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I LOVE My Instant Pot! But Here's What I Wish I'd Known when I First Got It
April 16, 2016
I LOVE my Instant Pot! But I will be the first to admit that it can be a little intimidating at first, and it can feel like it has a steep learning curve (and I'm a tech reviewer and tech lawyer, and one of those people who generally just jumps in and figures things out without reading the manuals ("Manuals? We don't need no stinkin' manuals!"), so for me to feel like I'm not 'getting' something ..well, yeah. So if you are feeling a little bewildered by your new Instant Pot, *you're not alone*!) Plus, the manual does *not* include certain information that I, at least, was looking for. Such as, how long is each pre-programmed cooking cycle? Exactly what temperature do the various sauté settings heat to? Things like that.
So, here are a few tips that have really helped me to finally 'get' it, plus instructions for two things that you can make in your Instant Pot that will change your life: incredibly easy perfectly poached eggs in 2-3 minutes, and baked potatoes in 12 minutes.
First, it is almost impossible to mess up with this thing to a point of being dangerous, so if you're concerned about the exploding pressure cookers of yore, you needn't be (I said "almost", don't go overriding your pot's safety features and then blame me when you poke an eye out). The lid audibly tells you when its sealed (when you turn it clockwise), and the pot won't even build up much pressure if you haven't properly closed the steam release handle by turning it, too, clockwise. The most likely point at which a problem could arise would be if you try to open the lid (by turning it counter-clockwise) before all of the pressure has been released and normalized (so don't do that). The pot visually lets you know when it's safe to open the pot, by the float valve (the little silver post that pops up when the pot is pressurized) dropping back down flush with the lid instead of being popped up. Think of the float valve as the reverse of a turkey pop-up button, in the case of the float valve it's done when the button pops *in*, instead of out.
The sauté function has three temperature settings: 'Normal' heats to 320 degrees, 'More' heats to 338 degrees, and 'Less' heats to 221 degrees (all in Fahrenheit)
For pressure cooking, you will probably use 'manual' nearly all the time (nearly every Instant Pot cookbook I've read relies on the manual setting almost exclusively). So *don't* feel badly for not using all of those other buttons very much, if at all (I've never used any of the preprogrammed buttons).
The preprogrammed settings each have their own timing, and *variable* pressure, which the pot manipulates by manipulating the temperature of the contents (the higher the temperature, the higher the pressure). That is primarily what makes them different from manual, which provides one consistent pressure (either high or low). However they *generally* bring the contents to high pressure, fluctuating the temperature a little so that the pressure fluctuates a little too, for a set period of time (the main exceptions to this are the rice button, and the multigrain button). Personally I just find it easier to use 'manual' and set the time that I want.
After you hit 'manual' to start cooking, you then set the amount of time you want it to cook at pressure, after which you will have a 10-second grace period (for example to add more time, etc.), after which the display will switch to displaying the word "on". Then it will be a while before the display switches to the timer countdown. This is *normal*. The amount of time you enter is for how long it will cook *after it reaches full pressure* (either high or low pressure, depending on what you selected), and so the timer will switch on when it reaches full pressure.
The cooking time in any recipe is the time *at full pressure*, not in total. So you need to take into account the time it will take to reach full pressure (which depends on many variables, including what is in the contents of the pot, what temperature they started at, and your altitude), *and* how long it will take for the pressure to be released and normalized (i.e. for the float valve to pop in, which of course is really "dropping in", but you get the point). And this brings us to the two different types of pressure release.
All Instant Pot recipes will include (or *should* include) either one of these terms: natural pressure release (also known as NPR), or quick pressure release (QPR or QR). What these mean is simply either "let the pressure dissipate on its own" (natural pressure release), or "force the pressure to escape immediately by turning the steam release handle counter-clockwise to the open position (quick release). The reason for using quick release (QR) is not because you are too impatient to wait for natural release, but because your food will be over cooked if you don't get it the heck out of dodge once it's done cooking at pressure. A really good example of a food needing quick release is poached eggs (which come out *perfectly* in the Instant Pot (see how to poach eggs in the Instant Pot below)). On the other hand, lots of (if not most) foods need the natural release - it's part of their cooking process and processing time.
Natural pressure release generally takes between 15 and 20 minutes.
Quick pressure release takes about a minute, plus the hours spent in the ER if you forget to KEEP YOUR HANDS, FACE, AND ALL OTHER BODY PARTS AWAY FROM THE STEAM VALVE WHEN YOU DO IT!! Many people put a towel over the valve before they turn it, to help suppress the steam, which you may want to do (I don't because then I just end up with a scalding hot towel - but I also rarely need to do QR, and those times that I do, I'm sufficiently respectful of the power and heat of that steam to keep my distance).
Finally, in my experience, unless you are doing a "dump everything in at once and turn it on" recipe, you will definitely want to have all of your ingredients ready to go before you start cooking. For example, for any recipe that includes sautéing in the pot first, then adding ingredients and then starting pressure cooking, you definitely want to have everything lined up before you start.
Oh, wait, *this* is actually the final note: the stainless steel inner pot can take a real beating, and cleans up just fine..BUT...after the first use or so (it was after my first use) you will see little "stains" (not sure what else to call them) and, if you are anything like me, you will think "Oh no! I have ruined the beauty of this pot! How can I fix it?" It turns out that this is *very* normal (at least the 'staining', not sure about my reaction being normal :-) ). In my case I had made beans, and my pot now still bears the "imprints" of beans, even though it is completely clean..it's sort of like the chalk outlines from a little bean murder scene. ;-) I'm in an Instant Pot forum on Facebook where many IP cookbook authors are members (including JL Fields and Jill Nussinow) and they have all said that this is perfectly normal and just what happens (in fact they said it in response to my "Oh no, I've ruined my beautiful pot" post).
Ok, I think that those are about all of the things that I had wished that I had fully understood on my first day with my Instant Pot.
Oh, actually there's one more thing. I didn't fully appreciate, until several days in, just how amazing this aspect of the Instant Pot is: you can start something cooking in it, and then *walk away* - even leave the house, and it will finish cooking just like you instructed, and be *perfectly done*, and then it will *keep it warm for up to 10 hours*! Not keep cooking it, just *keep it warm*. For up to 10 hours! You can put something in there in the morning, leave for the day, and come back to a perfectly cooked whatever, just waiting for you! Booyah! (I think this is the thing that pressure cooker purists who try to talk people out of getting an Instant Pot, rather than a stovetop pressure cooker, fail to understand. You can't just walk away from a stovetop pressure cooker after the stuff starts cooking.)
Now, here are the *the best* accessories (in my opinion) that you will want for your Instant Pot.
You definitely will want this steamer basket for your Instant Pot (the Instant Pot comes with a little steaming trivet, but this steamer basket is *way* more useful - in fact it's how you make both poached eggs and baked potatoes). Actually you will want *a* steamer basket, but trust me, this is the one you want, both because of the big handle, the fact that the handle telescopes, and, most importantly, you can use it with or without the little legs flipped down, and when you flip the little legs down, they give you plenty of space for as much water for steaming as you could ever need without worrying about the water touching the food that's in the basket.
Or, instead of, or in addition to, the above steamer, you can get this steamer basket and steaming rack / trivet set. The legs on this trivet are an inch and a half high (the rack that comes with your Instant Pot only gives 3/4 of an inch of clearance). and the flat-bottomed steamer is very versatile.
Personally, I have both, as they each serve their own purpose, and the trivet that comes with the set is really useful for pot-in-pot cooking, at which you may also want to try your hand. Pot-in-pot (or "PIP") is where you put a second, smaller vessel inside your Instant Pot's main internal pot. There are different reasons for doing this, ranging from "I only want to cook a small amount of something like oatmeal" to "I want to cook a cheesecake in my Instant Pot" to "I want to cook two different things at the same time in my Instant Pot (like cooking beans, and having a bowl of rice on a trivet (see why you want a good trivet?) above the beans, steam cooking at the same time).
For pot-in-pot cooking, I recommend any stainless steel vessel that is no greater in diameter than 7.5 inches, and no taller than 4 or so inches (your internal pot has a diameter of just over 8.5 inches and a height of about 6 inches). Lots of people use glass vessels such as Pyrex or Corningware, but I personally prefer to use stainless steel because if you drop it you'll just have a mess, rather than a mess plus broken glass.
If you're really keen on making cheesecakes, steamed puddings, flans, and that sort of thing in your Instant Pot, you may also want to grab this stainless steel pot-in-pot 'dessert insert' pan set, which includes two stacking pans. and a rack to set them on which has handles that close up over the pans to secure them.
You will also want this separate glass lid that is sold by the Instant Pot people. This lid fits on your *inner metal pot*, and this way when you are using your Instant Pot for *non-pressurized* cooking, such as when using it as a slow cooker, or with the sauté function, you will be able to see what is going on in there. Basically, in these usages, you can think of your Instant Pot as a counter-top stove burner (albeit one with really cool bells and whistles) - that may help you to understand why you want a (see-through!) lid for that inner pot. Plus, once you are done cooking in any mode, you can use the inner pot to store the leftovers in your fridge, and use this lid to cover it.
In terms of Instant Pot cookbooks to get you started, they are a relatively new genre, and a *lot* of them are only available as Kindle or other digital format books. Personally, I like to have a physical book when it comes to cookbooks, and so I like this one...you can't go wrong with America's Test Kitchen cookbooks, and their pressure cooker cookbook is no exception:
Pressure Cooker Perfection
I also happen to be a strict vegetarian, and for vegetarian and vegan Instant Pot cooking, this book by J.L. Fields is considered the best book out there (it's pretty darned good!):
Vegan Pressure Cooking: Delicious Beans, Grains, and One-Pot Meals in Minutes
And if you also are vegetarian or vegan, you'll appreciate the recipes in this one:
O M Gee Good! Instant Pot Meals, Plant-Based & Oil-free
..and this one:
Vegan Under Pressure: Perfect Vegan Meals Made Quick and Easy in Your Pressure Cooker
And speaking of recipes - here is how to make those poached eggs, and baked potatoes.
Poached Eggs: Lightly grease 1 to 4 (depending on how many poached eggs you want) Pyrex custard cups with butter or oil. Put a cup of water in the bottom of your Instant Pot, put a steamer basket or trivet in the pot (making sure that the water doesn't come over the top), and set your Pyrex cups in the steamer basket or on the trivet. I use my Oxo steamer basket for this, and I love that when they are done I can just grab the handle and pull the whole shebang out (remember the handle will be HOT, be sure to wear an oven mitt). Use Manual setting, low pressure, for 2 to 3 minutes. 2 minutes will probably be enough unless you're at a high altitude.
Baked Potatoes: Remember how I said you could make baked potatoes in 12 minutes? And remember how I said that the recipe times are for the time *at pressure*? ;~) Still, even given the time to come to pressure, and to have the pressure come back down, you can have perfectly steam-baked potatoes in under half an hour, and the best part is that you can start them, and then *walk away*! When you are ready for your potatoes, they will be perfectly done and waiting for you, even if you have abandoned them for hours! Just put water in the bottom of your Instant Pot, flip the legs down on your Oxo steamer, put the steamer in the pot and then dump your potatoes in on top of the steamer. Using the Manual setting, set the cooking time for 12 minutes, using high pressure. Then walk away! Now, because these are 'steam baked' (i.e. cooked whole over steam, but not in water), the skins will not be crisp, but these are otherwise exactly like the baked potatoes you know and love - they're great with butter, sour cream, etc.! This works with new potatoes, and regular potatoes!
Happy Instant Potting!