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Instant Pots: What to know about the versatile pressure cooker

We talked to experts about how Instant Pot models differ from one another and what to think about while shopping for the countertop appliance.
Instant Pots come in many different models — one can air fry food and another is Wi-Fi-compatible.
Instant Pots come in many different models — one can air fry food and another is Wi-Fi-compatible.NBC / Vivian Le ; Instant Pot

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Since the first Instant Pot launched in 2010, the countertop appliance has developed a “cult following,” said Bruce Weinstein, co-author of The “Instant Pot Bible” cookbook series and cohost of the podcast “Cooking with Bruce and Mark.” Content creators like Weinstein have published countless cookbooks specific to the Instant Pot, as well as created YouTube channels and social media accounts centered around the appliance. The brand itself even runs an Instant Pot Community Facebook group with over 3 million members, and various models are often bestsellers on Amazon Prime Day.

SKIP AHEAD Instant Pots to shop | Helpful accessories | Are Instant Pots safe?

Instant Pots are designed to cook food faster than a stovetop or oven, which is the main reason why people are drawn to them, said Elizabeth Barbone, a recipe developer and cookbook author who runs the site Cook Fast, Eat Well. Cooking with these electric pressure cookers — some of which can also sauté, steam, sous vide cook and air fry food — is also a relatively hands-off cooking process once you add your ingredients and turn the machine on.

If you’re interested in purchasing an Instant Pot, we talked to experts about what you need to know before investing in the appliance. We also broke down different Instant Pot models and their unique features, plus included a handful of accessories experts find helpful in the kitchen.

How to shop for an Instant Pot

There are two main factors experts recommended thinking about while shopping for an Instant Pot: size and cooking functions.

Size

The smallest size Instant Pots come in is 3 quarts. Experts told us it’s useful if you’re cooking for one or two people or exclusively using the appliance to cook side dishes.

A 6-quart Instant Pot lands somewhere in the middle of the size scale — experts said this is the size most people gravitate towards because most recipes are designed for it and it can feed about five people.

If you’re cooking for large families or crowds, you might want to consider an 8-quart model. The larger model is also helpful when it comes to meal prepping and cooking large cuts of meat, Barbone said.

Cooking functions and programs

The main cooking function on every Instant Pot is pressure cooking. You can customize the pressure level and cooking time depending on what you’re cooking, or press buttons with cooking settings specific to certain foods, like poultry, multigrain, rice, bean/chili and more. Weinstein said these settings are “conveniences, but not necessarily across the board instructions for how to cook a particular dish.” In recipes he shares on his YouTube channel and cookbooks, Weinstein includes details about the pressure level and cooking time to manually set the Instant Pot to rather than using the preset functions.

Instant Pot models differ in terms of the cooking functions each offers beyond pressure cooking — certain models offer functions like sauté, yogurt, sous vide and more. Select Instant Pots also offer a slow cooker setting, but experts agreed that the appliance is really meant to be a “fast cooker.” If you want to slow cook food, they recommended purchasing a dedicated slow cooker.

Some Instant Pots also have built-in air fryer capabilities, or you can add the air fryer function to some models with a special lid. While the Instant Pot’s air fryer function gets the job done, Weinstein said there’s limited room inside an Instant Pot to space out food. Because of this, he said you may want to buy a standalone air fryer instead.

Instant Pots to purchase

All Instant Pot models come with a dishwasher-safe locking lid, steam rack and inner pot. Each model will auto-adjust to the right pressure and temperature before it starts cooking, and you can manually adjust the cook time. In addition, all models are equipped with a delay start option and a keep warm setting, as well as a food burn sensor. Instant Pots are also designed with safety features like Overheat Protection, which helps prevent food from burning by suspending heating if the appliance detects a high temperature at the bottom of the inner pot.

Below, we broke down every Instant Pot model currently on the market. We highlighted how models differ from one another and what sizes they come in.

Instant Pot Duo

  • Sizes: 3, 6 and 8 quarts

The Instant Pot Duo is the brand’s most basic model. It offers seven cooking functions: pressure cooker, rice cooker, slow cooker, yogurt maker, steamer, sauté pan and food warmer.

Instant Pot Duo Plus

  • Sizes: 3, 6 and 8 quarts

In addition to the cooking functions the Duo comes with, the Duo Plus offers sous vide and sterilizer options. The interior part of the Duo Plus’ lid has a silicone ring around it to create a tight seal when attached to the pot. This Instant model also features an anti-spin inner pot that stays in place while you’re stirring ingredients and as well as a display bar that updates you on different parts of the cooking process, according to the brand.

The brand also makes a 6-quart Instant Pot Duo Plus with Whisper-Quiet Steam Release feature.

Instant Pot Duo Crisp

  • Sizes: 6 and 8 quarts

The Instant Pot Duo Crisp adds an air fry function to the pressure cooker. It comes with a specific lid you can use to air fry, roast, bake, broil and dehydrate food, and a different lid for functions like pressure cooker, slow cooker, steamer, sauté and sous vide. In addition to the steam rack, the Duo Crisp comes with a broil and dehydrator tray, air fryer basket and air fryer base.

The brand also makes a version of the Duo Crisp that comes with its Ultimate Lid — you can use this lid with all cooking functions instead of having to switch lids to air fry.

Instant Pot Pro

  • Sizes: 6 and 8 quarts

The Instant Pot Pro offers many of the same cooking functions as the Duo Plus but differs in some of its design elements: It has a larger LCD display on the cooking progress bar and you can save up to five of your favorite programs. The Instant Pot Pro’s inner pot is compatible with electric, ceramic and induction stovetops, and it’s oven-safe up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the brand — this is helpful if you want to start a dish in the Instant Pot but finish cooking it over the stove or in the oven. The inner pot boasts silicone handles, too, making it easy to lift out of the appliance and place on a stovetop, for example. Like the Duo Plus, the Pro’s lid also features the silicone sealing ring around it.

The brand also offers an Instant Pot Pro Crisp, which comes with the air frying lid like the Duo Crip to use when air frying, baking, broiling, roasting and dehydrating food.

Instant Pot Pro Plus

  • Sizes: 6 quarts

The Instant Pot Pro Plus is the brand’s only connected model, meaning it’s Wi-Fi-enabled. You can pair it with a companion app that allows you to remotely release steam from the appliance, customize time and temperature settings and follow recipes that guide you through instructions to make a dish. In addition to the cooking functions other models come with, the Pro Plus has a canning pot and NutriBoost option — the NutriBoost function injects a pulse of steam into food while it’s cooking to help improve its texture and flavor. Additionally, like the Instant Pot Pro, this model’s inner pot is stovetop-compatible and oven-safe, the brand says, and the lid has the same silicone sealing ring around it as the Duo Plus and Pro.

Best Instant Pot accessories

While you don’t need to purchase accessories to use with your Instant Pot, they can come in handy while cooking certain dishes. We asked experts about a few accessories they recommend adding to your kitchen in case you want to use them with the machine.

OXO Silicone Pressure Cooker Lifter

Barbone said a silicone rack with handles is helpful when cooking anything you’ll need to lift out of the Instant Pot, like a small chicken, meatloaf or cheesecake. Instant Pots come with a metal steam rack, but she said the silicone one is easier to maneuver. This dishwasher-safe option from OXO fits 6- and 8-quart Instant Pots, the brand says. It has two large loop handles that connect to fit under the appliance’s lid while you’re cooking, and you can detach them while moving it in and out of the pot. The lifter’s flat base allows you to pile food directly on top, or you can place it under a pan.

Instant Pot Silicone Egg Rack

If you often make hard boiled eggs, you can make nine at a time in the Instant Pot with this egg rack accessory. You can also stack two racks on top of each other to make 18 hard boiled eggs at once. The rack is dishwasher-safe, according to the brand, and is compatible with 3-quart, 6-quart and 8-quart Instant Pots. It doubles as a trivet as well.

Wilton Aluminum 6-inch Springform Pan

A round pan opens up many doors when paired with an Instant Pot, experts told us — you can use it to make cake, cheesecake, quiche and more. Barbone recommended purchasing a 6-inch round cake pan like this one from Wilton because it fits inside even the smallest Instant Pot. Springform pans have a trigger that separates its side from its base, making it easier to remove cooked food when you’re ready to serve or eat it.

Instant Pot Silicone Steamer Basket

If you tend to steam food often, Weinstein said a steamer basket is a useful accessory to pair with your Instant Pot. The brand’s dishwasher-safe silicone steamer basket is compatible with 6- and 8-quart Instant Pots. Its handles interlock to sit under the lid while cooking, and you can disconnect them while moving the basket in and out of the pot. The basket’s raised feet prevent food from being submerged in boiling water The brand offers nesting stainless steel steamer baskets, too.

What is an Instant Pot?

At its core, an Instant Pot is an electric pressure cooker, which means it uses hot steam and pressure to cook food. “Food is being boiled at a high pressure, so it’s not going to make you happy if you only like crunchy food,” Barbone said, noting that dishes that come out of the Instant Pot often have a moist rather than crispy texture.

Instant Pots are different from traditional electric pressure cookers, however. “All of Instant Pots’ different pressure settings are slightly higher than that of a traditional pressure cooker,” said Weinstein. “This helps it cook food faster than a standard electric pressure cooker. It also means that if you use recipes designed for standard electric pressure cookers, the cooking timing is going to be off with an Instant Pot.”

Instant Pots are also considered multi-cookers since they perform multiple different functions. The most basic Instant Pot model, for example, offers a steamer, sauté and rice cooker function on top of the pressure cooker setting.

Since Instant Pots are so versatile, Barone said home chefs of all skill levels can use them to make a variety of dishes. “I’m not a huge gadget person, but I really think I’ve seen the Instant Pot fit every lifestyle,” she noted. “I haven't seen anyone have the Instant Pot not work for them.”

Another benefit of the Instant Pot is that it can help you make meals at a lower cost. “The Instant Pot does a really good job of taking some ingredients that are not expensive and turning them into something delicious,” she said, comparing it to what you can cook in the air fryer. “Both are really helpful appliances, but the air fryer often relies on pre-made items, which tend to have a higher price point. With the Instant Pot, you can make a lot more ‘from scratch’ items.”

How do Instant Pots work?

Cooking food in the Instant Pot is not instantaneous — as the appliance’s name might suggest — although it does speed up the process overall. Instant Pots need time to heat up so their temperature can rise above boiling point, which is 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level. As it heats up, food inside the Instant Pot releases steam, and the appliance traps the steam inside. The build-up of steam inside the Instant Pot creates a high-pressure environment — when the appliance reaches an optimal pressure point, a pressure valve lifts into place and steam is released through a vent on the appliance’s lid. That’s when the food’s cooking time begins.

Barbone said the most anxiety-inducing part of using an Instant Pot, especially for first-time users, is the steam. The Instant Pot makes a lot of noise as the pressure rises and a lot of steam shoots out of a small vent on the lid at a rapid pace. But rest assured this is supposed to happen, and if anything goes wrong, the Instant Pot will shut down.

Are Instant Pots safe?

One of the main reasons people are often on the fence about purchasing an Instant Pot — or an electric pressure cooker in general — is safety. Stovetop pressure cookers got a bad reputation because their lids were relatively easy to remove before the pressure was released, which ran the risk of burns and messes, experts told us. ”[But] electric pressure cookers like the Instant Pot are incredibly safe compared to stovetop pressure cookers,” Weinstein said. “And even [stovetop pressure cookers] are much safer than they used to be.”

Weinstein also noted that Instant Pots and similar electric pressure cookers are designed with safety mechanisms so they’ll shut down if something goes wrong. One of those safety mechanisms is a burn notice that’s triggered if the Instant Pot overheats and food begins to burn — the appliance shuts off completely in this case.

It’s crucial to read your Instant Pot’s instruction manual before you use the appliance. “If it’s nothing you’ve done before, don’t assume you know what all the buttons mean,” Weinstein said. It’s also important to consider where you put the appliance in your kitchen while using it: Since steam comes out the top, Barbone said you want to place the Instant Pot in an area where there’s a lot of open space above and around the appliance for that steam to ventilate into. And make sure you never cover the vent on your Instant Pot — the steam needs to escape in order for the pressure to lower inside the Instant Pot, allowing you to remove the lid when your food is done cooking.

Instant Pot alternatives

If you’re looking for a multi-cooker that specializes in pressure cooking, the Instant Pot is a great option. When it comes to pressure cooking in general, however, “any brand of electric pressure cooker can do the same thing,” Barbone said. Here are a few other electric pressure cookers we previously featured in our guide to the appliance that you may want to consider.

Breville Fast Slow Pro Pressure Cooker

Breville’s Fast Slow Pro Pressure Cooker has knobs that allow you to manually adjust the appliance’s pressure level and cook time, or you can choose from pre-programed cook settings like pressure cook, slow cook, steam, sear, sauté and more. It has a 6-quart capacity and comes with a steamer basket and trivet. The pressure cooker also features an LCD screen that shows cook time, heat time and other updates throughout the cooking process.

Farberware Programmable Digital Pressure Cooker

Farberware’s pressure cooker is a more affordable option compared to other models. It has a 6-quart capacity and features buttons with pre-set functions to help you cook rice, soups, slow cooked dishes and more. You can also manually adjust settings. The pressure cooker is built with an LCD screen that displays how much cooking time is left and the brand says the inner pot and lid are dishwasher-safe.

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