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Over the past few years, Instant Pots have become a staple in small kitchen appliances. Busy parents use them to get dinner on the table in minutes, while batch cookers use them to simplify midweek meals. Some people prefer them for their ability to cook just about everything from pot roast to yogurt. Staying home has become the new norm to help prevent coronavirus from spreading, so you're probably using your time indoors to cook more and try out new recipes. Alongside summer cooking staples like grills, an Instant Pot is a relatively quick, easy and affordable way to whip up home-cooked meals while under quarantine. Here's everything you should know about an Instant pot, including how it works, best Instant Pots to buy and more.
“A few years ago the idea that people would be cooking in pressure cookers en masse was unthinkable,” says Elizabeth Barbone, a cookbook author and the creator of the pressure-cooker blog Cook Fast, Eat Well. “It’s been really fun to see folks not only embrace it, but to embrace it in different ways.”
Instant Pots typically range anywhere between $60 to over $100 depending on the model’s size, cooking capabilities and other design features. As you may know, tech and electronics are traditionally high-savings categories during major sale events like Black Friday and Cyber Week. Even a new sale like Amazon’s Big Summer Sale, which is currently active until Sept. 7, is slashing prices on small kitchen appliances, including Instant Pots.
WHAT ARE INSTANT POTS?
Instant Pots are a brand of electric pressure cookers or multicookers. Pressure cookers work by creating heat under a tight seal, so the temperature is much higher than the boiling point of water and the steam can’t escape. The steam cooks food much more quickly than traditional stovetop or oven cooking.
DO THEY REALLY COOK THAT FAST?
According to Bruce Weinstein, coauthor of "The Instant Pot Bible," the answer is yes. "Under high heat and pressure, things cook much faster. You can cook a brisket or pulled pork in under an hour," he says. “The claims sound outlandish — it reduces cooking time by 70 percent — but that’s because of the steam and the pressure,” Barbone says.
There are a couple of caveats, though. You need to add in the time it takes the machine to come up to pressure, usually 15 or 20 minutes.
And for some dishes, you’ll want the pressure to dissipate gradually. That can take five to 40 minutes depending on the dish. “For meat-based dishes, I like to release the pressure naturally for at least 10 minutes. If you release it right away the meat can seize up and become tough,” Williams says.
ARE ELECTRIC PRESSURE COOKERS SAFE?
Years ago, stovetop pressure cookers got a bad reputation for their lids being relatively easy to remove before the pressure released, which runs the risk of burns and messes. “You could end up with soup on your ceiling,” says Williams.
To avoid those issues, modern electric models are equipped with built-in safety features that prevent you from releasing the lid while the pressure is still high.
“Pressure cookers are safe, but we need to be following good practices,” Barbone says. Some of the things you might see on the Internet, like covering the steam release valve to protect cabinets or walls from steam, aren’t safe. Instead, position your pot accordingly if that’s a concern.
And don’t fill your Instant Pot more than about halfway. You need the pot empty enough to get to a safe pressure and remain safe throughout your cooking time.
WHAT FEATURES DO I NEED?
Multicookers include the pressure cooker plus other additional features. You’ll see names like 6-in-1 or 10-in-1, depending on how many of these other options they add:
- High- and low-pressure
- Slow cooker
- Rice/porridge cooker
- Cake maker
- Yogurt maker
- Sauté/sear feature
- Air fryer
- Altitude adjuster
The sauté setting is popular. Instead of sautéing in one pan and transferring your food to another pot, you can use the Instant Pot the same way you use an electric skillet, Weinstein says.
If you want to make delicate vegetables or cream-based soups, you might want a pot with a low-pressure option. Likewise, if you’ll do canning, you want a pot with that capability. And if Bluetooth connectivity and high-end electronics are a must, you can choose more advanced models that sport those features.
The Instant Pot line includes a range of models — Lux, Duo, Viva, Ultra, Smart Wifi, and Max. With over 10 options to choose from, you’ll need to determine what features you want to know which model is the right fit for you.
Another consideration? If you plan to leave your Instant Pot out on your countertop, you might want to factor in the different colors and designs you can choose with different models.
WHAT IF I JUST WANT A PRESSURE COOKER?
“A lot of people are not interested in all those other things — they just want something that can cook their dinner,” Weinstein says.
If this sounds like you, you may want to check out this pressure cooker by Cuisinart rather than a multicooker. If you only foresee using your device for pressure cooking and aren’t interested in all the extra bells and whistles, you might even find a better price by going in that direction.
Just keep in mind when following an Instant Pot recipe, it may take a few extra minutes to cook if you're not using one of the Instant Pot multicookers, which tends to get hotter than most other pressure cookers.
WHAT SIZE DO I NEED?
The 6-quart option is well-liked because it is the size most recipes are designed for and can feed families of up to five. If you’re looking to create side dishes, or feed one to two people, the 3-quart mini may be right for you. On the other hand, if you’re cooking for large families or crowds, want to get ahead of meal prep for the week or are looking to cook large cuts of meat, you might want to consider the 8- or 10-quart options.
“With the 8-quart it’s hard to make things for one or two people, because you have to have a certain amount in there to work properly and create pressure,” Weinstein says.
The 3-quart is a good choice for smaller spaces or as a side pot for smaller dishes.
I’VE HEARD FOOD BURNS SOMETIMES. HOW CAN I AVOID THAT?
Williams says the burn sensor is more sensitive in newer, higher pressure models. The liquid ratio is key, so if you notice that there’s not enough liquid, or your sauce is too thick, you may run into burning.
“In testing recipes that has happened to me a few times,” Weinstein says. He adds, using canned tomatoes packed in juice vs. packed in puree can make a difference.
“The best way to avoid that is to follow tested recipes,” he says. “If it hasn’t been tested, you might end up with a burn.”
It’s also best to put your liquids and the foods that will release the most water on the bottom of the pot and wait until after your dish is cooked to stir everything together.
Make sure you are using a recipe designed for the size pot you have. You could run into burning if you’re using a recipe designed for a 6-quart pot in an 8-quart pot.
HOW DO I GET STARTED?
If you’re new to an Instant Pot, follow the user manual and heat water in your pot as an initial test run. Barbone recommends that you listen to the sound of a pressure cooker coming to pressure. “The steam will sort of violently come out of the valve. If you’ve never heard it before, it can be a little startling,” he says.
After that, try cooking something simple and inexpensive like rice, Williams says. Then move on to something like a broth-based soup. “Start with something simple. Don’t start with a rack of ribs for your first recipe. Do something affordable so if it doesn’t work out, you’re not ruining something that’s really pricey,” Barbone says.
HOW DO I CLEAN MY INSTANT POT?
Cleaning your instant pot is easy — You take out the liner and lid and wash with dish soap and warm water. You can also run it through the dishwasher for convenience. Some shoppers have found the sealing ring for the lid traps scents, and they like to have two on hand, one for sweet dishes and one for savory foods. To combat any lingering odors, store the lid upside down or run the pot using the steam function with a little vinegar and lemon juice.
If you scald the bottom of your pot, Williams recommends the powder version of Barkeepers Friend.
Try these Instant Pot recipes
- 7 easy Instant Pot dinner recipes chefs and food pros love
- Healthy Instant Pot meals you can make in minutes
- 15 easy meal prep recipes for your Instant Pot