Jill Nussinow, MS, RD, The Veggie Queen™, has taught hundreds of people how to successfully use a pressure cooker.
If you're new to pressure cooking, Jill's book, The New Fast Food: The Veggie Queen™ Pressure Cooks Whole Food Meals in Less than 30 Minutes is the best introduction you could get. If you tried pressure cooking before and it didn't turn you on, this book will turn you on.
If you're a pressure cooker veteran, you'll find that Jill Nussinow's fresh and unique approach will take your pressure cooking to a whole 'nother level of goodness.
Jill's DVD - 'Pressure Cooking: A Fresh Look, Delicious Dishes in Minutes', and her book, 'The Veggie Queen: Vegetables Get The Royal Treatment' - are available at either The Veggie Queen or Pressure Cooking.
I bought my first pressure cooker almost 20 years ago. It sat on the floor, waiting for me to open the box but I was just too scared. I remembered my mother's pressure cooker and the time that it blew up - food all over the kitchen, loud noises, screams, the whole thing. Luckily the only thing that got hurt was my inner child. So, I returned the pressure cooker, still longing to learn how to use one to make my vegetarian eating easier.
I'd heard all about how I could cook beans and grains way faster with a pressure cooker. And I was being told about a woman writing a pressure cooking book by my writing teacher. Her name is Lorna Sass and she is my mentor. When Lorna's book Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure came out in 1994, I knew that I needed a pressure cooker - then. But my son was a baby. I didn't have time to learn how to do pressure cooking. I was left with lingering desire.
Finally a year or two later, I couldn't take it anymore and got a pressure cooker by returning all the holiday gifts that my mother-in-law got me from Williams-Sonoma. I had a brand new Fagor pressure cooker. I took it home and started playing with it. It was safe, quiet and incredibly effective. I became the 'best mom in the world' because I could make my son's favorite lentil soup in less than 20 minutes from start to finish. I could also make his best friend his favorite risotto whenever he came over for lunch, which at that time was every other week.
After a couple of years of using my pressure cooker to make beans, grains, vegetables, soups, stews and chili, and talking about it in my cooking classes, I was urged (almost coerced) to teach the incredible technique to my students. So, I did. I've been teaching pressure cooking for more than 10 years, and now use my cooker every day. But enough about me.
The pressure cooker uses a simple principle - steam builds up in the cooker and the lid is locked on so the pressure builds up. In the modern pressure cooker (the only kind that I use), there is a little button, called a spring valve, that pops up in the lid of the pot. Instead of cooking at 212 degrees F., the temperature of boiling water, you are cooking around 250 degrees F. so food cooks faster. Cooking faster in a pressure cooker results in energy and time savings, less nutrient loss and brighter colors and more developed flavors. Soups taste great when you make them; you don't have to wait for the next day for the flavors to meld.
When the cooker reaches pressure, you turn down the heat to maintain high pressure and start your timer, which is an essential piece of equipment to use with a pressure cooker. Overcooking fast-cooking foods such as vegetables can happen quickly (as in a moment of inattention while talking on the phone) since broccoli or summer squash only take about 1 minute under pressure. Releasing the pressure on the new cookers is easy with a pressure release valve. You don't have to carry a heavy, hot pot to the sink.
There are two ways to release pressure, the quick release (stated above) and the natural pressure release. In the latter, you are still cooking your food while waiting for the pressure to come down. It works best for grains and for beans that you will be using for salads as quick releasing the pressure can cause the beans to split apart. The quick release works best for foods where you need to control the timing and degree of cooking.
What can you cook in the pressure cooker? Anything that needs liquid is easily cooked in it. You can use the basket and steam food but I prefer to cook right in the bottom of the cooker. You can make incredible sliced beets in just 3 minutes, black beans in 4 to 6 minutes at pressure, brown rice in 22 minutes under pressure (and then the natural release time of 5 to 10 minutes), and that lentil soup takes just 6 minutes at high pressure.
The high heat of pressure cooking results in quick cooked food that tastes like you spent a long time cooking. Lorna Sass calls it 'two hour taste in 10 minutes'. And I agree. As for the cooking, the best way to learn is by using some basic rules and then experimenting.
No matter which brand of pressure cooker you choose, remember that the pot can only be one-half to two thirds full, depending upon the contents. I suggest choosing the largest cooker, 6-quart or more, that your budget and cabinetry will allow. Avoid aluminum and choose stainless steel. Look for a little button that pops up as opposed to any mechanism that will jiggle or hiss.
A pressure cooker is an investment and one that will pay off in the long run (with time, energy - yours and the planet's - and money) but you can expect to pay upwards of $100 for a good one so don't let it sit in the box. Take it out and try it (using the water method mentioned below) to be sure that you want to keep it. Otherwise return it and try again.
I use a stove top cooker and have used an electric cooker but found that I had less control with the electric (plug-in) type for what I do. It's good for items that don't require trigger-timing such as quick-cooking vegetables.
The most popular brands of stove-top cookers are Fagor, Kuhn Rikon, WMF and Aeternum and they are all from Europe. I can only comment on those that I have used, and I'll make it brief. I use the Fagor cooker the most often, as it is affordable and reliable. I tell my students that if they are happy driving their Camrys or Hondas, then a Fagor, from Spain, is fine for them. If they must drive a Mercedes or BMW, then they ought to get a Kuhn Rikon, which is Swiss-made, and just a bit better engineered, in the same way that there is a difference in the automobiles. They'll each get you where you want to go but do it in a different style.
My favorite Fagor models are Futuro, their newest, and the Duo. I think that the sets are the best value but you can only use one cooker at a time. You can cook something, though, and cover it with the glass lid to stay warm while you cook the next dish.
Expect to spend $120+ for a Fagor Duo, unless you find the 'stripped down' model at Costco, or an older model at a store such as Ross, where you can often get one for about $50. Macy's often has the Fagor cookers on sale, so watch for them. The Kuhn Rikon is a good cooker but it costs about 50% more.
I would rather see you buy 2 cookers and use them both than buy one expensive one but it's your choice. I have not personally used the other 2 cookers mentioned but know people that have used them and like them. The only downside that I can see with the Aeternum (from Italy) is that it's not easy to get the lid on and off but like with anything else, it may be that once you get used to it, it's not a problem.
I cannot comment on the WMF as I have never seen nor used one. They are comparable in cost to the Kuhn Rikon. As for the electric cookers, I know of the Russell Hobbs which has electronic controls which may be good or bad. I have a different electric cooker (from QVC which I purchased at a garage sale) and never got the hang of using it as the timer was hard to control and I could never do a quick-release effectively.
No matter what time of year, when you want the 'new fast food' such as soup, stew or chili, and easy to cook vegetable dishes, think about using your pressure cooker. It cuts cooking time by about half, requires little, if any, fat, boosts flavor, retains more nutrients and relives the daily pressure of getting dinner on the table, giving you more time to enjoy the other parts of your life.
The first step in using any pressure cooker is to put in about a half-inch of water in the cooker and bring it to pressure. Then either quick release the pressure or let it come down naturally so you can see how it behaves.