It's been a few years since Judy Smith, service manager at the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center, used a pressure cooker, but she remembers her mother using one for canning.
Smith says she has used one to cook a whole chicken, and it's great for chuck roast as well.
"They are good, especially for things like pinto beans. [Without one] you had to soak them all day and night, but with a pressure cooker you don't," she says. "But you have to careful because you are cooking under pressure and they can explode. I think that's why people have gone to slow cookers like Crock-Pots."
There's an ongoing fear of pressure cookers based on the cheap metal used to build them in the 1940s. Good metal was being used for World War II uses and pressure cookers became synonymous -- deservedly so -- for blowing off their lids.
Pressure cookers today are altogether tamer beasts, with sophisticated locking systems and valve mechanisms for releasing steam; electric pressure cookers adjust the heat automatically to maintain optimum temperature and pressure, and some even self-vent at the end of the preprogrammed cooking time.
But for some, the pressure of preparing a tasty and healthy meal in a short amount of time can be too much, and they end up taking the quick and easy route. Too often that means the health benefits and better taste that can come with eating fresh ingredients are sacrificed for quick and easy meals out of a can or the freezer.
Regardless of whether the pressure cooker is Papin's 4-foot-tall cast-iron model with its own furnace or a $25, 4-quart, Presto-brand aluminum pot from Wal-Mart, the principle and results are the same: shorter cooking time and tender, moist food.
Some are finding that cooking with a pressure cooker can cut the cooking time considerably and they are discovering new ways to use them.
"I sometimes forget that I have one, and I probably should use it more," says Marcy Kelch, owner of Mia Cucina in North Chattanooga. Not only does her shop sell higher-end models, they host how-to workshops a couple of times a year. "I'm using it for not just entrees and vegetables but desserts. You can do a lot with a pressure cooker."
And, there are other pluses to cooking with one.
"Time and the health benefits are the biggest advantages," she says. "You can take dried beans and have them in a ready state in a fraction of the time. I wouldn't say they are better tasting, but it's time consuming without a pressure cooker. I can have a midweek meal done in no time."
Here's the short explanation of why a pressure cooker can make tender beef stew in 30 minutes instead of two hours and 30 minutes and why long-grain brown rice takes 20 minutes instead of an hour: PV nRT.
For most of us, that whisper from the catacombs of memory is saying we last heard that equation in high school physics. It's the Ideal Gas Law which, in fact, is not the name of a byproduct of consuming beans made in a pressure cooker.
For the science-challenged, the layman's explanation is that the water in a pressure cooker boils at a higher temperature than the 212-degree threshold in an unsealed pot, meaning food cooks faster. And since minimal steam escapes from a closed pressure cooker, liquid stays in the pot and is forced by pressure into the food, rendering it soft and moist much more quickly than can be achieved by other methods.
There are some tasks a pressure cooker cannot do. A whole chicken may be done and dripping with succulence after 18 minutes in the pressure cooker, but its flabby skin will still need to be blasted in a hot oven to mimic the delectable crispiness of a roasted chicken's skin. Beef, too, will require a post-pressure sear if a crust is desired. Further, since it can take up to 10 minutes for the pressure inside to dissipate and allow the lid to be opened, cooking cannot be monitored nearly as easily as in a stockpot or roasting pan.
And, of course, misused pressure cookers can still explode, for instance, if the heat is left turned up after the desired pressure is reached.
Risotto with Asparagus
The asparagus is added raw to the rice after it is cooked, letting the delicate green stalks cook just briefly. This light touch leaves the asparagus bright green and slightly crunchy. If you like your asparagus cooked more, you can grill or sauté it briefly before adding it to the risotto. But do not add it to the pressure cooker at the same time as the rice or it will overcook.
Start to finish: 45 minutes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, chopped or thinly sliced
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
2 cups no-salt chicken broth
Pinch of salt, plus more to taste
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup small asparagus tips and tops, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
In a medium pressure cooked over medium, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the shallot and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, or until translucent. Increase heat to high and add the rice, stirring to coat. Toast the rice, stirring constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the wine and cook until evaporated.
Add the broth and a pinch each of salt and red pepper flakes. Stir until the mixture comes to a simmer, then lock on the pressure cooker's lid. Set a timer for 9 minutes. Bring the cooker up to full pressure, then reduce the heat to maintain that level. Cook until the timer goes off.
Take the cooker off the heat and wait 3 minutes, then put the pot in the sink and run cold water over it to release the pressure. Open the cooker; the rice should be creamy. Return the pot to the stovetop over medium heat. Add the butter, asparagus, cheese and chives. Stir until heated through and the butter and cheese have melted. Season with salt and pepper.
— Elizabeth Karmel, executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington
Alton Brown's Pressure Cooker Chili
3 pounds stew meat (beef, pork, and/or lamb)
2 teaspoons peanut oil
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 (12-ounce) bottle of beer, preferably a medium ale
1 (16-ounce) container salsa
30 tortilla chips
2 chipotle peppers canned in adobo sauce, chopped
1 tablespoon adobo sauce (from the chipotle peppers in adobo)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Place the meat in a large mixing bowl and toss with the peanut oil and salt. Set aside.
Heat a 6-quart heavy-bottomed pressure cooker over high heat until hot. Add the meat in three or four batches and brown on all sides, 2 minutes per batch. Once each batch is browned, place the meat in a clean large bowl.
Once all of the meat is browned, add the beer to the cooker to deglaze the pot.
Scrape the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Add the meat back to the pressure cooker along with the salsa, tortilla chips, chipotle peppers, adobo sauce, tomato paste, chili powder and ground cumin; stir to combine. Lock the lid in place according to the manufacturer's instructions. When the steam begins to hiss out of the cooker, reduce the heat to low, just enough to maintain a very weak whistle.
Cook for 25 minutes. Remove from the heat and carefully release the steam. Serve immediately.
— Food Network
Whole Chicken with Vegetables and Pasta
1 (3 1/2-pound) whole chicken
2 cans chicken broth, divided
3 cups diced carrots
2 to 3 cups diced onions
1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes with juice
1 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup medium-dry sherry or medium-dry white wine
6 ounces uncooked pasta such as ziti or rotini
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or olive oil, for browning
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 to 1 teaspoon dried rosemary or thyme
Crusty French or Italian bread for serving
Truss chicken and brown on all sides in oil in separate pan on top of stove. Put chicken in cooker, breast side down. Sauté carrots and onions in pan on top of stove. Deglaze pan with 1 can chicken broth and add entire contents of sauté pan to the cooker. Cut tomatoes into smaller pieces. Add tomatoes with juice to cooker. Add Worcestershire and season with salt, pepper and rosemary or thyme to taste. Top up with water, to fill line inside cooker.
Put cover on cooker and seal. Bring up to pressure then reduce heat and cook for 25 minutes. Open cooker when pressure has dropped. Remove chicken from cooker and remove all meat and skin from the bones. Discard bones and skin. Shred the meat and set aside, keeping warm.
Putting the cooker back on the heat, bring broth and vegetables to a boil. Add pasta and 1 can chicken broth. Cook, uncovered, until pasta is tender. Add chicken. Stir and serve with crusty bread. Ladle into serving bowls and sprinkle with Parmesan or Romano cheese, if desired.
— Chef Wolfgang Puck
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Contact staff writer Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6354.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...