A Viral Sensation?
My wife and I both read an article recently about a kitchen appliance that sounded interesting. I say that despite the opening paragraph:
Chances are you or somebody you know has recently become the owner of an Instant Pot, the multifunction electric pressure cooker that can produce fork-tender pot roasts in less than an hour, as well as brown meat, cook beans without soaking, and even do the job of a rice cooker or crockpot. The Instant Pot isn't advertised on TV or in the newspapers, and yet it's become a viral marketing success story, with owners often describing themselves as "addicts" or "cult members." That's the kind of word-of-mouth publicity Instant Pot founders dreamed of when they first began designing the countertop appliances.
I am not, generally, one to chase the latest trends in cooking gear. I do not own a George Foreman Grill, for example, and while I am intrigued by sous vide, I could never justify the initial outlay of money for something I didn’t anticipate using all that often.
But as I’ve written here more than once, I do use a pressure cooker given to me by a friend and former neighbor quite a bit. It’s a huge help on weeknights, because it allows me to quickly make dishes that would otherwise take hours to finish. The pressure cooker is particularly good for things like stews, soups and “pot roasts”; essentially anything you’d poach, boil or braise.
I’d never used a pressure cooker, and had never seen the need, until I read a recipe in a cookbook called "Modernist Cuisine at Home," by Nathan Myhrvold and Maxime Bilet. The book is an excellent introduction to “modernist cuisine,” which is sometimes also called “molecular gastronomy.” Essentially, modernist cuisine takes advantage of technology and advances in food science and chemistry to come up with novel approaches to food. Used improperly, you can end up with foams, powders and weird emulsions that distract from what should be the true focus of a dish: taste.
When it’s done right, though, you can have a meal that tastes great and can also surprise you. If you’re interested in experiencing what modernist cuisine is like in the hands of a skilled chef who understands that novelty is not the point of cooking, make a reservation at Square Root and let chef Philip Lopez feed you.
Heck, go to any of Lopez’ restaurants – I recently had a chicken paillard salad at Petit Lion where the paillard was made of dozens of small pieces of chicken that had been coated in lemon ash, then pounded and formed into a five or so inch disk with the help of transglutaminase. It was excellent.
But I digress. "Modernist Cuisine at Home" includes a section on making stocks in a pressure cooker. When I first started cooking seriously, one of the first things I learned to do was to make stock. I’ve been making it ever since, and fiddling with ingredients, techniques and equipment steadily. Before I read the “modernist” approach, I’d already realized that things as simple as cutting the aromatic vegetables into smaller pieces, and when to add them to the pot, made a huge difference in the finished product. I’d realized that a stock made with a higher percentage of chicken wings (particularly the tips) resulted in more gelatin being extracted, and thus a different mouth-feel from a stock made with just chicken backs and necks.
I was skeptical that stock made in a pressure cooker, and cooked for only an hour or two, could compete with the stocks made in my narrow, high-sided stock pot and simmered for 6, 8 or 12 hours. And while my results were not the same, I’ve come to prefer stock made in the pressure cooker, because the shorter cooking time and the fact that there is very little evaporation, mean that the end result has a bright, fresh flavor. And if you use the correct ingredients (and prepare them correctly before you cook them), you’ll also get plenty of body.
Once I realized the pressure cooker’s utility, I started using it on a regular basis, and I’ve never looked back. Fortunately, the Fagor model my friend gave me is a really nice one. I’ve had to replace the gasket a few times, but otherwise, it’s humming along. (Note, I get no benefit from links to products at Amazon or elsewhere, including from the people who make Instant Pot. It’s not that I’d refuse something like that, mind you…)
From time to time, I’ve looked into more sophisticated models, just as I’ve long wanted a really good rice-cooker, but I can’t really justify the cost. Then I read the article I linked to above, and so did my wife, and we took the plunge. We did it largely because in addition to its function as a pressure cooker, the Instant Pot is also a slow-cooker, and there are timing settings on it such that we could conceivably put ingredients into it in the morning, set it to start slow cooking a few hours later, and have dinner ready by the time we get home from work and school.
I’ve only had the Instant Pot for one night, and I’ve only made one dish in it – braised country pork ribs – but so far I’m liking it quite a bit. The only downside I’ve seen is that the recipe book which comes with it is pretty poor. The recipes were taken from food bloggers, I gather, and the recipes weren’t edited particularly well. There are spelling and grammar issues that could cause problems for someone trying to follow the recipe closely, and at first glance I saw at least two recipes where there were ingredients omitted. I’ve been using a pressure cooker long enough that I have a pretty good sense of how long to cook things, but if you don’t, I’d recommend looking online for recipes; there are a ton out there. Just make sure the recipe you’re using was cooked at around the same pressure-setting, because that varies from cooker to cooker; at higher pressure settings, you cook for a shorter period, and vice versa.
The model we purchased is the IP duo60 v2, which seems to be in the mid-range of their line. It was $99, shipped, though I think it was on some kind of sale. It’s got a stainless steel insert, which seems very sturdy, and the sealing gasket is secured by an internal frame. It was a bit tricky to get out, but it popped right back in after I cleaned it, and it seems a lot easier to get the lid on than my Fagor.
I’ll write more about the Instant Pot when I’ve had more time to use it, particularly the various functions (there’s a setting specifically for making yogurt, for example). In the meantime, I’d be interested to hear your experiences with similar appliances, whether the experience was good or bad.