My mother surprised me last month with a gift of a pressure cooker. Mine is a programable electric cooker, with some great features including a brown or steam function, delay cooking time, and keep warm. I have to say I've never used a pressure cooker before (except in Food Science classes at the U of M), and after experimenting with it, I have been converted to a true believer!
The most important thing to know about using a pressure cooker is to follow the instruction booklet. Unlike crockpots, I do not recommend using a pressure cooker that you may find at a garage sale or flea market. (If you have an older cooker, read the page about 'test drives' at Miss Vickie's site. Be very careful following instructions about attaching the lid securely, quickly reducing steam pressure, and opening the pot when cooking is completed. The rubber gasket seal and the steam vent tube are the critical parts of this appliance; make sure that the gaskets are solid, clean, not ripped or torn; and that the vent tube is clean and clear, not clogged with food. Use the cleaning implement that comes with your pressure cooker or a pipe cleaner to keep that vent tube clear.
Many crockpot recipes convert easily to the pressure cooker. Cheaper cuts of meat, like brisket and chuck, cook to perfection in the pressure cooker just like they do in the crockpot, only the cooking time is really reduced. A recipe that cooks for 8-10 hours on low in a crockpot usually cooks for about 1 hour in a pressure cooker.
One caveat: watch out for foods that foam! Dried beans, pasta, and some fruits (especially apples) can create foam when they cook; small particles can ride up on that foam and clog the steam vent. Only fill the pressure cooker half full when cooking these foods (my pressure cooker instructions say to only fill one-third full), and add a tablespoon of oil to keep the foam to a minimum. Foods that cause the most problems with foaming include split peas and beans, oatmeal, apples, cranberries, and pearl barley.
If you are using an old-fashioned pressure cooker (older than 5 years), for quick release, the steam has to be released by placing the cooker in the sink and running cold water over it. (Make sure to keep the water out of the steam valve!) This reduces the temperature and therefore reduces the steam pressure. You can let the cooker cool down naturally until the pressure is released; this takes anywhere from 10-30 minutes.
Timing is critical when you're pressure cooking. Foods like large pieces of meat have a bit of 'wiggle room' in timing, but fresh vegetables and fruits can be quickly overcooked. If your pressure cooker doesn't have a built-in timer, make sure you have a reliable, accurate timer that you use every time you pressure cook. I also highly recommend the cooking charts found at Miss Vickie's Pressure Cooker site.
Most pressure cooker recipes use foods that have the same cooking times; beef and potatoes, or chicken with parsnips. You can use an interrupted cooking method, as in this recipe for Crockpot Chicken Alfredo, releasing the lid and adding other ingredients as the cooking time reaches a few minutes. When you use this method, be sure to write down the times that the more fragile ingredients are added, and carry that timer with you if you leave the kitchen.
Make sure that you use the amount of ingredients called for in the recipe; liquid amounts are particularly important. You need a certain amount of liquid to build up steam so the food cooks at the correct temperature in the proper time frame. Do not use your pressure cooker as a deep fryer (i.e. fill it full of cooking oil) unless it is specifically marketed as a fryer!!
Don't store your pressure cooker closed with the lid on; that will just allow aromas to stay in the cooker; molds and off flavors can develop. Store the lid separately from the base. Also do not store the rubber gasket in the base. Sprinkle a bit of baking soda inside the cooker when you store it to prevent these problems.
Think twice about leaving a pressure cooker alone while it's cooking. Never let children or pets play around the appliance when it's cooking. Be very careful when you release pressure; you can burn yourself even with the new cookers that have safety releases. NEVER try to force the lid open. And finally, again, read that instruction booklet from cover to cover!
Now, go to the next page to get the fabulous recipes!