Why I love my pressure cookers (plus my Shortcut Chicken Stock)

(Skip ahead to Shortcut Chicken Stock)

Yes, that’s pressure cookers, plural.  I have three of them.

My pressure cookers. From left -to-right, the 3 qt T-Fal braiser, the 6 quart T-Fal electric, and my 9 qt Fagor stove-top model.
My pressure cookers. From left -to-right, the 3 qt T-Fal braiser, the 6 quart T-Fal electric, and my 9 qt Fagor stove-top model.

Actually, four, if you count the huge pressure canner that I keep in the basement. But that only gets used once or twice a year, unlike the others, which see use several times a week. I was always fascinated by the notion of pressure cookery.  It started, I think, with  my Aunt Gay, who had one of the Presto aluminum models from the 70s, with the pressure regulator that wobbled back and forth on top, hissing diabolically. (The other object of my intense admiration belonging to my Aunt Gay was her Hoover upright vacuum, but that’s another story.)  She used to to make all sort of things, but in particular, boiling potatoes to be mashed. Imagine, potatoes cooked in 7 minutes!  (Only later, when I begin putting together entire meals on my own did I realize that  the 15 or 20 minutes needed to boil potatoes the normal way gives the cook a bit of a respite in trying to pull together several dishes to be ready at one time. But I digress).

After pleading with my mother, she broke down and bought a Presto. Or maybe I bought it with my allowance. I can’t remember. Anyway, my mother was generally unenthused by the pressure cooker, and used it mainly to speed up the process of steaming Christmas puddings.  I, on the other hand, tried my hand at preparing various stews, soups and steamed desserts.  I was still a rather novice cook, and didn’t really understand the art of making a great braised meat dish.  So most of my efforts yielded rather bland, watery, but oh-so-tender meat, and mushy vegetables. For many years after leaving home for university, I forgot about the pressure cooker, even though did seem to be spending more and more time cooking.

Fast forward to the early 2000’s … I stumbled over  a rather sexy-looking T-Fal pressure pan on sale at The Bay. It was short and wide, sort of like the kind of pan you’d want to use for braising ossobucco.  It was a good price, so I snapped it up. I used it for several years to speed up the cooking of things like root vegetables, and even some braised or stewed meats.  I didn’t use recipes specifically designed for pressure cookers; usually, I’d clamp the lid on, and bring it to pressure for just a few minutes, and then release the pressure and continue cooking the normal way.  This approach was helpful is shaving some time off preparations that took longer than just a few minutes to cook.

Then, late last year, another completely random set of circumstances led me to acquire another pressure cooker. I was trying to use up some credit card loyalty points I had that were going to expire. I had long since given up the credit card, as it had a rather steep annual fee, but the points were still sitting in my account. Too few to get an airline ticket anywhere, but enough to get a friend a Bluetooth loudspeaker for Christmas, and – wait – what is this they have for just the number of points I have left? – An electric pressure cooker!  I had never heard of such a thing.  I must have it!  A few days later, my new toy arrived.  With it’s flashing LEDs, various buttons, sound effects and the removable, non-stick cooking liner, it seemed pretty cool. The only drawback was that at 6 quarts, it wasn’t quite large enough to use for making reasonable quantities of stock, which was what I had imagined I would use it for, as my existing stove-top pressure pan wasn’t large enough either.

Around the same time I started playing with my new electric pressure cooker, I started scouring the Internet for sites or pages that might offer tips on pressure cooking that were more up-to-date than my grandmother’s Meta Given cookbook set from the 1940s. I soon came across a terrific blog/website: hip pressure cooking, by Laura Pazzaglia.  Laura brings to pressure cooking the same zeal that those who used to teach microwave cooking courses had when that appliance first became a mass-market item in the 70s.  She’s tried cooking almost everything in pressure cookers. Some of her ideas hold less appeal for me than others (dessert tamales, beer-can chicken), but she has some great tips and ideas for cooking the kinds of foods we eat today. And I can’t fault her for her enthusiasm. She also has an excellent set of tips on what to look for when shopping for a pressure cooker.  For example, she favours stove-top pans, but she also thinks the electric pressure cooker has a place in many kitchens, especially for more distracted, or even hapless cooks.

Anyway, based on the advice on this site, I purchased a Fagor nine quart stove-top pan.  I rationalized this acquisition by telling myself that I hadn’t actually paid for the electric one … forgetting for the moment the limited space I have to store such things.  While 9 quarts sounds huge, you have to remember that you can only fill a pressure cooker 2/3 to 3/4 full, depending on what you’re cooking. It’s actually a perfect size for making a good quantity of stock or broth. It also is large enough that you can use it for small-batch canning of low-acid foods like vegetables, which can’t be safely preserved without a pressure canner.

So now that I have three devices, what do I use them for?  Well, the big one gets used for large quantities of stock and broth. And for steaming puddings, or cooking multiple things at once (Lorna Sass, another pressure cooking doyenne, explains in detail how you can do this in her books).  To those of you who say “Sacrilege!  A stock MUST be slow simmered!”, there is some truth to that … if you’re making a consumme, or another soup or sauce that requires the kind of perfectly clear, fat-free stock that can be obtained only by slow simmering, and frequent skimming of scum and fat.  But honestly,  if you can get a perfectly delicious, if not crystalline stock in 30 minutes, as opposed to 5 hours, and if all you’re going to do is cook rice in it, or use it as the basis for a stew that’s going to be thickened with starch and made opaque anyway, who cares?!?

My original T-Fal pan gets used for braised-type dishes, where you want a pan with a larger surface area to spread things out. I also use  it for small quantities of broth or stock, especially if the electric pan is being used for something else, like it is this morning. The electric pan is particularly useful for set-it-and-forget-it cooking, and where there’s only one stage of cooking involved, like rice (including risotto – believe it or not, you can make fantastic 8-minute risotto in a pressure cooker), small quantities of broth or stock, soups where you have the base stock already prepared, or smaller quantities of beans. I like it, because it’s unbelievably simple to use. There’s no need to regulate temperature, it’s completely silent, and it shuts itself off when it’s done. It’s not as powerful as the stove top pan: it doesn’t get quite as hot because the pressure doesn’t get quite as high, But it’s a really useful every day appliance. Time will tell how durable it is, and how long it lasts before something breaks. (That’s the main benefit of the stove top models: there is really nothing that can stop working, with the exception of the sealing gasket, which does need replacement every few years. But replacement parts are easily obtained.)

I mentioned earlier that I had two pressure cookers on the go today. I had made some soup with the leftover meat and bones from a leg of lamb in the electric pan yesterday, and put the removable cooking insert full of soup into the fridge last night so that the fat would congeal on top for easy removal before  finishing the soup today. After I had put the soup on again this morning, I decided to throw the scraps from last night’s roast chicken into the smaller pan, along with some bones that I had in the freezer to make a quick chicken stock for the weekend. I don’t have any specific plans for it – it can go into the freezer if I don’t use it.

And herein lies one of the reasons I love to use these devices. With a minimum of preparation, I can throw the ingredients for a broth or stock into the pot, turn the heat on and bring it up to pressure for 20 minutes, strain and degrease it,  and have something far better than canned or tetra-packed broth to use for making something delicious. And for a fraction of the price.  Other reasons I love them:

  • Rice (and risotto): Cooking rice in a pressure cooker, is fast, even brown rice.  An electric pressure cooker makes the job as easy as an electric rice cooker … but has the benefit of being much more versatile. I mentioned making risotto: it’s crazy how easy it is to make a no-stir risotto in a pressure cooker, one that is as good as anything you’d make using the traditional “add-the-broth-bit-by-bit” method. I swear.
  • Beans: You can cook them from their dried state in 20 to 30 minutes. No soaking required.
  • Ribs: Partially cooking them in the pressure cooker renders out a lot of the fat,  and tenderizes them before they go onto the grill.
  • Desserts: Steamed puddings, cheesecakes, flan …

Now what’s wrong with any of that?

I will say that some of the meat dishes I’ve tried that would normally involve long, slow braising have been only satisfactory. For some reason,  it seems that at the super-high temperatures reached in the pressure cooker, meat doesn’t seem to absorb any of the  flavors of other ingredients in the pot. Instead, it tastes rather bland, as if it’s been cooked and then tossed in at the end to whatever else was in the recipe.  I do believe that the complex flavors that come from a long, slow cooking can only be achieved by long, slow cooking. But even with that limitation, there’s lots that pressure cookers are good for.

Shortcut Chicken Stock

By way of an example, here’s how I made this morning’s chicken stock:

  1. First, I tossed into the pan the scraps from last night’s roast chicken.
    Chicken scraps added to pan.
    Chicken scraps added to pan.

    I’m going to reveal something some of you may find gross, but I use ALL the bones from the chicken, even the ones off of people’s plates!  I give them a good rinse with cold water, and then throw them in. I figure that at temperatures approaching 250 degrees, any germs or cooties from bones people have gnawed on will be sterilized.

  2. I added some chicken scraps that had been accumulating in the freezer.IMG_1918
  3. Then I threw in one carrot, roughly chopped, one onion, cut in half (I leave the skin on to give the stock some colour), a stalk of celery, a sprig of thyme,  a crumbled bay leaf and a half dozen peppercorns.  No salt at this point.
    IMG_1919
  4. I added cold water, to just below the top of the contents of the pan.  You don’t want to drown the ingredients, unless you’re aiming for a weak-tasting broth.  Also, you can’t fill a pressure cooker more than three-quarters full, otherwise it might not work properly. IMG_1921
  5. Finally, I put the lid on, put it over the flame, and brought it up to pressure. At that point, I reduced the heat to maintain a faint wisp of steam from the pressure regulator, and let it simmer away.
    IMG_1922
  6. After 20 minutes, I put the pan into the sink, and ran cold water over it to reduce the pressure quickly.  You can let the pressure come down gradually, which takes about 15 minutes, but I was impatient today.  Then, I removed the lid, and voila, finished chicken broth!  It needs to be strained and degreased, but other than that, it’s ready to be cooled and put into the fridge. Note: I didn’t add salt to this batch of broth because I’m still not sure how it’s going to be used. If I’d salted it so that it tasted like something approximating chicken soup, then I couldn’t reduce it for something like a sauce without it being unbearably salty.

Copyright (C) 2015, Allan Risk. All rights reserved.

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