From the blog February 5, 2013 Nathan

How Pressure Cookers Work

Pressure cookers are fantastic tools. They develop the characteristic flavors and textures of foods so quickly that what is conventionally a long, labor-intensive process becomes one hardly more time-consuming than a casual sauté. Risotto takes six minutes instead of 25. An intense chicken stock takes only 90 minutes. You can even pressure-cook food in canning jars or in oven bags or FoodSaver bags rated for high temperatures–which means grits and polenta, for example, no longer require constant stirring to avoid sticking. The high temperatures inside the cooker also promote browning and caramelization, reactions that create flavors you can’t get otherwise in a moist cooking environment. If you aren’t a believer, try our Caramelized Carrot Soup recipe.

A pressure cooker is essentially just a pot with a semisealed lockable lid and a valve that controls the pressure inside. It works by capturing the steam that, as it builds up, increases the pressure in the vessel. The pressure increase in turn raises the boiling point of water, which normally limits the cooking temperature of wet foods to 100 °C / 212 °F (at sea level; the boiling point is slightly lower at higher elevations). Because the effective cooking temperature is higher in the pressure cooker—as high as 120 °C / 250 °F—the cooking time can drop substantially.

Take a look below at our cutaway photo from Modernist Cuisine at Home. The letters correspond to an explanation of each part of the pressure cooker.

    1. High-pressure steam rapidly transfers heat to the surface of any food not submerged in liquid.
    2. A spring-loaded valve is normally open so that air can escape. As heating begins, expanding vapor pushes this valve up, closing off the vent. (At very high pressures, it rises farther and reopens the vent to release excess steam.) The valve regulates the pressure inside the cooker to a preset level: typically 0.7 or 1 bar / 10 or 15 psi above atmospheric pressure; this value is called the gauge pressure. At these elevated pressures, water boils at 114 °C or 121 °C / 237 °F or 250 °F, respectively. As soon as the cooker reaches the correct cooking pressure, reduce the heat to avoid overpressurizing it.
    3. The sealing ring, typically a rubber gasket, prevents steam and air from escaping as they expand. This causes the pressure in the vessel to build as the temperature rises. Any food particles stuck in the seal can cause it to leak steam, so check and clean the gasket regularly.
    4. The lid locks with a bayonet-style mechanism that pushes against the sides of the cooker. Frequent overpressurization can damage this mechanism and render the cooker useless. Other designs use bolts that clamp around the outside.
    5. The handle locks as well, to prevent the lid from opening while the contents are under pressure.
    6. There is too much liquid in this cooker. Generally, you should fill the pot no more than two-thirds full.
    7. Water vaporizes into steam, increasing the pressure inside the cooker as it heats.  Because the boiling point of water depends on pressure, it rises too—just enough to keep the water and steam temperature hovering around the boiling point for the higher pressure. The pressure continues to rise until it is stabilized by the valve.
    8. Add enough water to the pot, either around the food or under a container of food elevated above the bottom of the pot, to enable plenty of steam to form.

Ready to start cooking? Check out our library for our Carnitas, Caramelized Carrot Soup, Risotto, and Garlic Confit recipes.

–adapted from Modernist Cuisine at Home

Discussion

  1. Happy Valley Chow February 5, 2013 Reply

    How do you prevent burning?? I tried to make the refried bean foam in my Fagor 8-qt and followed the directions to a T and after an hour I opened the lid and the beans were burnt to the bottom. I doubled the recipe as well cause I felt like my pressure cooker was to big for just the single amount.

    • Judy February 5, 2013 Reply

      Hi Happy Valley Chow,

      One trick the chefs often recommend is to give the pressure cooker a shake every now and then, especially as it’s coming up to pressure. This is also good to do for recipes such as the vegetable soups, if you’ve had similar problems.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Catherine Lambrecht February 5, 2013 Reply

    Hi,

    If a pressure cooker has a silicone seal, can it be use for pressure frying chicken aka a made at home broasted chicken?

    Regards,
    Cathy

    • Funkyjhero February 5, 2013 Reply

      A pressure fryer has an extra lock on it, superheated pressurized oil could be pretty dangerous.

      • Catherine Lambrecht February 5, 2013 Reply

        HI,

        Thanks for the detail about the extra lock.

        I had seen people using conventional (or at least it seemed that way) to pressure fry chicken at home. I had read around, I noticed the silicone but not the extra lock feature.

        Thanks!

        Regards,
        Cathy

        • Funkyjhero February 6, 2013 Reply

          I came across another potential pressure frying tonight. I was stewing some peaches and nectarines in my pressure cooker, when I released the pressure the syrup must have bubbled and it sprayed out at high speed, far enough to hit a wall 1.5 metres (5ft) away. I had other burners lit, if that had been oil it would have been a flame thrower!

          • Catherine Lambrecht February 6, 2013

            HI,

            I am convinced. If I ever do pressure frying at home, it will be with the right equipment. Since it is quite an investment, it will likely never happen.

            I have pressure canner for preservation, which I used for making pot roast. If exchanging a silicone seal would have done the trick safely, I would have been all over it.

            Thanks!

            Regards,
            CAthy

      • Jenn Liden December 19, 2013 Reply

        I agree, do not attempt pressurized deep frying if you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t want a fire! I would just recommend getting a small deep fryer like the FryDaddy.

    • Sam Fahey-Burke March 5, 2013 Reply

      No. This is very dangerous and we advise against it.

  3. T February 6, 2013 Reply

    Are you crazy? Pressure cooking hot oil, for your fried chicken!! Your seriously asking for a fire!! ‘Aint nobody got time for that’

  4. Elsie February 6, 2013 Reply

    I made the garlic confit as per the instructions. When the process was complete, some of the olive oil in the jar had escaped onto the water in the pressure cooker. Did I loosen the screw band of the jar too much before putting it into the PC or is there another reason for the oil escaping? Thank you.

    • Catherine Lambrecht February 6, 2013 Reply

      Elsie,

      When the food heats while processing, steam escapes pushing out the air. If you screwed your lids tighter, this would affect your ability to properly seal your jar in an airless condition.

      (Is this garlic confit recipe from Modernist Cuisine or another source?)

      Regards,
      Cathy

      • Elsie February 6, 2013 Reply

        Thank you, Cathy, for your reply. In my case, not only steam escaped, but the olive oil as well. The recipe I followed is from Modernist Cuisine and I followed the instructions. So my question remains – did I loosed the screw bands too much after loosening them? I gave it what I thought was a quarter turn but maybe it was too mich?

      • Laurie Smith February 8, 2013 Reply

        A pressure cooker is not a pressure canner! A presssure canner may be used as a cooker, but not vice versa.

    • Judy February 6, 2013 Reply

      Hi Elsie,

      There’s a great thread with lots of readers’ tips in our forum. You can find it here: http://modernistcuisine.com/cooks/forum/g-m/problems-with-garlic-confit/

  5. andre February 6, 2013 Reply

    i was wondering what is the best size pressure cooker to get seeing as you don’t use much liquid do you buy a bigger one so as you always have enough space and the smaller amounts of food still cook well I’m tossing up between the duromatic 8ltr and 12ltr the 12ltr looks big but would be great for stocks but i thought for 4 portions of anything else it would be overkill.. any advice would be welcome

  6. Violeta February 13, 2013 Reply

    I got the Kuhn Rikon 3916 Duromatic Top Pressure Cooker, 5-Quart as a valentines present from my lovely Boyfriend…. Can’t wait to use it!!!

  7. Rohan April 23, 2014 Reply

    Very nice explanation, thanks for sharing.

    Rohan

  8. Wayne June 23, 2014 Reply

    Here’s a great resource to help pick the right pressure cooker for those looking to buy.

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