By Rita E. Carey, MS, RD, CDE
Most people with diabetes know that what they eat can have a profound effect on their ability to achieve their blood glucose goals. Dietitians and doctors alike recommend a low-fat diet and minimally processed, complex carbohydrates like whole grains and beans for good blood glucose control as well as the prevention of heart disease and other long-term complications.
Unfortunately, many people become discouraged with their first attempts at preparing such foods. Whole grains, legumes, and lean cuts of meat can require extended cooking times as well as unique preparation skills that can be unfamiliar to new and experienced cooks alike. A pressure cooker may be the perfect tool to help confused and frustrated cooks easily and quickly prepare nutritious foods. In fact, many cooks already own one, though it may be long forgotten and stored in a dusty cupboard somewhere.
At home in American kitchens since the 1940s, the pressure cooker reduces the cooking time for beans, grains, and other foods by at least a third, and uses less energy. It can also be used as a conventional saucepan for browning, sautéing, or simmering foods, allowing for one-pot preparation of multistep recipes. Because foods cooked under high pressure retain their moisture, many recipes can be prepared with minimal added fat. Even lean cuts of meat, which often take several hours of slow cooking to become palatable, can be made fork-tender in considerably less time. Pressure-cooked foods retain flavor as well, reducing the need for added salt in many recipes.
A pressure cooker cooks foods at temperatures higher than those attainable with other stove-top methods. These temperatures (up to 250°F) develop under conditions of high pressure, which promotes both faster cooking and tenderizing of foods. Beans that can take 45 to 90 minutes to cook on a stove top, even after being soaked overnight, are ready in 20 to 40 minutes if placed dry in a pressure cooker and half that long if soaked in advance. However, the high heat and pressure raise some safety concerns that home cooks should be aware of. Pressure inside a cooker can build up to dangerous levels if a pressure-release valve is blocked. Steam can produce serious burns, especially if a cooker is opened before pressure is released.
Fortunately, pressure cookers have many safety features built into them. Older pressure cookers usually have two or three pressure-release mechanisms: the steam vent, a pressure valve, and/or a gasket that can blow out if the pressure inside the cooker becomes too high. Although some older cookers are safe to use, it’s a good idea to replace cookers with fewer than three safety mechanisms. It’s also important to examine the gasket (the rubber or silicone seal that fits between the pot and lid) for cracks and test it to see if it seals properly. (See “Pressure Check” for instructions.)
If your old cooker fails any of these tests, you might strongly consider buying a new model. Newer models, in addition to improved pressure-release mechanisms, may also have locks that prevent lid removal before all the pressure is released, a variety of visual indicators of pressure, and safe quick-release valves.
Like any unfamiliar kitchen gadget, a pressure cooker may require some trial and error to learn to use successfully.
Choosing recipes. Liquid is needed to prepare anything in a pressure cooker, so it is best used for recipes that utilize moist heat cooking methods, such as soups, stews, steamed vegetables, and simmered grains and legumes. All cookers need a minimum amount of liquid to reach high pressure (at least one cup), so it is important to check the manufacturer’s specifications as to how much liquid your model needs. If you are following a recipe devised for a pressure cooker, be sure to always use the amount recommended. If you are using a recipe that was developed using conventional cooking methods, be sure to use at least the minimum amount of liquid required for your cooker.
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.
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.
Here are some sample recipes you may want to try out:
Quick White Bean Soup
Easy Vegetable Stock
Cool Wheat Berry Salad
Classic Beef Stew
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