Timing. A timer is essential when you are using a pressure cooker because you will have no visual or other sensory cues to alert you that your food is properly cooked. However, figuring the correct timing may also require some trial and error, since timing varies with elevation and ingredients. When you are first trying out a recipe, you might purposely reduce the recommended cooking time by 10%. You can always bring food back up to pressure if it requires more time, but you cannot undo overcooking.
The recommended cooking time in recipes developed for pressure cookers usually starts when high pressure is reached. Check the instructions for your pressure cooker to see how your model indicates that high pressure has been reached. Cooks at elevations greater than 2,000 feet above sea level usually need to extend cooking times and use extra liquid if they’re using recipes designed for sea level. (The recipes included in this article were prepared at 5,600 feet. If you live at a lower elevation, the suggested cooking times may need to be shortened).
Maximizing flavor. With a few exceptions, flavors are preserved and intensified when food is cooked in a pressure cooker. As a result, most dishes need very little added salt to taste good. To prevent an overly salty dish, therefore, add only a small amount of salt (or none) before cooking; wait until the dish is completed to see if you need more.
Fresh herbs are among the ingredients that do not fare well under pressure for extended times. Add fresh herbs toward the end of cooking or just before serving.
Releasing the pressure
If you have an older pressure cooker, you can release pressure in one of two ways. “Natural pressure release” involves removing the cooker from the heat and allowing the pressure to come down gradually. This takes 10–20 minutes, depending on what you are cooking. Keep in mind that food will continue cooking until the pressure is fully released.
To release pressure quickly, simply remove the cooker from the stove and place it in the sink. Run cold water over the top until the pressure valve drops. This generally takes 5–10 seconds. “Quick release” is ideal for steamed vegetables and fish and for interrupting the cooking process to check doneness or to add new ingredients.
Newer cookers often have a third option: A turn of the pressure-release valve drops the pressure quickly. If you use this option, avoid placing your hand in front of the valve, because the released steam can produce a severe burn.
Even in a pressure cooker, it sometimes seems to take forever for dried beans to cook. This is particularly true of beans that have been in storage for an extended period: No matter how long you cook them, they may never lose their crunchy texture and raw, starchy flavor.
For better results when cooking beans from scratch, check beans for signs of age, such as wrinkled skins, faded color, and cracks, and buy only those with good color and intact skins. Cooking beans with acidic ingredients will prevent tenderizing as well, so add tomatoes, citrus juice, and other acids toward the end of cooking. There is disagreement over whether adding salt before beans are done makes them tough. You may need to experiment here.
If you want beans that are whole and not too mushy in your dish, check them 5–10 minutes before the recommended cooking time is complete. Whole beans can turn to puree relatively quickly in a pressure cooker. If you want to cook your beans faster, soak them in water overnight. This will cut the cooking time by one-third to one-half, depending on the type of bean.
All pressure cookers come with an instruction manual and recipes. If your model is old and you cannot find your manual, contact the manufacturer, who should be able to answer any questions you have about its use and care. Cookbooks abound; Pressure Perfect, by Lorna Sass, is a favorite of mine. Recipes and product reviews are also available online. A cookbook or other instructional resource is essential for anyone just learning to use a pressure cooker. With some basic guidelines, the cooker is an easy tool to learn to use.