The once-lowly, long-forgotten and much-maligned pressure cooker is making a comeback.
With an increasing number of cooks, the secret is out. This 1950s relic of your grandparents' kitchen is not only new and improved and safer these days, it also saves time, creates more flavor and allows energy-saving advocates to make good on their commitment to be green.
Some of the most creative and demanding figures in the professional culinary game have become converts to cooking with pressurized steam.
Nathan Myhrvold, the force behind the $625, 2,400-page publishing sensation called "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking," has referred to the pressure cooker as "magical" and claims it as his favorite appliance, even though the wealthy former Microsoft executive's test kitchen is outfitted with every high-tech gadget known to food science.
H. Alexander Talbot, co-author (with his wife, Aki Kamozawa) of the ground-breaking "Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work," ($25) has experimented with the pressure cooker for all kinds of recipes, including making veal stock in 45 minutes (instead of three days) and wowing readers of the couple's website, Ideasinfood.com, by creating a risotto with sunflower seeds instead of rice. In a phone interview from his home in Levittown, Pa., Talbot said he first tried the pressure cooker several years ago while working as a chef of a boutique hotel in Colorado. His early forays were with legumes. He became sold on the speed, efficiency and, more than anything, "the flavor delivery."
"It snowballed from there and we started pressure cooking everything and anything," Talbot said. "Pressure cooking is brilliant."
Laura Pazzaglia wasn't trying to be cutting-edge or creative when she tried a pressure cooker for the first time several years ago. After watching a friend cook dinner in 10 minutes, Pazzaglia knew she had found the solution to her time-crunched life. She cooked and experimented using a pressure cooker, so much so that she began compiling her discoveries, advice and recipes on a website she created, Hippressurecooking.com.
Pazzaglia, who spent 25 years in San Francisco, now lives in a town outside Rome with her Italian husband and two young children, and is working on a hip pressure cooking cookbook.
"Back then, I just wanted to make meals really fast," she said by telephone of her early trials with pressure cooking. "Because there is so little evaporation in the pressure cooker, all of the liquid stays put. The best way to see for yourself is (with) the flavor. I like to say it's flavor in HD (high definition)."
While thrilled with the power and potential of this appliance – as fast as a microwave but without drying out the ingredients – Pazzaglia soon discovered limitations. There weren't many great recipes. She said proponents of pressure cookers didn't emphasize aesthetics – they simply spooned or dumped their delicious but often unsightly creations on a plate. Pazzaglia figured she could take pressure cooking to new heights and she began writing about and photographing her efforts.
"Nobody was giving justice to pressure cooked food," she said. "A lot of people just need to be visually stimulated by what they eat."
Pazzaglia's website has a section devoted to explaining the wonders of the pressure cooker – a basic pot with a sealed lid that prevents steam from escaping and, for safety's sake, a locking mechanism and a release valve.
Once pressure is reached, the heat on the burner can be turned down to low, and the food cooks at a constant temperature with little energy used. Off heat, the pressure can be maintained in some instances for many minutes, allowing food to cook without using using any power.
Pazzaglia figures food cooks 70 to 90 percent faster than conventional methods. "Chickpeas are ready in 13 minutes under pressure instead of an hour and a half," she writes on her site, "a fall-apart roast is ready in 30 minutes instead of 1 1/2 to 2 hours, potatoes in 10 minutes instead of 45 minutes and most other vegetables only require 5 minutes or less to be fully cooked."
In the interview, Pazzaglia says busy home cooks should reach for it "any time they need to steam, boil or braise anything. The only thing it doesn't do is slice and dice."
Modern pressure cookers don't have the same safety concerns of the models from generations past. Pressure release valves and locking mechanisms that prevent the lid from opening when the pot is under pressure have reduced accidents. Still, the appliances come with safety and maintenance instructions to prevent mishaps.
As corporate chef at Preferred Meats, a supplier to top restaurants from the Bay Area to Sacramento, John Paul Khoury often finds himself testing recipes at his Elk Grove home. More and more, he's using his pressure cooker, which he discovered about five years ago by watching the hit TV show "Iron Chef" and by reading Ideasinfood.com. Before that, he hadn't seen one used in a professional setting.
"It's definitely old-school and a home-cook type of thing. But I am in love with the thing," Khoury said. "It's probably my favorite piece of equipment, since the vacuum pack, that I've purchased in the last 10 years."
Many see the pressure cooker as a useful tool for high-end, even so-called modernist cooking. Khoury concurs.
"You're using science. You're raising the atmospheric pressure to raise the temperature of a boiled liquid and then encapsulating the steam, not letting anything escape," he said. "You're speeding up the penetration of liquid, of breaking down of collagen (in meat). The pressure cooker does all of that. I did pork carnitas last night in 20 minutes. It's completely encased in steam, and that pressure accelerates the breakdown of collagen, so what you have is cleaner flavors."
Khoury added: "I was in professional kitchens for 25 years. We never had pressure cookers. Now, all of the sudden the pressure cooker has become huge. To do braised greens in 8 minutes (see recipe below), and have them be delicious, it used to take at least an hour and a half."
Pazzaglia says pressure cooking is good for meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, fruits and legumes, and that the appliance can be used for browning, boiling, steaming, braising and stewing. With the lid off, sauces can be reduced or thickened.
"Ideas in Food's" Talbot continues to employ the pressure cooker for his unusual and exciting recipe creations showcased online. He says he and Kamozawa have a new book coming out in October titled "Maximum Flavor," in which the pressure cooker will figure prominently.
The secret is science
Pressure cookers vary in size, with standard models ranging from 5 to 8 quarts. The premise is simple: Use liquid in the pot to create steam that's trapped inside by a tightly sealed lid.
According to the book "Cooking Under Pressure" by Lorna Sass, "At sea level, the atmospheric pressure is 14.7 pounds per square inch and the boiling point is 212 degrees Fahrenheit. When the pressure in the cooker is increased to 15 pounds above normal sea-level pressure, the boiling point of water increases to 250 degrees Fahrenheit."
That one bit of food science magic allows for all kinds of cooking possibilities, including soup and stews made much faster and often with deeper flavors, tender roasts in half the time, and time- consuming risotto in minutes. The pressure cooker works best with meats, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
Presto, Fagor and Kuhn Rikon are among the popular models, with prices from around $50 to more than $200.
Pressure cooker greens
Pressure cooker easy chicken
Pressure cooker farfalle all'arrabbiata (spicy bow ties)
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.