Saturday, 17 January 2009

A Pressure Primer

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Our grandmothers may not have had a microwave (or even electricity), but they probably did have a time- and energy-saving cooking device in their kitchens - the pressure cooker. By cooking under pressure, they could turn even the toughest old bird or economy cut of meat into a succulent fork-tender meal, or take dried, unsoaked, beans from pantry to table in minutes instead of hours. Ready to learn more?

Sealed up under pressure, with only a small, controlled amount of steam escaping, the heat inside builds up much higher than the boiling point of water. I learned first-hand the value of pressure cooking during the years I lived in Leadville, Colorado, at 10,250 ft (3,125m) altitude - almost two miles high. At that altitude, the lower temperature of boiling water (remember your old science classes?) meant I had to boil quartered potatoes for at least an hour - if I wasn't watching, the water would boil away before the spuds were edible. But in a pressure cooker, potatoes take 8 minutes at 15 psi (pounds per square inch) pressure, regardless of elevation. And since the cooking is via pressurized steam instead of boiling, and coupled with a shorter cooking time, the nutrients and flavor stay in the food, not the cooking water.

In my kitchen, I use both my old pressure cooker, often, and the larger canner, only at harvest time. Most vegetables, and all meats and fish, must be canned under pressure. With its domed lid, my pressure cooker will hold four narrow-mouth canning jars. So I use the cooker when canning small amounts. With its tall, narrow shape, the pressure canner also works as my waterbath canner for tomatoes and fruit. If you are deciding between getting one or the other, a cooker would probably be your best value, and should be your first foray "under pressure" (sorry, I couldn't resist working that in).

If you're buying new, of course all the parts and instructions will be included. But quite often cookers and canners can be found in thrift shops and garage sales, albeit maybe missing a part or two. Since both have similar pieces, let's look at what they need to function.

On top, a weight regulates the amount of steam allowed to escape, and thus how much pressure builds up. On cookers, the weight will have various ways to adjust the amount of pressure - mine has holes labeled 5, 10, and 15 psi pressure, to be set over the steam stem, my mom's has a sliding pop-up piece with three marks denoting pressures. (Canners, on the other hand, have both a weight for the steam stem and a gauge denoting pressure; regulation of pressure is by adjusting the heat underneath. I, or my co-writers, will address the specifics of canning, at length, in some other posts.)

Maybe old horror stories, of exploding cookers and soup all over the ceiling, have you nervous about using a pressure cooker. By taking care to not overfill a cooker, and making sure the steam stem isn't blocked, this should never be an issue. Pressure cooker lids twist down to seal over flanges, and have pressure-sensitive blocks that prevent opening the lid if it's still under pressure. But just to be on the safe side, pressure cookers also have a little release button built into the lid - designed to give way if pressure builds up to unsafe levels. These are meant to be a replaceable part, so if it's missing don't worry. Check here to find one, and most other parts, even from defunct companies.

Inside the cooker, a rubber gasket fits inside the lid. On old cookers and canners, this is the part most likely to be problematic. Check to make sure the gasket isn't cracked or broken, or get a replacement (see link above). If the cooker doesn't seal tight, too much steam will be lost. You run the risk of not enough pressure or running out of water before the food is done, and canned foods may not be safe. For some recipes, and for all canning, you'll need a rack inside that keeps items off the bottom of the cooker. This isn't as essential - you might be able to substitute canning rings or a steamer basket.

I hope this post inspires you to think about using a pressure cooker in your kitchen. The shorter cooking time saves energy, and might also allow you to make more home-cooked meals. I've written about cooking dry beans here on my blog, here is a good place for all kinds of pressure cooking info, or use a search engine to find more pressure cooker recipes.


silversewer said...

I have used a prssure cooker for years, when my chidlren were at school and I was working it enabled me to get a meal on the table within 3/4 of an hour of getting home.

I still use it now espcially if I want stew in a hurry or to make stock, or soup with broth mix or beans.....saves hours of cooking and keeps down the power bills. I also use it for making jam and marmalade, wonderful bit of kit, I would be lost without it.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Great post, covering all the bases. I'm pressure cooker poor, having already had two large and one small - our neighbor was cleaning out and gave me theirs. She said she only used it twice. They are indispensible.

I have my Mom's MirroMatic cookbook that came her with her p.c., circa 1950's, and the recipes in that little book are great. It's kinda special with scribbles in it. (mine)

Probably a quick search on ebay or Abes books would turn up some of those old recipe booklets.

CM said...

I saw the coolest thing in an ad the other day, and electric pressure cooker. It takes the whole having to monitor the pressure levels and adjust the heat fiddling out of the equation. for example :

I for one am against most plug in appliances and make whipped cream with a rotary beater but in this case I may make an exception!

Jen said...

Sadge, thanks so much for your post! I have my Grandma's MirroMatic and my mom has my Great Aunt's...they are the exact same model and age. You wouldn't believe the heavy duty use these things have always and still seen, although I have to admit, pretty much only for canning, not cooking. (I have a smaller one that you don't set the psi on the "jiggler"--family name for the control--that I use for cooking beans, but I haven't gotten satisfactory results trying to cook anything else in this.) My mom has searched for years for a replacement gasket for hers, with no luck. I'll look up our model number tomorrow and send her the link you included in your post...thanks so much! Oh, and Throwback at Trapper Creek...I'm not sure if ours are from the 50's or maybe 60's, but we have our little booklets, too. Any good recipes to recommend?

fullfreezer said...

I have an ancient pressure cooker that was my grandmother's. The gasket is long gone and I have never used it. But my husband got me a pressure canner for christmas for putting up all that summer bounty next hear! Maybe I'll have to try to find a gasket for that old cooker and give it a try.

Green Bean said...

I'll be honest. I bought a pressure canner last year and was too afraid to use it. Funny, huh? I'll give it a try this year.

It sounds like the better bet, though, would be a regular pressure cooker. I do remember my mom having one when I was a kid. I'll have to look at thrift stores and see if I can find one on the cheap.

Gavin said...

Great post Sadge. I was given a pressure cooker for my birthday last year, and during winter I used it every week to cook stews, casseroles, and soups. So quick, tasty and energy efficient. I love cooking with it, and with the modern ones, there is nothing to be afraid of.


Mindy said...

Thanks for this post. And thank you, CM, for the note about electric pressure cookers. I made the very sad mistake of buying a glass surface cooktop stove a couple years ago. VERY. SAD. MISTAKE. Pressure cookers (of any size for canning) are "not recommended for use" on these glass surface tops as they are (a) too heavy and (b) the high intensity heat required may crack and /or shatter the glass.

As new and lovely as this stove is, I'm very seriously entertaining the idea of selling it!

Sue said...

I remember Mum not paying attention once & soup going everywhere!! The dog was in soup heaven. I have one but don't use it as much as perhaps I should so thanks for the post, I'm going to get it out today.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this.
I use one daily and most people I know are afraid of them.
They CAN'T hurt you :)
But they the world's (unless you are already using one) a best kept secret to fast, nutritionous meals in minutes. I bought a new at bed, bath and beyond for very little. It is easy to use, quiet, and it helps me cook in bulk :)))
Get one if you don't have one!

Suzan said...

I LOVE my pressure cooker - and I do hope that Sally Fallon of "Nourishing Traditions" is not correct in saying that pressure cooked food is not nutritious (she ranks it as harmful possibly as the use of microwaves). Personally, my family have used pressure cookers since at least the '50s and I will continue doing so until some hardfast facts come up telling us otherwise.

And if folks happen upon a pressure canner at a thrift store or a garage sale - get the pressure gauge checked by your local extension office. Those older canners are wonderful finds but you absolutely need to make sure you're canning at the correct pressure!

Annette said...

Great post! I have a pressure cooker/canner. It does not have the bobble on top and only has two temp settings, 8 and 11. These seem like odd numbers to me.
I'd love to learn how to use this more often. Putting a good meal on the table in 3/4 of an hour sounds great!