models, we looked for a thick, sturdy base to the pan, as this will distribute heat more evenly. Given that the general construction of the pressure cooker must be solid so the cook has confidence it will not explode in the kitchen after multiple uses under increased pressure.
The lid should lock tightly and efficiently. We looked at stove top pressure cookers that have the jiggler pressure release valve, and the more modern spring loaded release valve.
All of the pressure cookers we have put in our best list have an automatic safety release valve that activates should the main vent be blocked for any reason. We also looked at how efficient the cookers were in maintaining the internal heat and pressure, so as not to waste energy.
Similarly, we looked at the same safety functions for the electric countertop pressure cookers. Many electric models are advertised as multi-cookers, able to do slow cooking, searing, steaming and a host of other kitchen duties.
We only wanted to know how well they would work as the advertised pressure cooker, and how well the electronics get the cooker up to temperature and pressure and maintain it for the time of a cook. With a digital display and a number of buttons to choose from on the front panel, it‘s important that the layout is good, logical, and easy to understand.
Are pressure cookers somewhat old fashioned?
Many people think pressure cookers were the appliance of their grandmothers, but it‘s not so. Although the technology has been around for centuries, the modern pressure cooker is far different from those first on the market, and considerably safer too.
When people run hectic lives with busy schedules, a pressure cooker is a kitchen time saver no-one should be without.
What’s best, aluminum or stainless steel?
Aluminum pressure cookers are cheaper and are a better conductor of heat than a stainless steel version. However the metal is softer than steel and is more likely to be dented or scratched, and it can react with acidic foods.
Steel is better at resisting corrosion, warping, and scratches and doesn’t react with food products. As is often the case, a choice will come down to how much you want to spend, and how long you want your pressure cooker to last.
What size is best for a pressure cooker?
There is a simple rule one must understand when using a pressure cooker. Whatever the manufacturer of a pressure cooker says is the capacity, only about a half to two-thirds can be used for food, the rest is needed for the steam involved in the cooking process.
A product described as four quarts will be enough for couples, six quarts for a family of more than two people. Most recipes are based on this size. Anything bigger is a good size for larger families. There are much larger pressure cookers which can be used for canning.
What’s the difference between a pressure canner and a pressure cooker?
As a rule of thumb, canners are much bigger than pressure cookers. Canners are usually made of cheaper aluminum as the food is stored in jars, and the uncoated metal is not suitable for raw, or acidic foods.
Getting the pressure right is important in canning, and the gauges used have a calibrated weight to maintain the correct pressure.
Modern stove top domestic pressure cookers often have the newer spring release valves, which are less accurate.