Pressure cookers can be extremely useful time-savers in the kitchen. By cooking food in an enclosed, pressurized chamber, pressure cookers can cut cooking times by as much as two-thirds. In addition, the cooking process can preserve nutrients within foods in ways that conventional methods do not.
Best of all, today's pressure cookers are safer to use than the pressure cookers that previous generations may have used – multiple safety features like locks and pressure-release valves prevent them from overbuilding pressure and exploding (Read more about pressure cooker safety.). Plus, the way that pressure cookers are designed, they're remarkably easy to use.
If you are on the market for a pressure cooker, here's what you need to know about choosing the right size, features and other options.
Pressure Cooker Size
Pressure cookers come in a wide range of sizes; you might see them ranging from smaller than 4 quarts to 10 quarts or larger. When deciding what size to get, think about how many people you typically cook for. Keep in mind that the types of recipes that are best made in a pressure cooker, such as stews, soups, grains and beans, often lend themselves to be made for large groups of people, or in large batches to freeze or refrigerate leftovers. It's better to buy a larger cooker than you think you'll need, if you have the space and budget for one, because you can cook smaller quantities in a larger cooker, but the reverse is not true.
Also keep in mind that you can only fill a pressure cooker two-thirds full with food (and for foods that expand or foam, such as beans, you should only fill the pot half full), which means that having a 6-quart cooker doesn't mean you'll be able to make 6 quarts of soup.
For a family of four, a 6-quart cooker should be a versatile, useful size. However, larger sizes do allow you to use more accessories, such as steamer inserts, pans or ramekins, or cook bulkier items, such as roasts or whole chickens.
Pressure Cooker Construction and Materials
When choosing a pressure cooker, consider the material that it's made with. Aluminum is lighter in weight, but stainless steel is far more durable. Even better is a stainless steel cooker that has a thick base, preferably with encapsulated aluminum or copper, both of which will help with heat conductivity and retention. You'll also want to take a look at the handles, lid and locking mechanism and make the handles and lid are securely attached. With any size larger than 4 quarts, two handles, or a longer handle with a "helper handle" on the other side, will make it easier and safer to lift when it's hot and filled with food. The cooker should also have a locking lid, with a mechanism that prevents the lid from being opened before pressure is released. This is a fairly standard feature in today's pressure cookers.
The Pressure Regulator
There are several different kinds of pressure regulators, which indicate when the cooker has reached the correct pressure to be cooking your food. They all perform equally as well; it's just a matter of preference as to which one is easier for you to use:
- Spring Valve: This is a valve that pops up out of the cooker and is typically used for cookers that have high and low pressure settings; the valve will pop up to a certain level when it's reached low pressure, and then pop up more when high pressure is achieved (usually there is a line or a color change so you can tell the difference between the two pressure levels).
- Weighted Valve: Also called a jiggle top, this type of pressure regulator sits on top of the steam vent, and begins to rock when pressure is reached, an indication that you can both see and hear (handy if you're doing other things around the kitchen and can't be constantly watching your cooker). With this type of valve, you'll want to make sure it is removable so that you can check the steam valve before each use to make sure it's not clogged with food.
- Modified Weighted Valve: This type of valve is attached to the steam vent but instead of rocking, will release bursts of steam intermittently to maintain pressure; the first sight of steam puffing out of the valve is your indication that pressure has been reached and you can start timing the cooking process.
Between the three types of pressure regulators, many people prefer the spring valve, because it gives an obvious indication of when pressure is reached.
Other Pressure Cooker Features
Some pressure cookers only have one pressure setting (typically 15 pounds per square inch, or psi) while others have both high and low settings (15 and 10 psi, respectively). Most recipes call for cooking food at 15 psi (the high setting). In fact, before buying a cooker, it's a good idea to make sure that the "high" setting actually does correspond to 15 psi, since this is the standard pressure level for most recipes. Checking with the manufacturer or looking at the manual should give this information. The lower setting is good for cooking more delicate items, such as certain types of fish, or tender fruits and vegetables.
Another feature to look for is the pressure release valve. Recipes typically call for releasing pressure in one of several ways: the natural release, in which the pot is removed from the heat and allowed to slowly release its pressure; the cold-water method, in which the pot is doused with cold water to quickly release pressure; and the quick-release method, in which pressure is manually released by opening a valve and letting steam escape quickly. Not all pressure cookers have the ability to do the latter; check to see if there is a knob or dial that allows you to safely and quickly release the steam from inside the pot.
Many pressure cookers come with a number of accessories, such as additional, smaller cooking pots, steamer inserts, glass lids (to transform the pot base into a regular cooking pot) and more. Before springing for these types of sets, consider whether you'll use them, or whether it would be better to opt for a higher-end model that, while it may not have all the extra pieces, might be better quality.
In the long run, choose the best, and highest-quality pressure cooker that you can afford.