When it comes to cars, according to some drivers, the best on the road are hybrids.
This is proving true also in the kitchen, where a new generation of hybrid cookware combines the speed of a pressure cooker with the tenderizing and flavor development of a slow cooker.
Enter the multi-cooker instant pot: able to whip up barbecue ribs, potato salad and spaghetti (complete with cooked noodles) in a snap.
Some readers may recall grandma’s pressure cooker: a super-heavy cast aluminum pot with a locking lid (also heavy) with a bell-like valve placed on the lid after the pot begins hissing.
Scary, you betcha. But if you wanted whole artichokes cooked to deliciousness in 15 minutes, this thing did the trick. And effective though they were, old-school pressure cookers were limited to speed-cooking and canning.
Slow cookers make some mean shredded beef, but need four to six hours to do the job properly. Other meals are a 10- to 12-hour cook: great if you need to leave the house all day; not great if you’re starving after a long day of work and you didn’t get the cooker started at 6 a.m.
Instant pot cookers debuted in 2010 as the Instant Pot brand. The hybrid cooker now comes in many brands and models, including “Insta Pot,” “Power Pressure Cooker,” “Express Crock Multi-Cookers” and “Power Quick Pot.”
For the purposes of this article, and to avoid the pitfalls of brand favoritism, “instant pot” refers to any multi-cooker with these characteristics, not just the brand named item.
Locally and online these cookers range in price from about $69 to $200.
In addition to cooking under pressure, these modern multi-cookers can also steam, cook rice and keep things warm. Some models even have the capacity to make yogurt.
Another selling point is that recipes that normally require several pots and pans to accomplish (macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, potato salad) can be created in an all-in-one container.
A downside for some is that electric pressure cooker/instant pots are fairly large and bulky, requiring a commitment of counter space not possible in all home kitchens.
Not including accessories, such as steaming baskets and egg holders, instant pots consist of three components: an inner pot, an external pot and a lid. Each of these, however, has several other parts with which users must familiarize themselves: a steam release valve and handle, exhaust valve, locking mechanisms and a control panel of food cooking options — automatic settings and manual.
The “brains” of the appliance live in a computer motherboard, which oversees the whole shebang. When the motherboard receives the “on” signal, it heats air inside the pot, which boils the water in the recipe, turning it to steam and creating pressure inside the cooker. Pressure sensors regulate the heat and pressure during cooking.
At the end of the cooking time, the multi-cooker will automatically change to a “keep warm” function and begin slowly losing pressure. This “natural release” takes 10 to 15 minutes.
Some recipes call for immediate manual release, which is done by turning the steam value to the venting position.
Other recipes will call for a specific time for natural release, before a manual pressure release.
Before using for the first time, electric pressure cookers also require a “water test” to be sure the unit will function properly.
While the process can be daunting to would-be multi-cooker users, many who have taken the plunge are all-in for instant pots.
Kenosha home chef Debbie Norris is big fan of the modern mighty multi-cooker, but says her love for the instant pot wasn’t instant. “It took me six months to get it out of the box, but then it got me into the new age.”
Norris, 60, discovered the brave new world of instant pot cookery almost two years ago after talking about it with her brother, Allan Pisula, and fellow chefs online. “I thought, ‘Oh well, I’ve been married 42 years, I’ll try something new.’”
Perfect rice, tender beans, winter squash soup and chili are some of Norris’ favorite instant pot creations.
“There are some really fun things I like to do, like ribs — they taste just like they were on the grill!” she said.
Other instant pot explorations are more adventurous, like potato salad and cheesecake.
Norris’ instant-pot bug has also been caught by other members of her family, including her son Dan and nephew Jozef, who makes soups and chili at college.
Dan Norris, 36, said he started with ribs and has expanded to other instant pot dishes, including corned beef and cabbage. “Corned beef takes one-fourth of the time and comes out perfectly cooked,” he said.
Dan said his favorite thing about the instant cooker is that if he forgets to pull something out of the freezer in the morning he can do it after work and still have dinner in under an hour.
Deb Norris acknowledges that instant pots can seem daunting to new users. “It looks so complicated at first, but read the instructions and start with something simple like a soup,” she suggested.
For Norris, the multi-cooker has expanded her repertoire in the kitchen. “(The instant pot) puts a different spin on recipes and makes cooking fun and varied. It’s doing things a different way or making things I wouldn’t have had time to make otherwise.”