How We Learned to Love the Pressure Cooker

Mention pressure cookers and we think of those 1970s urban legends of scalding pasta sauce exploding all over faces and avocado-green ranges. But seeing the appliances in constant rotation on competitive cooking shows like Top Chef made us in the CHOW.com Test Kitchen reconsider: Maybe it was time to stop fearing and start testing.

Since the point of pressure cooking is to speed up cooking times, we decided to test dishes that take a long time: osso buco (pictured), black bean chili, and short ribs. Then we went shopping.

There are two types of cookers, manual and electric. While the latter seemed less scary due, in part, to its auto shutoff feature, we ultimately went manual. Our manual pressure cookers could go directly onto the flame for browning meats, without the need for other pans. (The electric cooker we tried had a "brown" setting, but it just didn't work very well.)

After a few trial runs with beans and oatmeal to master the basics (properly securing the lid, reading the pressure gauge), we bought veal shanks to test osso buco.

Testing with oatmeal had taught us that one of the most important elements of pressure cooking is liquid: not enough and the food scorches; too much and your dish ends up bland. Getting it right was key, and challenging. With a pressure cooker, you pretty much have to throw everything in and hope it all turns out well, since the lid is locked until the cook time is over. You don't have the benefit of seeing the food as it cooks and adjusting the liquid.

This was also a challenge for determining cook time, since we couldn't just stick a fork in the meat to judge if it was tender. Consequently, the first batch of osso buco was flabby and gelatinous, as if we'd boiled it (it cooked about 25 minutes on medium-low pressure).

We made two mistakes. First, we needed to cook the shanks longer, so we upped the time to 30 minutes. Second, our fear of exploding pots had caused us to cook at pressure that was too low. On a subsequent test for short ribs, we figured out that seeing steam escape the cooker was actually a good sign, an indication that the meat within was becoming tender. For our second attempt at osso buco, we upped the setting to high, enough to keep a steady wisp of steam coming out. The meat came out tender, as if from a nice braise, and not at all rubbery. Fears conquered.

Check back in a couple weeks for our final pressure cooker recipes!

Just for fun, here's a sheet from our notes:

Photo by Roxanne Webber

Roxanne Webber is the former senior features editor at CHOW.com.