When Work Imitates Life
January 9th, 2012 - By Lari Robling
Last week when taping my piece on using a pressure cooker for dried beans, I was sufficiently impressed with the ease and speed that I decided to buy one for my home kitchen.
Some online product comparison whittled down the options. While the cooker used in the piece was an electric self-contained unit, most of the online comments suggested that these are given to scorching. I also found the electronic control panel with its myriad of settings and beeps too confusing. In terms of price, the inexpensive cookers are sometimes made with aluminum or can be thin steel making them less energy efficient and too easy to dent.
Some friends gave a thumbs up to the mid-range Presto cookers as sturdy, but a little easier on the budget. In the end, I went to the more expensive although highly recommended (number one in Cooks Illustrated) Fagor brand. Features include two pressure settings and a well constructed heavy gauge 18/10 stainless steel pot with three safety valves in the lid. (see top picture)
This set includes a four quart and eight quart pot, a strainer basket for steaming, and a glass lid so you can use the pots as you would any other pot without pressure. I liked the idea of being able to do both big and small batches.
After reading the directions it basically boiled down to these two general rules to keep in mind:
"Keep your vents clean,
Oil your gasket to prevent cracking"
I figured a quick chili recipe using pre-cooked beans was an easy way to begin — fifteen minutes from start to finish and there was plenty to pack up in containers and freeze for lunches.
Getting somewhat assured that nothing untoward could happen, I moved onto wild rice. Here's where the pressure cooker's time saving qualities became evident. Usually, I plan about an hour for wild rice but I had perfect rice in twenty-five. On a busy weekday night that extra thirty-five minutes is precious. I hope this encourages me to add more whole grains such as brown rice or wheat berries in my diet.
To go with the rice, I poached a salmon filet in the pressure cooker. While it took only four minutes, truthfully it's not much of a time gain since it would probably have taken ten minutes stovetop and I would be able to check it for doneness as it cooked.
Getting bolder, I tried cooking two whole beets. Now, the only ones I could find were GIGANTIC…. weighing a pound each. Ordinarily I'd prefer medium size beets just several ounces each which would have taken about fifteen minutes. Although I could have cut them and steamed them to reduce cook time, I decided to give them a try in their overgrown state and set the timer for forty-five minutes.
Now I need goat cheese for a BIG beet salad!
Let's get back to my original premise for the expenditure: dried beans. We're advised to add these nutritional nuggets to our diet and while canned beans are considered a convenient way to do that, I find them much too mushy, salty and lacking real bean flavor. Not to mention, you can find interesting heirloom varieties in the dried options. The downside is the pre-soaking and the cook time. A pressure cooker cuts the cook time by a half to a third, and while a short soak of an hour is recommended, it isn't necessary. I tried one of my favorites… the Lila bean from Rancho Gordo.
I did a quick one hour pre-soak and cooked them nineteen minutes under pressure and a fifteen minute slow release (instead of releasing the pressure by running cold water over the top or releasing the vent, the pot sits off the heat which allows the food to continue cooking in the residual heat). So, I replaced the overnight soak with an hour and the cook time went from about ninety minutes down to about thirty-four.
A pot of perfect beans flavored with garlic, onion, thyme and bay leaf! One cup of dried beans yields at least two cups which was plenty to make a quick meal with a pork chop and freeze some for making refried beans or soup later.
So far I love cooking under pressure. The only down side might be storing the pots in my limited cupboard space, although if I keep using them this much they may never make it off the stove!