From Season 13: Short Ribs and Chops Hit the Grill
Pressure cookers can be intimidating. Before I began testing them, I had heard countless stories about exploding cookers—usually ones belonging to someone’s grandmother. This made the whole enterprise seem mysterious and dangerous, or at least very messy. But after spending weeks testing 12 models of pressure cookers, I can report that they are as safe as any other cookware—and definitely worth getting to know. Pressure cookers are surprisingly simple to use and in less than an hour can produce food that tastes as if you spent all day over the stove. You don’t have to tell a soul that your savory, fork-tender pot roast, pulled pork, short ribs, or stew cooked in record time—and most of that time was hands-off. Dried beans are creamy and tender after just 10 minutes under pressure. Risotto needs just 6 minutes under pressure to reach the perfect consistency. Recipes once saved for weekends, or the slow cooker, can be started when you get home from work.
Pressure cookers function based on a very simple principle: In a tightly sealed pot, the boiling point of liquid is higher. As the pot heats up, pressure begins to build. This pressure makes it more difficult for water molecules to turn to vapor—therefore raising the boiling point from 212 to 250 degrees. Why does this matter? The superheated steam generated in the cooker makes food cook faster. And because the pot stays closed, cooking requires much less liquid than usual, and flavors concentrate. As a bonus, this method also uses less energy: Once pressure is reached, you cook with the heat turned down as low as possible, and cooking times are short.
Pressure cookers have been around for a long time. In 1679, French mathematician and physicist Denis Papin invented the “steam digester,” the earliest-known pressure cooker; still, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that smaller pressure cookers were introduced for home cooks. After World War II, demand boomed for pressure cookers, and some accounts note that unscrupulous manufacturers made shoddy cookers that were prone to explosions. Older cookers had “jiggle tops” that rattled and puffed while they cooked. Today’s models use spring-loaded valves, which are silent and vent mere wisps of steam when pressurized. In other words, today’s pressure cookers are quieter and simpler and have many more safety features than your grandmother’s cooker did.
Across-the-board improvements over the years didn’t necessarily mean that all models would work equally well, and we wondered what characteristics to look for in a good pressure cooker. They certainly look similar, resembling large metal saucepans or stockpots, but with heavy lids that have removable silicone rings, called sealing gaskets, around their inner rims. We selected sturdy, nonreactive stainless steel over aluminum cookers and came up with eight stovetop cookers—most with an 8-quart capacity—from a wallet-friendly $65 or so to a whopping $280. (We tested four electric pressure cookers separately. Ultimately, we preferred the stovetop models. See “Electric Pressure Cookers” under related content.) We used each of the models to prepare risotto; chicken stock; beef stew; Boston baked beans; and thick, meaty tomato sauce with pork ribs. Since plenty of recipes call for sautéing food in the bottom of the pot before sealing the lid for pressure cooking, we checked evenness of browning by cooking crêpes in the pan bottoms.
Sizing Them Up
While 6-quart cookers are popular, we soon realized the value of more capacity. First, you must never fill a pressure cooker more than two-thirds of the way (lines indicate the maximum level), which limits the available space. Some recipes don’t fit in 6-quart cookers, including ours for chicken stock (for our test, we had to cut down the recipe). And if you can make 3 quarts of stock in the same time it takes to make 2 quarts, why not buy a pot that allows you to produce a bigger quantity?
The shape of the pot was equally important. Low, wide cookers provided a generous cooking surface, helping food brown thoroughly and efficiently before the cook closes the pot. Wide pots also let us brown meat in fewer batches. And testers found this shape easier to see and reach into while working. The narrowest among our cookers was a mere 6 1/8 inches across; most were around 7 1/2 inches, but the best performers had interior cooking surfaces of 9 inches in diameter—almost as much space as you get across the bottom of a 12-inch skillet.
But shape plays another role: Stovetop pressure cookers are made with a thick metal disk base (an aluminum disk covered by stainless steel, attached to the pan bottom) to retain and regulate heat. Every manufacturer warns that you must keep the heat source directly under that disk, since flames licking up the sides of the pot will damage the locking mechanisms in the handles and the sealing gasket around the rim. Trouble is, because that disk base is expensive to make, manufacturers keep it as small as possible: In many of our models, the disks were even smaller than the bases of the pots, which ballooned out over the burner. In these models food routinely scorched wherever the base did not shield it from direct heat, and later we spent more time scrubbing those pots clean. Using a smaller flame under a smaller disk also means the pot heats up more slowly, taking minutes longer to reach pressure—minutes that you’ll need to wait by the stove. Straight-sided pots with broad disks performed best in our cooking tests, and cleanup was easier with them.
This leads us to the next point: steady heating. With stovetop cookers, you bring the contents up to a boil, wait for the pressure indicator to show that it’s at high pressure, and then turn down the heat as low as possible while maintaining pressure. This operation was dead easy with some pots but tricky with other models, in which the pressure tended to drop after we turned down the heat, forcing us to hover, adjusting it up and down like a yo-yo. Cookers whose pressure dropped too readily produced meat, beans, and rice that were not sufficiently tender by the end of the cooking time; after tasting these, we had to close the pot and bring it back to pressure for several minutes to finish the job, introducing guesswork. What made the difference? The bottom thickness of the cookers ranged from 4.64 millimeters to 7.24 millimeters. The top two performers were the thickest, both more than 7 millimeters thick. These cookers’ wide, thick bottoms retained heat well, resulting in quickly reaching pressure, followed by steady, hands-off cooking.
In pressure-cooker recipes, cooking times begin only after you reach the desired pressure, which is indicated with a pop-up stick or button on the cooker. Maddeningly, some manufacturers set these indicators deep in a hole, making us lean over the cooker to see them, while others were confusing to interpret. The best models had pressure indicators that were brightly colored, prominently raised, and easy to read at a glance from several feet away.
Pressure cookers always require a minimal amount of liquid in order to generate the steam that cooks the food. As the cookers heat up, valves in their lids generally release a trickle of steam right until the moment they come to pressure, but a few continued venting lightly throughout cooking. Cookers that allow less evaporation are less prone to scorch during cooking from loss of liquid. Though evaporation loss didn’t affect the final quality of the particular dishes we tested, it can be an issue in recipes that call for only a small amount of liquid. Therefore, we gave points to models with little evaporative loss. When we heated 32 ounces of water for an hour at high pressure, the average loss was just more than 2 ounces. But one model lost 5.6 ounces—more than 1/2 cup of water, or 17.5 percent of the total. Many of our preferred models, on the other hand, evaporated only 0.8 ounce.
Finally, we measured the temperature reached by each cooker at high pressure—after all, temperature correlates directly with pressure. “High pressure” for a pressure cooker is considered to be 15 pounds per square inch (psi) above atmospheric pressure, which is reached when the liquid in the cooker is boiling at 250 degrees. The majority of pressure-cooker recipes call for this standard. But most of these cookers never achieved that temperature. We boiled water for 30 minutes at high pressure with each model and measured the internal temperature. We found that our three top-performing cookers reached or came closest to 250 degrees, but as we went down the lineup, cookers’ top temperatures steadily declined: The lowest reached only 230 degrees, which is 6 psi. (The bottom-ranked cooker was the exception—it failed on other factors.) It was no great mystery, then, why we’d found the cooking results less satisfying in our bottom-ranking models. Food wasn’t fully cooked at the designated time in these pots, forcing us to close the lid and repressurize, unsure how much longer to cook. (One took 10 extra minutes, adding almost 50 percent to the original cooking time.)
After testing was complete, we had a clear winner. Sturdily built, with a low and wide profile, steady heating, an easily monitored pressure indicator, a convenient automatically locking lid, and low evaporation, this cooker was a pleasure to use and produced perfect finished dishes. It was also the only cooker in our testing to reach 250 degrees, or 15 psi, at high pressure, so it should perform accurately in all standard pressure-cooker recipes. But at its price, it’s an investment. Our Best Buy performed nearly as well at a fraction of the price. It is similar in shape and size to our winner, and while it’s not as expensively constructed (it is lighter and feels more “economy”) and its peak temperature under pressure fell slightly short of the 250-degree target, its cooking results were very good. Above all, it’s easy to operate, even if you’re new to pressure cooking.
Victorinox (formerly Victorinox Forschner) 6-inch Straight Boning Knife: Flexible
The nonslip grip and narrow, straight blade let testers remove the smallest bones with precision and complete comfort. Perfectly balanced with enough flexibility to maneuver around tight joints. The low price was a bonus.
|★ ★ ★||★ ★ ★||$19.95|
Wüsthof Classic Boning Knife
Hefty in weight, this knife was a solid performer when removing poultry bones, and the handle was easy to grip, even when covered in chicken fat. Piercing silver skin was a challenge since the tip wasnt sharp enough and the long narrow blade produced slightly jagged cuts.
|★ ★||★ ★ ★||$99.95|
|Recommended with Reservations|
Mundial Boning Knife: Flexible
The sharp tip performed well when removing silver skin, but it was too flexible when maneuvering around poultry joints, leaving testers feeling a lack of control. The heavy handle was slightly unbalanced and became slippery once covered in poultry fat.
|★ ★||★ ★||$19.95|
Shun Gokujo Filet Knife
Designed to replicate a samurai blade, this expensive knife was a disappointment. It struggled to pierce the silver skin, although long cuts were smooth and even. Minimal flexibility and extreme curve got in the way when maneuvering around joints. The smooth handle was hard to grip and slippery.
MAC Boning KnifeChef Series
The large, cumbersome handle reminded testers of an outdoors knife for fishing and hunting. The blade was too wide to maneuver around joints and it struggled to pierce silver skin. Unlike other knives, this boning knife could only slice in one direction, making intricate cuts around joints difficult.
Messermeister San Moritz Elite Flexible Boning Knife
The blade was so flexible it led to erratic cuttings; testers said the knife was hard to control. The blade was not sturdy enough to maneuver around joints and the lightweight handle felt flimsy and unbalanced.