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Spoonie under pressure…

Posted Nov 07 2012 6:14pm

One thing that gets in the way of my cooking is the time it takes. For, example, cooking a joint to freeze, when finished, as sliced beef in gravy is a 2-day event** if I use my slow cooker, which leaves me with a heavy, and hard to handle, earthenware crock to wash. Trouble is, I can’t often get two good days together.

**About 5 hours to cook in the slow cooker, plus an overnight cool-down – cooling meat in the cooking liquor is always a good idea – then sliced and portioned the next day.

Then there are things like soups and stews, which need regular attention to ensure they don’t stick and burn when simmered on the hob.

A few weeks ago, I bought an induction hob, thinking that this would get past the simmering problem. It does, but it also takes about twice as long as a slow cooker, which is quite absurd, as it has no actual simmer setting. About the only thing it’s good for is boiling, as it gets food up to temperature very quickly. Which gave me an idea.

My electric cooker doesn’t like pressure cookers, as the solid plates mean that it simply doesn’t respond quickly enough to the controls (in normal cooking this is quickly got used to, in pressure cooking, it’s a liability). On the other hand, by induction hob responds almost instantaneously, so would be perfect for bringing a pressure cooker up to working pressure, and then it can be quickly moved to a more suitable heat source. Right now, the best heat source I have for this is a camping stove. It needs to be set very low, so gas consumption is low too (and it’s cheap). I have the induction hob and the gas stove next to each other on the wooden kitchen trolley.

Of course, if you have a gas cooker, or an electric one with radiant rings (or a ceramic hob), you won’t have this problem.

See also this post for more info on using a pressure cooker with an electric cooker with solid rings – it does actually work.

First snag, my very cheap aluminium pressure cooker  is useless for induction, so I went shopping for something suitable. Essentially, pressure cookers come in two types – insanely expensive, and much more sensible. There is simply no need to spend over £200, or even £100 for that matter.

They also come in two pressures, 15lb or 12lb maxima (they might also have a subsidiary setting of around three quarters maximum, but it’s the maxima that matter). In use the main difference is that a 12lb model will take approximately 20% more time to cook the same food than a 15lb model (but not necessarily 20% more fuel – I’ll come back to that).

It also comes down to cost, a 15lb model takes you into the upper price range,** a 12lb model is much more sensibly priced, often 50% or more cheaper than a 15lb model, so that’s what I’ve gone for. If I were cooking for a family, and cooking every day, I’d have gone for a high-pressure, expensive one – but I’m not so there’s no need.

**But do check, as some 12-pounders can be surprisingly expensive. For example, the £100 Kuhn Rikon model sold by Lakeland is a12lb model (not that they tell you, nor does the Kuhn Rikon website – you have to download and delve into the depths of the manual to find out), and in my view it’s massively overpriced.  The one I’m getting is half the price, with a lifetime warranty. The Kuhn Rikon one has a 10-year warranty, so exactly what you get for the privilege of paying twice as much as me I have no idea – you don’t even get additional accessories, just a steamer basket. OK, the KR is made in Switzerland, the Prestige in, I believe, Thailand – that does not make the KR twice as good.

So, I hear you wondering, how does a 12lb model take longer but not use any/much more fuel? It’s all down to how you depressurise the cooker at the end of the cooking time. For the most part, you’ll simply flip a switch to vent the steam immediately, at which point cooking pretty much stops (food will continue to cook just a little from residual heat, but it does that with any method). Alternatively, you can just remove from the heat and let it cool down and depressurise naturally – which in effect extends cooking time by around 5 minutes, while not using any fuel at all. With experience, then, you can factor that period into your cooking times. So, by opting for the cheaper, lower-pressure model, some or all of the additional cooking time (add 20% to the 15lb time for a 12lb model), is free if you depressurise naturally. This isn’t suitable for all foods – greens, apparently, go mushy – but meats and most veg will be fine.

I’ve ordered a Prestige Smartplus 6 litre cooker (£48), in stainless steel, from Amazon. I do urge you, wherever you actually buy, to read the Amazon reviews. This one has 126 mostly 5 or 4-star reviews. A few others that I looked at weren’t so good – the Tefal Clipso , for example, has some rave reviews, but a couple of the bad ones very strongly suggest that while it looks great, and works well, it won’t last long. Bad news at £104.

Something which seriously gets up my nose shopping for a pressure cooker is that nobody tells you what’s in the box. A pressure cooker, obviously, but what about trivets, and baskets, or dividers – all of which I got with my Prestige pressure cooker in the 80s – no-one is saying but, reading between the lines these days you’re doing very well if you just get a basket! Even checking out manufacturer’s websites will still leave you in the dark, and when some of these buggers are £200 or more that simply isn’t good enough. It’s not good enough at any price, in fact.

If you’re new to pressure cooking, or a returnee, like me, who’s forgotten most of what I knew, you’ll need help. This website is excellent, an absolute mine of information and recipes. It does tend to take the view that any cooker less than 15lb isn’t worth having, but feel free to take that with a pinch of salt (it exists mainly to promote the Fagor brand of pressure cooker which – you guessed! – are 15lb models). Americans are also obsessed with the cost of all fuel, not just petrol – it’d be a salutary lesson for them to come and live here for a while! – so the idea that a 12lb cooker takes a few minutes longer tends to keep them awake nights. In reality, the additional cost would be undetectable on a normal bill.

The reason I have a camping stove – I actually have 3, but the one I have in mind is this style:

which is part of my power-cut back-up kit (in my building there’s no gas, and if the electricity goes down it’s game over for cooking, heating, and lighting – so I have a back-up system in place**). As I say, I have three camp stoves, the other two left over from my backpacking days, plus plenty of gas for them, and a gas lantern, plus ample gas for that, too (that’s gas as in propane, not gasoline). I have a winter-grade sleeping bag too. The above stove, by the way, is immensely widely available, but don’t pay more than £10-£12 for one (though I’ve seen them on sale for over £30 – good luck with that!). They come in different colours and brands, but they’re the same.

**I also have enough food for a month, maybe two – just in case. Never hurts to be prepared, just so long as it’s eaten and renewed, so it doesn’t get old.

But, getting back to pressure cookers, mine will be here tomorrow, and at the weekend I’m going to cook a beef joint (for sliced beef in gravy), and also some mince and vegetables, to give me some stock for the freezer.

It’s worth mentioning that not only does food cook faster in a pressure cooker, unlike a microwave it doesn’t inflict any molecular-level changes on the protein structure, and it also tastes better. Vegetables, in particular, taste a hell of a lot better, and as they’re steamed, not boiled, the liquid left in the pan can be kept for stock, as the salt content is zero. The same applies to pre-soaked beans too.

One last thing worth mentioning is that, almost inevitably, there are electronic versions of the simple pressure cooker. There are no advantages to these, and quite a few disadvantages. The obvious disadvantage is that they need electricity, whereas a normal one can use pretty much any heat source. Then there’s the fact that electronics don’t really like heat and pressure (one of the problems with the Tefal Clipso is the failure-prone electronic pressure detector-cum-timer). And, of course, an electronic pressure cooker just adds multiple layers of needless complexity to what is, at heart, a very simple device – a sealed pot with a safety valve.

NB: Stainless steel pressure cookers can be heavy when full, but as they have two handles, they’re pretty easy to handle, even with food in them and if, as I mentioned earlier, you put large stuff in the the steamer basket, you can put it in and take it out with relative ease. And, of course, it’s easier to load it when it’s already on the hob, not load it then move it.

Update: Got my pressure cooker today (Thursday). A steamer basket with separators to divide it into 2 or 3 sections, plus a wire trivet, come with it. And, as far as I can see, it’s made locally, in Wirral, not Thailand as claimed in an Amazon review. I’d advise giving it a wash before first use, to ensure there’s no residue left from the manufacturing process. It looks spotless, but who knows?

And as expected, it’s heavy but if you do as I suggested, and put it on the cooker before adding food, it’ll make life much easier.

It’ll cook joints up to 1.5kg, which is fine for me. Anything bigger can go in the slow cooker.

 


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