Mention pressure cooking at a social gathering and it's likely that you'll hear about the food that ended up on grandmother's ceiling. What an unfortunate picture such stories provide about one of the modern cook's most helpful kitchen tools! Pressure cookers available today have as many as five safety features that reduce almost to zero the likelihood of such incidents. For years I cooked with a jiggle-top pressure cooker (Presto). I now have a newer model (Kuhn Rikon) endowed with safety features. Both cookers work well, but I greatly appreciate the newer model with its thick, high-quality stainless steel and its heat-diffusing core on the bottom.
The pressure cooking process is simple. You place food in the pressure cooker with a small amount of water, use the lid to seal it tightly, and put it on the stove. When full pressure is reached, you turn down the heat (often to the lowest setting) so that just enough heat is provided to maintain the pressure. The timing of the recipe begins when the heat is turned down. Cooks who are mindful of their energy consumption quickly realize that pressure cookers require less energy than boiling, steaming, or oven cooking. In addition, the small amount of water required means that fewer vitamins and minerals are leached from the food.
Pressure cookers typically reduce cooking times by 70&; they make soups, stews, grain and bean dishes, and steamed pudding-cakes possible even for cooks with limited time. You can use a cookbook for pressure cookers or adapt your favorite recipes by reducing the cooking time by up to two-thirds. Dried beans, peas, and lentils that take hours to cook conventionally take minutes to cook in a modern pressure cooker. Pre-soaked black beans cook in a mere 5-6 minutes (17 minutes if not pre-soaked). A third of my freezer is filled with reusable plastic containers of pressure-cooked beans— garbanzo, black, pinto, navy, cannellini, and lima—in 2-cup portions ready to add to soups, stews, spreads, salads, and stir fries.
Pressure cookers are available in a variety of sizes, from two quarts to 10 quarts. The sixquart size (about five liters) is the most versatile, considering that the cookers should not be filled more than half or two-thirds full. There is even a lightweight pressure cooker, designed especially for camping, that speeds cooking at high altitudes. An electric model may be suitable where there is counter space for a large piece of cookware.
If I were looking for a pressure cooker today, I'd choose a new, safe model. I'd read the evaluations of pressure cookers online, talk to friends who use them, and check out Lorna Sass's book on pressure cooking, Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure (see below). Her book is a must for great recipes and detailed tips on all aspects of choosing and using pressure cookers, including advice on using jiggle tops.
Make sure that the pressure cooker is made of heavy stainless steel, has heat-resistant handles, a lid that is easy to lock, and, of course, safety valves. It should have a clearly written instruction booklet—and it's important to read that booklet carefully. Pressure cookers can help us produce great-tasting plant-based meals in minutes.
Chapter member Kay Bushnell has taught plantbased cooking and appeared as The Garden Gourmet in a community-access television series.