Today’s entry completes my holy trinity of kitchen appliances. If you have been reading my other post, you know that I believe that there are multiple solutions to most problems, and sometimes those solutions can be quite the opposite to each other. This philosophy is demonstrated by the next two appliances that accomplish a similar goal but in a different way. I consider them “twin” appliances, fraternal twins, that is.
The slow cooker
If there was one appliance that any kitchen should have it is the slow cooker. In its most elemental form, this gadget is simple, cheap and extremely versatile.
Slow cooking has been a staple of meal preparation for as long as there have been cooks. In Colonial times a Dutch Oven was filled with meat and vegetables and placed near an open fire to simmer for hours. More recent cooks use a heavy pan or cast iron casserole set in a low-temperature oven to accomplish the same effect. However, the above methods require some tending. Slow cookers can be left all day unattended without the worry of burning your food.
Irving Naxon is credited for the invention of slow cookers, whose conception was based on stories from his mother. She was a Lithuanian Jew and told him of a bean stew that she would prepare for the Sabbath. By religious tradition, she wasn’t allowed to cook on the Sabbath so she (along with her contemporaries) would assemble her stew in a heavy pot and take it to the local baker. He would place it in his oven, and its residual heat would slow cook her meal until the Sabbath’s supper.
With the electrification of the 20th century came many small electric appliances. In 1940 Irving patented an electric pot that mimicked the above cooking method and called it, the “Simmer Cook.” The Rival Corporation bought his company in 1970 and took this invention and re-labeled it as the “Crock Pot,” in 1971.
Initially, Crock Pots were marketed to women who were entering the workforce in higher numbers. They wanted a way to have dinner ready when they came home, and sales took off. Although the device was targeted at working women, it is also perfect for soccer moms, single men, or anyone else who cooks.
In its basic form, a slow cooker is a simple device. The classic design consists of an outer pot that has a heating element which surrounds its bottom circumference. A matching piece of crockery is placed into the outer container. There is a small gap between the two vessels. A switch controls the amount of current that is applied to the heating element, which in turn controls the temperature. On low most slow cookers reach a temperature of around 200F (90C), and on high the temperature is increased to approximately 300F (150C). Some cookers will also have a keep warm setting of around 160F. This setting should not be used for cooking as it does not reach temperatures high enough to cook food.
Slow cookers use very little electricity, and so they are very economical to operate. Also, most would consider them safe for unattended use. Their design is intended to provide slow continuous heat with minimal hot spots, so burning is typically not an issue in regular operation.
Most people know that slow cookers are great for tenderizing tough meat and making soups and stews, but they can do a lot more. Desserts like brownies and cobblers can be easily created. Julie makes a killer cinnamon roll dish that is delicious. Steel cut oats can be cooked overnight to a breakfast ready perfection. Lasagna (using uncooked noodles), Mac and Cheese, roasted chicken, apple sauce, some breads, and even pizza can be made in a slow cooker.
My interest in slow cooking took off when I was a single medical resident. I was at my grocer, and I came upon a Crock Pot for less than $10. It was a small 2.5 quart model with a non-removable cooking pot and simple two-stage control. I was already cooking my meals using other gadgets (like the microwave), but I felt that the little Crock Pot might offer increased utility, and I was correct.
On many mornings I would dump ingredients into the pot and head off for a long day at the hospital. On my return home I would be treated to the smells of home cooking and a warm meal. Many of my dinners used simple ingredients, but the process of slow cooking transformed them from ordinary to memorable.
Most slow cookers continue to use the simple design principles of the original design, but there are also many variations on this theme. In 2019 it is possible to buy a slow cooker for under $20 or to spend over $200 on one making such a purchase confusing to many consumers. I did a lot of research to come up with some guidelines for potential buyers, but I found so many conflicting “expert opinions” that an overall conclusion was impossible. Instead, I have tried to combine this information with my 40 years of slow cooker experience to point potential buyers in the right direction.
Time for Q & A!
What brand should I buy?
Most small appliance manufacturers make slow cookers. It was not possible to come up with a clear winner or loser. Companies like Rival and Hamilton Beach make less expensive cookers. More expensive ones come from companies like KitchenAid and Cuisinart. These higher end brands may over a nicer finish (like stainless steel) and/or more features (like computer controls). I could find no evidence that they would have greater longevity. It is reasonable to assume that an original design cooker would outlast a more complicated microprocessor controlled device.
Should I get a removable inner pot?
Rival introduced the removable inner pot in 1974, and most recent pots come with this feature, which makes it easier to clean. However, my original crock-pot didn’t have a removable inner pot, and it wasn’t a big deal to wash it after use.
What material should the inner pot be made of?
Many reviewers cite the advantage of the heavy crock-like inner pot. They note that such a vessel acts like a heat sink that embraces its contents with heat without having hot spots. This makes perfect sense… but.
I bought our most recent slow cooker about five years ago at Walmart. It was a GE brand that has an aluminum inner pot. The cost of the gadget was under $30, and it is the best slow cooker that I have ever used. I have never had a hotspot or burn problem using it. To me, it seems that better design trumps conventional wisdom.
What size should I get?
That depends on how much food you plan on making. The most popular family sized cooker is 6 quarts with an oval-shaped crock that fits cuts of meat nicely. When I was a single medical resident, I was quite happy with my 2.5 quart round pot.
Generally, for best results, your crockpot should be filled about two thirds. Too little and it won’t regulate the heat properly, too much and it will steam more than a simmer.
Do all pots use the same technology?
No. Most follow the same concepts of the original design. However, some pots heat from the bottom, rather than the sides. Other pots use a thermostat and/or probe to regulate the temperature, and some pots offer various levels of computer programming. In theory, a thermostatically controlled container will provide more consistency, but I have had decades of successful results using basic models.
Should I get a pot that I can program or one that I operate with my smartphone?
My current slow cooker has a few built-in programs. For instance, I can have it cook on high for an hour and then switch to low for the remaining cook time. I do use this feature, but Julie uses high and low settings.
I would not overbuy; an overly complicated pot may offer little extra benefit and could intimidate you from using it. What could be simpler than a three-way switch that says, “high, low, and off?”
Should I pop for extra features?
Most are unnecessary. Some pots feature programming abilities that you will likely not use. Many stainless steel finishes are constructed of low-grade materials and don’t offer additional beauty over time. Multi-purpose devices often perform weaker than dedicated ones. One feature that I like is a locking lid. This is very useful if you transport your dish (think pot-lucks).
Can I use my multi-cooker as a slow cooker?
Many electric pressure cookers offer a slow cook function with several heat settings. However, the highest setting is below the 300F of a typical slow cooker set at high. Besides, you will likely want to buy a glass lid to use instead of the pressure lid that comes with your cooker. The bottom line is that you can use your Instant Pot type device as a slow cooker, but a regular slow cooker will be more versatile.
At a low cost, a basic slow cooker is a handy, flexible and worthwhile device!
Cooking under pressure
The fraternal twin to the slow cooker is the pressure cooker, made famous by the Instant Pot. Where a slow cooker uses low heat over a long time, the pressure cooker uses very high temperature over a short amount of time.
You may recall that water at sea level boils at 212F (100C). Any additional heat will not raise the temperature of the water beyond 212F, and the additional energy will result in higher production of steam. The atmospheric pressure determines water’s boiling point. If you live high in the mountains, the atmospheric pressure is less, and water will boil at a lower temperature. If you lived below sea level, the boiling point would be increased. A pressure cooker is a sealed vessel that builds pressure by heating liquid (water), and this simulates a pressure that is 1 bar higher than atmospheric pressure (15 PSI). At sea level, this causes water to boil at around 250F (121C) instead of 212F (100C). It is this higher temperature that causes food to cook faster.
With the recent Instant Pot craze, you may think that the pressure cooker is a new invention. In actuality, the pressure cooker was invented in 1679 by French physicist Denis Papin. Commercial pressure cookers were manufactured in Europe as early as the mid-1800s. US companies started to make pressure cookers in the 1930s, and the National Presto Company introduced their pressure cooker at the 1939 World’s Fair.
Pressure cookers are closed devices with a sealing gasket between a secured lid. On the top of the lid is a vent hole that has a pressure regulator placed on it. Units built during the WWII years were of inferior quality, which led to the reputation that pressure cookers were dangerous pressurized time-bombs. However, after the end of WWII quality improved and safety features were added making their rational use very safe.
When I was growing up, my mother used her stove-top Presto 4 quart pressure cooker several times a week. The unit was purchased in the early 1950s and was still in operation at my sister’s house until last year when it was finally destroyed by operator error. When a Presto reaches pressure, it indicates this by having the regulator rock to one side to release the excess steam. This steam-letting cycle jiggles the weight back and forth giving this type of pressure cookers the nickname, “jigglers.” Presto pressure cookers continue to use this type of pressure regulator to this very day. A variation on this theme is the Indian manufactured pressure cooker. This device also uses a weight system, but when the cooker reaches pressure it “whistles” with pressure releases. Second generation cookers (mostly manufactured in Europe) use a spring device instead of a weight. These cookers typically have a visual indicator that pops up when they reach pressure and (depending on the brand) may quietly hiss or be completely silent when operating.
In 1991 the electric pressure cooker was introduced. This plugin appliance initially used a manual timer, which was eventually replaced by digital controls. In 2008 Robert Wang of Canada developed the incredibly popular Instant Pot. His gadget is just a standard electric pressure that has a few other programmed sequences added. Many of them are simple timers for common foods like chicken. However, many cooks choose to set these times manually and avoid the pre-programmed buttons.
There are a few other pressure cooker programs that allow you to use these devices as non-pressurized pots. For instance, you can heat the cooking vessel to a low 110F to incubate cultured milk to make yogurt, or to around 200F so that your instant pot can act as a rudimentary slow cooker.
Most electric pressure cookers achieve a pressure between 10-14 PSI resulting in a lower cooking temperature than a stove-top pressure cooker. This fact means that it will take a bit longer for them to cook a dish. The bottom line is that if you are converting a pressure cooker recipe from a stove-top unit to a table-top one you will need to add some time and vice versa.
I have always had a stove top unit, and many years ago I bought my first electric unit, a Nesco. Although it didn’t have the yogurt function it did allow for both high and low pressure, could be set to brown/saute food, and to operate as a steamer and slow cooker. So programmable pressure cookers have been around for a long time, and Mr. Wang’s Instant Pot is just a variation of a theme. My Nesco went to its greater reward when its lid got damaged in a counter fall. It was replaced by a 6-quart Mealty model whose functions are very similar to the more famous Instant Pot.
Depending on the food a pressure cooker can shave two-thirds off the cooking time making it reasonable for the busy chef to make homemade stews, soups, and sauces. However, just like a slow cooker, you can make many types of food in a pressure cooker, including a killer cheesecake.
What size pressure cooker do I need?
The most common size is 6 quarts and is suitable for most families. A popular size for singles and couples is between 3-4 quarts. With that said, home pressure cookers come in sizes that range from 1 quart to 8 quarts. If you need more capacity, you can purchase a canner, which is a pressure cooker used to can foods.
How high can I fill a pressure cooker?
Just like a slow cooker you should only fill a pressure cooker about two-thirds full (less for certain foods like beans). However, the reason for this is different. If you overfill a pressure cooker, you can potentially block the vent tube which can cause improper cooking and the release of steam through the cooker’s emergency release system. Also, if you don’t have enough air space in the pot, you may not build an adequate amount of pressure.
What are the advantages/disadvantages of a stove-top pressure cooker?
Stove-top units are relatively simple in construction and with proper care can last for decades. They cook at a full 15 PSI, which offers faster cooking times. Since they are heavy pots, they can also be used for regular cooking. Growing up we often used our pressure cooker (without the regulator) to pop popcorn. Its heavy bottom prevented popcorn burnage (no one wants that!).
A stove top unit may be slightly intimidating the first few times that you use it. However, once you are familiar with it using a stove-top pressure cooker is quite simple and safe. However, you shouldn’t leave it unattended.
What are the advantages/disadvantages of an electric pressure cooker?
The Instant Pot has made pressure cooking fashionable, but its basic design has been around for decades. I read that its creator, Robert Wang spent 18 months perfecting the device which leaves me scratching my head as he took an existing product and added a couple more presets. However, I am grateful that his product has been so successful, as it has introduced pressure cooking to a new generation.
The main advantage of an electric pressure cooker is that you can set it and forget it. Push a few buttons, and the pressure cooker does the rest. After it is done cooking it will automatically go into a keep warm cycle. Amazing!
Electric pressure cookers have a few disadvantages from their stove-top siblings. They typically cook at a lower pressure (often 10-11 PSI) which means that you will need to cook your food for a bit longer. In addition, they are limited to household current at 120 volts (in the US), which reduces the amount of heat that they can produce. Therefore, if you are cooking something with a thicker liquid, it may burn on the bottom of the pan before the cooker can make enough steam to pressurize. On the rare occasion I have had to transfer my meal to a stove-top pressure cooker because of this.
What brand should I buy?
For a stovetop unit, Presto offers excellent value. Fissler is considered top-of-the-line, and Fagor provides quality at a decent price point. I have a Kuhn-Rikon Duromatic which I like. A stove-top unit could last you for the rest of your life if you properly take care of it.
As far as electric pressure cookers are concerned, I have used models from Instant Pot, Nesco, and Mealthy and performance among them appear similar. Also, several other brands seem to be made at the same Chinese factory. However, If you like accessories you may want to go with the Instant Pot as its popularity has caused third-party companies to make all sorts of gadgets for that brand.
Is it worth buying the top of the line electric model from a particular brand?
I would suggest that you consider buying the base model as opposed to more expensive one as overall performance and functionality should be similar. Expect a much shorter lifespan for an electric pressure cooker compared to a stove-top unit as their more intricate design means that they have more components that can fail.
Do I need all of those functions/buttons on an electric pressure cooker?
No. Most cooks avoid the pre-programmed buttons, and they enter times manually (which is super easy). Most pressure cookers will offer some non-pressure options. Some of these options include slow cook and a yogurt maker. If these are things that you want, then look for those buttons. However, it is easy to make yogurt without an electric pressure cooker, and a real slow cooker is much more versatile than the program built into electric pressure cookers.
What is the gasket, and why should I care?
The gasket is a rubbery O ring that seals the lid to the pot which allows steam to build. My mother’s old Presto used a rubber gasket that would fail every few years. She would send me to the local hardware store to fetch a new one, and changing it out was a simple task.
New pressure cookers use silicone gaskets that are more durable and are less likely to retain odors. If needed, they are straightforward to replace. Just make sure that you get the gasket designed for your model. If you cook a lot of sweets in your pressure cooker (cheesecake and the like) you may want to consider getting a second gasket for them, so you don’t contaminate your treat with the taste of onions or garlic.
I always remove the gasket and hand wash it after use to increase its longevity.
Do pressure cookers explode?
Pressure cookers made in the 1940s were constructed and designed poorly, and there were reports of the devices popping their lids and spraying the ceiling with their contents. However, for decades pressures cookers have been designed to higher standards and have incorporated safety features. If you follow your manufacturer’s directions, you need not worry. In almost 50 years of using a variety of pressure cookers, I have never had a pot flip its lid.
Are there things that I shouldn’t make in a pressure cooker?
Pressure cookers use heat and liquid for cooking, so food will not brown in a pressure cooker. Also, heating a quantity of oil under pressure sounds like a horrible idea. Sometimes it is easier to use alternative methods. For instance, you can cook frozen vegetable in a pressure cooker, but it is easier to pop them in the microwave. Read the manual that came with your device and understand it for the best results.
Should I buy all of those accessories?
Probably not. The majority of things that a pressure cooker cooks well requires no accessories. At times I have used a trivet in the bottom of the pot to keep a chunk of meat out of the liquids at the bottom. If you don’t have a trivet, you can improvise by using an inverted heat-proof saucer or a pot steamer insert.
Once you are familiar with cooking in your pressure cooker, you will know what types of dishes that you use it for. At that time you may consider one of the many dozens of accessories that are available.
Using a slow cooker and/or pressure cooker is a way to ease your cooking burden and to make it more likely that you will cook at home regularly. Start cooking!
Dear reader, I am about to embark on a trip where I will have little access to the internet. Therefore, it is likely that I won’t be posting for a few weeks. Spoiler alert: I think that I’m going to write about one more kitchen appliance that I find indispensable when I return from my trip. Since I have already written about my holy trinity of kitchen appliances, I’ll give this other gadget the designation of “Honorable Mention.”