By Jeffrey Juran
I can still recollect the childhood evenings when my mom made use of her pressure cooker, especially the sound of the vibrating round weight at the top letting off steam — and excess pressure — two or three times a minute. Little did I think...
The idea behind cooking in pressurized water-as-it-turns-into-steam is this: the increased pressure (which also contributes to better penetration of the water/steam) is accompanied by increased temperature, something experimentally confirmed and made into a usable formula by Robert Boyle and his assistant, Robert Hooke, three-and-a-half centuries ago. The first application of this principle — the first actual cooking demonstration — came less than two decades later. It would be another two centuries before attempts could realistically be made to popularize it, in this first go around, by making the cooker out of cast iron. However, another half-century plus passed — to the mid-twentieth century — before industry, no longer turning out parts for war aircraft, turned its factories towards such mass-fabrication, making consumer appliances such as pressure cookers out of aluminum. Competition proved stiff; design and manufacture were too often done on the cheap; reliability and safety too often went missing, and in the long run, the technology was not adopted. Pressure cooking even fell into disrepute — who wanted a pot blowing up in their kitchen? I don't know how often this might have happened — probably quite rare — but just the idea that it could, with that constant "reminder," the incessant sound of hot steam periodically hissing while it operated, while all very normal, couldn't be very enticing for potential users who weren't sure that there might be an upside.
It's been over forty years since my post-war childhood. Mom discarded her pressure cooker — she doesn't even remember what she was cooking with it (I think it was chicken). However, I've been using one practically every day for thirty years. And here's why; here are those upsides:
• Cooking is done in much less time, and more conveniently (no watching water levels, no stirring, no periodic checking). Fast, easy cleanup, too.
• Better nutrient retention in food and/or improved nutrient absorption by the body. Not only is there less nutrient "waste" compared with other cooking methods, but "bad actors" (acrylamides) are not made by this process, and others (phytates, lectins) are much reduced. And it is easy to consume the liquids into which some nutrients leach.
• Many foods are made tastier, sweeter, more tender, and more digestible compared to not cooking or using other cooking methods.
• Greater palatability of potential eats that you see in the market or growing in the ground, or that you see others eating — instead of wondering or asking, "How is that prepared?," you will just do it. You will explore more, and bring greater range and variety to what you (and your family) eat.
• Less energy used in cooking, which is also more efficiently utilized, resulting in less energy to keep your living space cool. In the summer your kitchen, and you, won't get as hot.
This is how I go about cooking: I pre-soak all my grains and legumes. I would be doing this even if I was boiling them instead of pressure cooking, for the soaking/germinating process converts polysaccharides into smaller sugar compounds that are easier to digest, as well as doing other biological "magic." Much of the time I prepare a few days worth of separately-germinated rice and lentils mixed together in the pressure cooker along with cut greens. These are packaged in meal-sized containers with a few other ingredients and frozen or refrigerated. I also pressure cook all sorts of vegetables. Cooking time is about one third usual boiling time. When I was eating it, I cooked chicken and other meats; fish is done in no more than a couple of minutes, from a near frozen state. It has been many, many years since I did any "regular" broiling and neither was I ever much into baking.
Cookbooks (recipes for this sort of cooking can easily be found online or in the library or bookstore, or with purchased cookers) suggest grouping items that require similar cooking times, and then adding them starting with those that require the most time. This requires getting pot pressure down to ambient atmospheric pressure, a process that can be quickened by running cool tap water over the cooker. Some cookbooks direct the chef to use more exacting methods: different preparations require cooking at different pressures — five or ten rather than the more usual fifteen pounds per square inch over ambient air pressure, which is 14.7 psi at sea level. At sea level, water boils, and thus cooking happens, at a temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit. An additional fifteen psi brings that up to 250 degrees (fairly evenly distributed throughout the cooker, too).
Pressure cookers can often be acquired pre-owned, just be sure you are able to procure new gaskets as needed. These can be purchased at Agway, packaged together with any safety plugs. Replacement parts for new pressure cookers should be available at the dealer or from the manufacturer. Keep your gaskets clean and they should last a long time, but not forever. I currently have a Fagor cooker that I seem to use daily and that pleases me immensely — life is good! I no longer am as surprised when I discover another pressure cooker user — we aren't as rare as I had once believed. I hope you will soon include yourself among us, assuming you don't already. But if you are just starting out, I can safely assume that you will be wondering why you haven't been cooking this way all along.
Editor's note: GreenStar carries Fagor Futuro Pressure Cookers, stainless steel and made in Spain, in 4-, 6- and 10-quart sizes. Look for them on the shelf over the Bulk nuts. Also look for "Pressure Cooking for Every Occasion," found in the cookbook display on the back wall of the Produce Department.