Remember when there were no food processors? My mom, a “gourmet” cook before “foodies” existed, used just a blender and a hand mixer until the mid-1970s when home cooks started buying this new appliance. All of a sudden, dishes that had been out of reach to the home cook tumbled into daily meals. Pesto, bread and pastry doughs, emulsified sauces, sorbets — everything became easier — once mom learned how to use it.
Recently another appliance has arrived on the scene to revolutionize home cooking yet again. Though first introduced in 2010, the Instant Pot multi-cooker was not widely available until 2014. Busy folks (especially those who were not really into cooking) embraced it. Just a few years later, social media feeds are flooded with Instant Pot tips, tricks, recipes and hacks. Now that we all have the latest miracle kitchen appliance, how can we maximize its effectiveness and cook tasty food faster?
In his 1976 classic, “New Recipes for the Cuisinart Food Processor,” James Beard told cooks to “review your recipes and then figure out how the processor can act as another person in your kitchen.” We suggest a similar approach to the Instant Pot, a powerful tool with equally powerful limitations. The pot is only as good as the cook who uses it — as a wise friend told me, “it’s just a pot; you are the master” — and there are a lot of terrifying recipes floating around. Pay attention to a few guidelines, and your multi-cooker can become your most beloved sous-chef, as long as you do the chopping.
Use your instincts
If a recipe doesn’t call for salt or suggests an ingredient you aren’t comfortable with, adjust to your family’s tastes. Recipes from unfamiliar sources — like the thousands trending on Pinterest and other social media — can be wild cards and should be seen as guidelines for technique. Stick with the minimum amount of liquid needed (roughly 1 cup for all cooking under pressure) — you can always add more. And trust the timing! After much experimenting, I have learned that I am more likely to overcook than undercook when using the pressure cooker.
Set reasonable expectations
While the electric pressure cooker function can make a truly remarkable biryani or a perfect risotto with little effort and in very little time, you still have to follow the basic rules of good cooking. If your spices are old and dusty, or you’ve bought the wrong type of rice, your Instant Pot may act more like a garbage can. Remember, you don’t have to convert your whole kitchen repertoire to succeed with an electric pot. Old favorites like pasta and veggie stir-fry, for example, probably don’t benefit from being taken off the stovetop.
Enjoy your time off
Braising, as my chef friend once said, can be a “sacred ritual.” The Zen of perfectly browning, deglazing and simmering ingredients for a stew can be incredibly therapeutic, and there’s no match for the deep, long-simmered flavors. Use the Instant Pot to buy you extra downtime, but don’t throw out your Dutch oven and give away your conventional cookbooks. Kitchen overachievers use the massive amount of hands-off cooking time they win back to make extra treats they don’t usually have time for or to read a new cookbook.
Like my mom’s food processor, the Instant Pot brings complicated dishes within reach. I made paneer (fresh Indian cheese) in minutes, perfectly jiggly flan and a meaty Sunday gravy that tasted as if it had bubbled all day in under 30 minutes each. (Pro tip: Let your simmered dishes sit for at least 30 minutes before serving. The multi-cooker will keep them warm, while the flavors blend and meld.) I visit parts of my supermarket (hello, dried-bean aisle) I’ve never considered before, and cook elaborate Indian curries, soups and French classics on a weeknight. Resolve to try offbeat vegetables like beets, artichokes or squash, or tasty (and inexpensive) cuts of meat (on the bone if you dare) that once seemed difficult to conquer but can be easily taken down with a few beeps of an Instant Pot.
Try some hacks
I may never boil an egg again now that I have learned to cook them in the electric pressure cooker. The sealed environment allows you to leave them unattended and still be precisely as runny (or not) as you like.
A fun and convenient trick I use frequently is stacking, using trivets and/or steamer baskets to steam multiple types of vegetables and proteins (even frozen!) simultaneously.
Make stock from the bones of that rotisserie chicken you brought home last night, and use it to make a hearty soup or risotto on a weeknight.
Set your oatmeal to be hot and ready when you rise.
Invest in (or dig up) an immersion blender to whiz soups and sauces right in the cooker.
Use the yogurt function for all types of fermentation that call for a low, steady temperature. Your multi-cooker can become a proofer for yeasted waffle or dosa batter, or a safe place to let bread dough rise.
One (Instant) Pot pasta fagioli
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 60 minutes, plus preheating
Makes: 6 to 8 servings
Many of the Instant Pot recipes we found call for cooking the beans separately, but beans are what the pressure cooker function does best. Cook the pasta directly in the soup to thicken the broth and save time on cleanup.
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ pound pancetta or bacon, chopped, optional
1 large onion, diced
1 rib celery, diced
1 carrot, peeled, diced
6 cloves garlic, peeled
1 can (14 ounces) diced tomatoes or 1 large fresh tomato, chopped
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1 pound dried beans (cannellini, Great Northern, pinto, navy, heirloom or a mix)
6 to 8 cups water or stock or a combination
1 cup small dried pasta (small shells work well)
Fresh rosemary, basil and/or parsley, roughly chopped
Freshly grated Parmigiano, Romano or Asiago cheese
Heat the olive oil in the pot on the saute function on medium. Add the pancetta; cook, tossing, until golden. Add the onion, celery and carrot; saute until soft. Add the garlic; saute, 1 minute more. Add tomatoes, salt, oregano and bay leaves; saute, 2 minutes. Add the beans and water (less if you like stewy, more if you like soupy) or stock. Seal the pot and set to pressure cook on high for 45 minutes. It may take up to 20 minutes to come to pressure. Allow pressure to release naturally, about 15 minutes.
Open the lid, and switch the cooker to saute. Once the soup comes to a boil (it will just take a minute), stir in the dried pasta and simmer until cooked, 6 to 8 minutes. Allow to sit for 30 minutes to blend flavors before serving topped with chopped herbs and grated cheese.
Note: If you need a quick project while the pot does its work, combine fresh herbs, Parmigiano, a splash of olive oil and some toasted, seasoned breadcrumbs to make a tasty soup topper.)
Nutrition information per serving (for 8 servings): 179 calories, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 15 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 8 g protein, 612 mg sodium, 2 g fiber