Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Castastrophes Quick Tips. Today’s post was going to have some sort of Pot-related pun as the title, but I think we’re above such blunt jokes here. Yes sir, we’re too high and mighty for that sort of thing at this joint. Not to spliff hairs, but we’re certainly not scraping that low, like a ship bottom dragging on a reef. Er. My point is that I made a choice to be civil, and rewarded myself by blazing through all of these jokes as fast as Domino’s drivers on April 20th. Anyway, today’s post is about Instant Pots. What are they? How do they work? Will they truly cook food instantly? We’ll explore all this and more in today’s post, so tune in, turn on, and drop out.
The Great Sc-out Doors
Why I have an Instant Pot is something of a narrative in its own right. As I’m certain I’ve mentioned before, my family had an extended and thorough history with Boy Scouts through my youth and adolescence. My brothers and I are all Eagle Scouts, my mother was Scoutmaster for several years, and my father was for a time fairly highly ranked in the local Scouting bureaucracy, though I don’t precisely remember what. Some kind of Commissioner. District, perhaps.
As such, my family has, over the years, been very committed to the Scouting Ideal of “be prepared”. We regularly turn up to events with too much stuff, in order to ensure that things go as smoothly as possible. Even me, the improv-heavy, “I’ll fix it if it happens” layabout of the family still tend to turn up at parties and potlucks with more dishes than I was asked to bring, just in case someone else forgot to bring something.
This combined with my recent trip down to Oregon in an…entertaining way. For much of the time that I was planning for the trip, I was told I would be staying in a ‘cabin in the woods’. There would be power, running water, and a kitchen, but Internet might be a little trickier, I was told. I mentioned all this to my mother while I was back home, as I was doing laundry and packing for the trip, and woke to find that provisions had been gathered for me.
This is HALF the stuff I was sent out with.
Since we didn’t know the conditions, I had a bag of lamps and rain gear, in case fall storms knocked out our power, I had a bag of various cooking implements and tools (Tupperware, flexible cutting boards, Ziploc bags, and coffee cups), a Coffee Maker (particularly amusing since I don’t drink coffee), and an Instant Pot.
It’s like a tiny boiler.
The idea was, an Instant Pot would let me make meals regardless of the kitchen condition. Stove doesn’t work? Microwave on the fritz? No matter! There were two things wrong with the plan, however: firstly, I showed up in Oregon to learn that the cabin was off the table, and now I was just staying at a normal house in the next town over, and, secondly, while the machine would let me make food regardless of kitchen condition, it did kind of necessitate, you know, USING the machine. Which I’ve never done before. So, let’s figure out how this thing works together.
Brimming With Basics
First things first: what is an Instant Pot? Well, the name itself is a brand that, somewhat unfortunately, is already succumbing to what’s called “Xerox-icide” or “genericization”, where-in a specific brand name for a product becomes the de facto term for that type of product. The name refers to the fact that Xerox brand copiers were so big in the 80’s that Xerox became a verb synonymous with ‘copy’. You can see it in a bunch of products. Band-aids, Kleenex, Photoshop, and Velcro have all had troubles with it. (“Troubles” because if your brand name becomes the generic term, you lose your ability to enforce your trademark. Further, if people don’t think about your brand being, well, a BRAND, you lose market share to sheer apathy.)
Speaking of apathy and genericization, “Escalator” was originally a brand name, before people just refused to say “automated stair units”.
But “instant pots” are the modern descriptor of a new type of multi-cookers. You’ll recall I talked about Slow Cookers (and genericization) back in June, when talking about Crock Pots. Well, Slow cookers, as it turns out, are one of many kinds of cookers. (And the most unexpected mainstream TV villain since polar bears) You also find bean cookers, pressure cookers, and more. Well, about 10 years ago, some young men happened across an idea: if pressure cookers are about sealed environments with high heat and pressure, and slow cookers are about sealed environments with low heat, couldn’t you just make a device capable of both?
These men put together the concept for the Instant Pot, which was a “7-in-1” cooking device, capable of 7 different cooking functions.
More if you count “keep warm” as ‘cooking’ method instead of a survival method.
Now, in all honesty, some of these are kind of cheating. Specifically, since the way you make the pressure in pressure cooking is through steam, then almost any device capable of pressure cooking is also probably capable of steaming. And if you’re capable of steaming food, you’re capable of cooking rice, since that’s also the primary cooking method involved there. And the “Beans” setting is just a preset length of pressure cooking that cooks beans. So just by making a slow-cooker/pressure-cooker, you’ve already by default created a device that can cook at least 5 “ways”. All of which is likely very frustrating to hear some asshole say from an engineering perspective, since there’s no doubt several precise details made to actually allow these different modes to function in the same bowl, as well as hours of properly calibrating the various cooking programs to make them work.
They even included this nice spoon and cup for Rice.
But yeah, that’s the core of the device: it’s a slow cooker, AND a pressure cooker. And the latter part is where the name comes from. See, we haven’t talked about pressure cooking much on the site because, well, I didn’t OWN a pressure cooker, but one of the advantages of the technique is that food can be cooked much faster in them. Beans, for instance, which you would normally want to soak overnight before boiling for an hour, can just be tossed in the pressure cooker dry, and around an hour and a half later, they’ll be done. The reasons it works are complicated, and have to do with how pressure affects boiling points and heat, so let’s just wave our hand and say “Meal Time Magic” for now.
However, there are a few little…tics about them, which some users have complained about, and that may cause some concern. See, pressure cookers NEED pressure to function, in a sentence that is as dumb as it is necessary. And you can’t just make pressure out of nowhere. As I said, it’s made through steam. Which means it’s made through boiling water. This is important because your average pressure cooker might need around 10 minutes after being turned on to actually get to pressure, at which point you can START counting the cooking time.
And, of course, watched pots historically boil at a quick and reliable rate.
And then, once you’ve cooked the food, the pressure doesn’t magically just vanish. It has to be released, either through the Exhaust valve (a 3-5 minute blast of steam from a valve), or through natural release, which can take up to half-an-hour to finish. So, while yes, it can condense a 4-hour cooking time to say, an hour and a half, it also ADDS 10-15 minutes in warm-up, and up to half an hour on the back-end.. Which can be irritating to people who expected, well, INSTANT results. So if your pressure cooker SAYS a recipe takes only 15-25 minutes, check if that INCLUDES warming and release times. It’s likely that it doesn’t.
The other tic is…the danger. See, one of the reasons you might not have seen many pressure cookers in your parents’ homes is because they fell out of favor. Because they kept exploding.
I call a lot of things “explosions” on the site, but here, I literally mean “a violent and destructive blowing apart of something”
That’s the downside of harnessing a bunch of pressure to make your food tender quicker: if you mess up with it, suddenly you have a lot of force moving around, and a lot of hot metal for it to move with. Pressure cookers have been known to punch their lids through the ceiling with all the force of Chris Evans’ mighty biceps. And they’ve sometimes punched their actual POTS straight down into the stovetop like the smiting fury of Mjolnir. What I’m saying is, if you screw up using this thing, it might not be able to save your meal, but it’ll sure as hell avenge it.
Now, most of these explosions occur with older models, long before Instant Pots became a thing. However, there have been a few reports of modern models popping off. However, my research suggests that A, the odds are very rare (I’ve only found a few distinct cases out of probably millions of machines) and B, most sources agree that as long as you follow the manual instructions to the letter, this sort of thing should never happen. Which is why I’m foregoing natural male instinct, and actually reading the manual.
So, with all that out of the way, are they worth it? Do they deliver results? Well, you’ll have to check in Monday to find out, and hopefully I won’t have blown up the kitchen by then. Tune in to find out!
MONDAY: JON MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE SEVERE BURNS. IF HE DOESN’T, THEN HE’LL PROBABLY HAVE SOUP.
THURSDAY: HAVE BEEN WASHINGTON-FREE FOR A FORTNIGHT, JON COMPLETES HIS DISSECTION OF FAIRS WITH A TASTE OF HIS HOMETOWN.