Under Pressure. Grandma’s Pressure Cooker in the Modern World

Historically, pressure cookers were utilized as the means to create canned products that could safely last on the pantry shelf. Even though somewhat easy to use, the unit was intimidating due to the pressure gauge, relief valve and clamps resembling a bomb more than a cooktop device. Now they’re seen as old-fashioned and collect dust in kitchen cabinets everywhere, but contemporary chefs are starting to apply pressure cooking’s unique ability to quickly build and preserve flavor. Pressure cookers produce succulent fare using simple physics, in a fraction of the time other cooking methods would take. Because the cooker is tightly sealed and valved, the liquid inside builds pressure, keeping liquid from boiling so the temperature and pressure keep rising. The pressurized environment, hotter than boiling water and intensely moist, cooks the food inside much faster than traditional methods. The tight seal circulates moisture, requiring less water that might dilute flavor, thereby producing more-intense flavor compounds and aroma. 

Intense temperatures also create Maillard or browning reactions, flavor development that’s normally only possible in extremely high, dry heat. Pressure-cooking extends this chemical reaction for a longer time without overcooking. Inventor and Modernist Cuisine at Home author Nathan Myhrvold pressure-cooks carrots with baking soda, an alkaline that encourages Maillard reactions. They’re blended for a savory carrot soup full of roasted flavor, with their velvety texture preserved. You can even apply this technique to dry ingredients: Sealing flour in a mason jar and pressure-cooking creates a unique dry roux, which can be cooked to varying degrees of darkness. This browning effect can also create deeply nutty and roasted products for the pastry kitchen to work into its lexicon: White chocolate can be caramelized without scorching; cooking milk solids for a full ninety minutes creates toasted milk powder, like a dry version of dulce de leche.

So how can this help the modern chef? The simplest application is to reduce the cooking time for ingredients cooked in liquid: Dried legumes are cooked in minutes, not hours; risotto cooks to perfect chewy tenderness in 10 minutes, no stirring required.  Pasta and tomato sauce can happily swim in the same pot from start to finish, saving on time, space and cleanup. Sealed and pressurized, this vessel is particularly effective in braising meats, converting tough collagen in a similar fashion to traditional low-and-slow barbecue.

Though it seems old-fashioned, there’s a place for this rediscovered technology in commercial kitchens. It’s inexpensive, reduces labor time, works well in small spaces, and creates complex and concentrated flavors. Newer pressure cookers are also far safer. They employ plug-in convenience with multiple-preset programming and dishwasher-safe parts. 

Take some of the ideas below as jumping-off points and start your own pressure-cooking experiments.

  • Start small: Little batches of pressure-cooked aromatics and garnishes can be used in minimal amounts across an entire menu. Pressure-cooking sulfurous ingredients like garlic and horseradish mutes some of their more-aggressive flavors, adding roasted notes and a creamy texture.
  • Go inside-out: Use the Maillard reactions normally created in sautéed and roasted foods in more-delicate dishes. For example, the classic bright squash ravioli in a nutty browned butter sauce can be inverted to have caramelized squash inside the stuffed pasta, with a zesty flavored sauce.
  • Stock up: While restaurants may require larger quantities of stock for soups, using pressure cooking to break down connective tissue can make a deeply savory aspic. Chilled and mixed with a meat or vegetable dumpling filling, this can be used in traditional Shanghainese soup dumplings, steamed and bursting with flavorful broth. Vary this recipe in the style of Vietnamese pho, Italian Parmesan broth or Spanish paella for flavors condensed to a single bite.
  • Can-do attitude: Pressure-cooking ingredients sealed in a mason jar brings caramel notes to dry ingredients that would normally scald or evaporate. Try caramelizing yeast or nuts for savory or sweet doughs, or sealing up yogurt or soft fruits like bananas for unique sauce and dessert applications.
  • Braise of glory: The shorter cooking times in a pressure cooker allow for experimentation with tougher cuts. Unlock the bold flavors of pig ears, octopus or beef tendon. You can even offer diners custom braises: a single pre-cooked option like a red wine short rib can be replaced by a variety of proteins and flavor combinations, customized to personal taste and cooked to order.

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