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A Quicker Cooker, only bigger
on June 14, 2005
1. Cooking with a pressure cooker
Think of a pressure cooker as a crock pot on steroids. The increased pressure inside the sealed vessel results in an elevated boiling point, producing a higher cooking temperature for faster cooking. The standard pressure for these cookers is 15 psi, raising the boiling point from 212f to 250f. Current design features considerably improve the safety of these pots over WWII vintage kitchen bombs.
Pressure cookers are perfect for pot roasts, stews, soups, stocks and long-simmering sauces, reducing cooking times by as much as seventy percent. Beans cook faster in a pressure cooker, although their soaking time is unaffected. Rice will cook faster, too, although the convenience of a dedicated rice cooker is beyond dispute.
Some pressure cookers let users select a second, lower pressure setting (8 psi, bp @ 215f), which yields considerably less accelerated cooking. Why slow down a high-speed cooker? Because some foods, like veggies and fish, cook quickly, and when cooked at 15 psi it is difficult to control doneness. (Recipes for these foods call for running cold water over the pot lid to quickly reduce the pressure and lower the temperature to stop the cooking. For more usual dishes, one would merely turn off the heat and let the cooking coast to a stop.) Pot-count or hubris may move some chefs to use their pressure cookers to prepare delicate foods regardless of the risk of under/over-cooking. The low pressure setting is intended to help these people. For most cooks, foods that cook quickly are better prepared using conventional methods. Arguably, a clever chef could use a pressure cooker as their only pot for all purposes, a desirable feature when living out of a knapsack on a desert isle where time is money or fuel is precious.
For most cooks, a pressure cooker will not be an essential kitchen utensil, but it is desirable for its ability to shorten long simmer times. An eight-quart pot is probably the most versatile size for most users, because the pot can only be filled to half or at most two-thirds capacity. If veggies are to be steamed rather than boiled, you will need a steamer insert. Expect a learning curve as you discover how to operate the pot and adjust cooking times. A pressure cooker should be stored unassembled, and the gasket (about $10) may need to be replaced occasionally. All parts should be hand washed. The the pot and lid are ruined if dinged where the gasket seats.
2. The Fagor Pressure Cooker
Fagor in Spain is like General Dynamics in the US - a huge industrial conglomerate. Their "Commercial" (and similar "Splendid") model pressure cooker has a substantial heft to it and seems ready to withstand the rigors of the kitchen. An aluminum heat dispersion disc, completely encapsulated in stainless steel, is bonded to the bottom of the thick-walled stainless steel pot. The stainless steel lid is similarly substantial, and is polished to a mirror finish. The handles seen sturdy enough, although they are plastic and subject to damage. An order form for replacement parts is provided in the box and parts are available over the Internet ([...] An instruction booklet is incluye, imperfectly translated from the Spanish. An 80-page recipe book is also included, with full color photographs of fabulous dishes, several of which cannot be prepared in the cooker(!).
The regulator control dial on this unit has three positions: Pressurized (15 psi), open, and remove valve. The lid has a safety interlock that prevents it from being opened while the pot is pressurized, and a small plastic rod pops up to indicate the interlock is active. (One reviewer suggested this rod indicates the pot has reached 15 psi, but this is not so; you know the pot has reached 15 psi when steam starts to escape from the regulator valve.) Another safety feature is a slot in the lid that allows part of the gasket to blow out if the pot has been over-filled.
I was attracted to this model pressure cooker because it seemed to represent an attractive price-performance point. My experience has confirmed that. The value of a second, low pressure setting is arguable for all but the most dedicated pressure cooker users, and fancy features like a pressure gauge seem minimally useful. If I were to buy another pressure cooker, I would likely select this model again, albeit in an 8-qt version to compliment the 4-qt size that seemed the best size for this bachelor cook.