Pressure cooking: Quick and tasty

Married chefs Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot swear by the pressure cooker, which, she says, makes meats "meltingly tender." MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
Married chefs Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot swear by the pressure cooker, which, she says, makes meats "meltingly tender." MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
Posted: November 21, 2012

This time of year, we hear a lot about the slow cooker, a.k.a. the Crock-Pot. Layer ingredients in this magic machine and when you come home from work, presto, dinner is served.

But what if, like most people, you are at work longer than the four to eight hours most slow-cooker recipes list as cook times? What if you don't have enough time in the morning to set the whole thing up before racing out the door? What if, like me, you are just irrational and obsessive enough to worry that the appliance will somehow start a fire?

In this case, I suggest that you replace that slow cooker with an even more magical kind of pot: the pressure cooker. A new, safe generation of this old-school appliance is showing up in more and more places - in celebrity cookbooks and TV kitchens. Even at fine-dining establishments, local chefs - at restaurants such as Le Bec Fin, Will BYOB, and Avalon - are making use of the pressure cooker.

I know what you're thinking, and your fears and memories about this time-saving device are misplaced. You will not have a ceiling coated with soup or a trip to the emergency room.

"Today's pressure cookers are literally foolproof," says Laura Pazzaglia, the writer behind the website Hip Pressure Cooking. "They all have locking lids and backup pressure release valves. They have collapsing gaskets, which are a third backup. You can't open it even by accident if there is any pressure inside," she says.

So, as long as you follow directions, you cannot hurt yourself with a pressure cooker. But you can get flavor-packed meals together in minutes that taste like they took all day. Those big hunks of beast normally reserved for weekend company are now an option on any given Tuesday.

"Braised meats come out beautifully - everything gets so meltingly tender," says Aki Kamozawa, who lives with her husband and fellow chef, H. Alexander Talbot, in Levittown, where they run a culinary consulting business and have earned considerable food-establishment cred as coauthors of the book Ideas in Food and the blog of the same name, which explore the science of why recipes work.

Along with Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine,Ideas in Food provides select recipes and information on using a pressure cooker for a new generation of chefs and food-obsessed hobbyists. A lot of the old-fashioned ingredients like oxtails and short ribs have come back into favor in recent years, and nothing cooks these tough cuts better or faster than the pressure cooker.

"You see them in a lot of restaurants," says Kamozawa. Cubed pork shoulder can be turned into soft shreds perfect for folding into corn tortillas for the kind of tender carnitas you thought you could get only at a taqueria.

Trends aside, busy home cooks have every reason to look to the pressure cooker. "It's fast and simple," says Kamozawa. "You just set a timer and you can go and do other things." A good rule of thumb is that an ingredient will cook in one-quarter to one-third of the time it takes with another method.

The reason is simple. Putting the contents of the pot under pressure by trapping the steam raises the boiling point of water, allowing the contents to get to 250 degrees instead of the usual 212.

Meaty dishes, like the lovely accompanying recipe for short ribs, aren't the pressure cooker's only great trick. Plenty of healthy food fares well in its steamy embrace, too. It's a lifesaver when it comes to dried beans - which taste far better than their canned companions.

"One of my favorite things to pressure-cook is dried beans," says Kamozawa, who also provides a recipe for black bean soup. She correctly points out that usually, by the time you feel like eating them, it's already too late because beans customarily need an overnight soak and an hour or more on the stove. Kamozawa cooks them for five minutes on low pressure to replicate that overnight soak and then drains them before adding flavorful liquids and seasonings and finishing them the rest of the way under high pressure - only about 15 minutes more. She also recommends pressure-steaming hearty whole grains such as farro, spelt, and stone-ground grits.

Because nothing escapes the pot during cooking, the pressure cooker conserves vitamins and minerals as well as flavor. According to Pazzaglia, broccoli cooked this way retains 90 percent of its Vitamin C while steamed broccoli holds onto just 22 percent of its Vitamin C. Pazzaglia recommends pressure-steaming plain carrots and tasting them without any butter or seasoning. "It's like you've never tasted a carrot before," she says. "The flavor is in HD."

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