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Volume II
July 30, 2004

Cook'n Under Pressure
Desiri Wightman, RD

          I think I'm in love! I just pressured up melt-in-your-mouth barbecue ribs! On top of the ribs, I placed whole, unpeeled russets. In about 30 minutes, tender ribs and moist baked potatoes graced our dining table. I could not believe it! To get such delicious food with minimal effort and to keep the oven off on a 94° - July day is more than marvelous. No, I don't just think I'm in love. I know I'm in love with my soon-to-be-daily-used pressure cooker! How or why did I ever make meals without it?

Volcanic Kitchen
          Like you, I grew up with a preconceived panic when it came to the pressure cooker. My mom only used it occasionally, but I remember being afraid of the pan itself. Whenever it sat upon the stove, I feared that if anyone walked too noisily, spoke too loudly, or disrupted it in anyway, our ceiling, clothes, and faces would be spattered with skin-scalding food. My mom certainly did a thorough job of warning us of its dangers and keeping us on tiptoes whenever food cooked in this pot, pressured or not.

          When I received a pressure cooker as a wedding gift, panic resurged. I tucked the pan away in the back of my cupboard until I hypothesized that in the 15+ years since my mother used her pressure cooker, safety improvements must have been made. Overlooking the multiple CAUTION warnings printed on the instruction manual, my hypothesis proved correct. In the pressure cookers of today, it is nearly impossible to blow up your kitchen, due mostly to the addition of safety valves that open and release excess steam if the pressure gets too high. No worries! Safe, fast, delicious! You've got to use a pressure cooker.

How It Works
          Normally water boils at about 212° F (100 C), give or take depending upon your altitude. When pressure comes into play, however, the water boils at 250° F (120° C.). At this temperature, the fibers in food (like meat or dry beans) tenderize in about 1/3 of their traditional cooking time. Additionally, because of shorter cooking times, more nutrients, natural color, and flavor are retained in the cooked food, instead of leaching out when exposed to prolonged cooking.

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Recipe Adaptations
          I think I would've found my pressure cooker's hiding spot sooner had the recipes that came with the manual been a little less gourmet . . . a little more feasible on the family budget. Does Boiled Fresh Beef Tongue or Chinese Flavored Oxtails sound like something you'd want to eat? Just think what my kids would've said! Armed with a little more info on pressure cooking, I soon learned I could create some of my home-style meals in that pot . . . food my family would actually devour. I've been experimenting with a few conventional recipes and adapting them to my cooker. Your best resources for recipe adaptation are 1) the timing charts and recipes in your cooker's instruction manual, and/or 2) a cookbook on pressure cooking. These will help you guesstimate, based on similar ingredients in the many recipes found in the books, how much liquid to add and how much time you need to cook your recipes. In the event that neither of these are available, you will find some hints below to help you adapt your everyday recipes to pressure cooking.

          First of all, answer the question : Which recipes work well in a pressure cooker? Think of recipes that cook in liquid or ones that require soaking, simmering, stewing, braising, simmering. You've got the idea (soups, stews, tough cuts of meats, curries, risotto, some pasta dishes, dried beans, some desserts, or vegetables). Pot roasts, round steaks, turkey, chicken, lamb, stewing beef, short ribs . . . all of these can be pressured into sumptuous meals in a third of their conventional cooking time.

          Because the tight seal of the cooker prevents much water from evaporating, the amount of liquid in a conventional recipe needs to be decreased in a pressure cooker. This will prevent your soup from becoming too watery or your gravy from becoming too thin. The instruction manual of your cooker will tell you the minimum amount of liquid required to pressure cook. Always place in the minimum needed. Then as you prepare your recipe, cut back on additional liquid or saucy ingredients somewhat. As foods are pressured, they release their own juices. Plan on a water release of about 1/4-cup for every 2 cups of raw vegetables. (Onions and mushrooms are practically all water!) A good stew only takes up to 2 cups of liquid to pressure-cook for a nice consistency.

          What if you overestimated in the liquid department? After the pressure is released, remove the lid, bring the contents to a boil and reduce the liquid naturally. You could also add a roux to thicken it to the desired consistency. What if you underestimated? Oh-oh, hope you have a good scrubber handy!

          Some conventional dishes instruct you to add a roux or thickening agent at the beginning of the cooking process. Then as the meal cooks over low heat, the liquid becomes saucy. However, in the high heat of pressure cookery, the thickeners tend to scorch. Therefore, plan to thicken pressure-cooked sauces, soups, and stews after the pressure release. Make a roux, whisk it in, and cook your sauce until it reaches the desired consistency. For an array of thickening options, see the article "Sauce Elements".

          Pressure cookers need space above the food for steam to build up, creating the required pressure. For this reason, never fill your pressure cooker over 2/3 full (1/2 full for foaming grains, beans, lentils, or rice). Check your manual for the minimum liquid requirements for getting a good steam produced and to avoid scorching the meal.

          To keep food from scorching during the high heat of the cooking time, layer the ingredients of the recipe in such a way that foods with sugars or starch in them are off the bottom of the cooker. For example, when making a tomato pasta dish, put the liquid on the bottom, then the trivet, the noodles and then end with the tomato sauce on the top. Don't stir. Just let the sauce infuse through the noodles during cooking. You'll enjoy plenty of stirring time after the lid is lifted to further blend the ingredients but will miss out on the scorched color and taste of tomato sauce.

          While the high heat of pressure cookery is advantageous to the cook's time schedule, it isn't so kind to the herbs and spices that season the food. They often become flat in the cooking process. To remedy this, add only whole spices prior to cooking, and then after pressure release, season the cooked food with ground spices or fresh herbs. When food flavor demands spice be present in the initial cooking (such as in curries), add one-third more ground herbs to the pot. Garlic is an exception, though. Granulated or powdered garlic survives the heat much better than freshly minced garlic. If a recipe calls for minced garlic, either use the powdered version or toss in a whole clove to achieve optimal savor.

High Altitude
          Various opinions exist as to whether a timing adjustment is needed when pressure cooking at high altitudes. An experienced Colorado cook, Paula Murray, however, believes that none is needed. She writes:

          "I have lived and Pressure Cooked at 7500 to 8500 (and above) foot elevations for over 30 years. If the pressure cooker recipe instructions try to give total cooking time (from cold burner to finished cooking) then you might have to cook a little longer to achieve full pressure [authors note: this is because water boils at a lower temperature at high altitudes and lower heat = less pressure].

          "If, as my cookbooks say, you begin timing from a slow or fast rock of the weight, then the cooking time will be exactly the same. Once the pot reaches 15 PSI, it no longer matters what your altitude is, because your food is now cooking as if you were way below sea level. If I increased my cooking times, from when pressure is reached, it would overcook my foods."

          As long as you start timing your meal from the point the correct pressure is reached, you will need no altitude adjustment.

Timing and Pressure
          Your best source for knowing how long to cook a certain food will be the instruction manual. General guidelines are given in the article
Pressure Cooking: Techniques and Timing for various foods, though, so that you can adapt your favorite conventional recipes to a pressure cooker. These times are based on cooking food at 15 pounds PSI of pressure.
          If, after pressure-release you realize the food isn't cooked all the way, replace the lid, bring the cooker up to pressure again, and cook until done. Did you adjust for altitude? Did your meat start out frozen, requiring a longer cooking time? Did you add enough water to produce steam throughout the entire cooking time?

Jot it down
          As you work to convert traditional recipes to your cooker, be sure to take notes. Did you use enough water? Too much (thin, watered down food)? Too little (scorched)? Were the seasonings adequate? Did you cook it too long or not long enough? With a little effort, you'll soon learn the short-cuts of pressure cookery and enjoy healthy, scrumptious meals with super-hero speed.

         * DVO welcomes your kitchen hints and cooking or nutrition questions! Email us and we'll post your hints and Q/A's in upcoming newsletters! *

Pressure Cooking Techniques and Timing
From Pot to Table
Would you use it?
Are We There Yet?
LIVE VOTE: Do you want more pressure cooker recipes?
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