Our family had a pressure cooker in the 1970’s. My mother and brother were fascinated with cooking, particularly French cuisine. As I recall the pressure cooker enjoyed a certain vogue at that time but I was simply too young to assess its cultural impact properly.
My father subscribed to Gourmet magazine. He was a genuine intellectual and a voracious reader. Though he grew up in Butte, Montana he had lived in both Los Angeles and New York. From these facts I concluded that he might be a genuine “gourmet” though he left all the cooking to my mother. I thought he might have a dormant set of cooking skills.
Another factor in this family equation was that my mother became quite interested in “health foods” in the early 70’s. She developed type II diabetes, and decided to treat her condition nutritionally. Sadly, this resulted more in reading about the subject than actually changing the diet of our family. One of the books she acquired was Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. Lappé famously promoted the notion of “complimentary proteins” which has now been largely discredited.
As I recall, my father alluded to an article in Gourmet that included a Caribbean recipe for black beans and rice. He enlisted my help to make it. This was unprecedented, as our family functioned on rigid yet unstated gender-based roles. My father “went to work” and my mother stayed home and cooked. I believe my mother helped during our beans and rice adventure, as cooking rice was considered slightly tricky. She knew enough about nutrition to avoid white rice so we used either brown rice or the sub-par “converted” rice. My father taught me how to dice an onion, though he used a “fan” pattern for his initial cuts rather than a series of parallel incisions. This resulted in a collection of different sized chunks. In retrospect, his technique betrayed inexperience, as he meticulously cut garlic in the same manner. Being that I was in high school, and this was happening on a Saturday, I recall feeling highly impatient to speed up the process.
We decided to use the new high tech pressure cooker for the beans. The unit we used was what Wikipedia refers to as a “first generation” unit. Per Wikipedia:
“Also known as “old type” pressure cookers, these operate with a weight-modified or “jiggly” valve, which releases pressure during operation. Some people might consider them loud or very loud because the weight-modified valve operates similarly to the piston in a steam engine. They typically offer only one pressure level—with the exception of some newer “old style” pressure cookers that allow the operator to change the weight of the weight-modified valve.”
Here’s a photo I pulled off Google Image Search. This unit is either the same one we had in the 70’s, or is remarkable similar:
Once filled with uncooked food, the unit is set on a burner on the stove top. When it reaches its proper temperature the rocker weight on top starts oscillating. The device we had vented continuously, which led to considering it a “ticking time bomb.” It had to be monitored constantly, as it was prone to malfunction, and a malfunction in a pressure cooker was potentially very dangerous. The problem was that the vessel was squat in its proportions. Foods like beans were notorious for foaming up. Bits of food would rise to the top and clog the vent hole. This caused the regular steam venting to cease and was cause for immediate panic. The pot was immediately taken off the stove and quenched with cold water. This happened during our beans and rice adventure.
My father had worked in the copper mines in Butte before he became a lawyer. I suspect he had seen the results of blue collar workplace accidents, which resulted in a long standing fear of machine tools and mechanical devices. Suffice it to say the pressure cooker freak-out in the Crowley household led to the unit being quietly set aside.
Fast forward several decades. Living on my own, I encountered Roger Ebert’s fascinating essay entitled The Pot and How to use It.
I was sufficiently aroused by Ebert’s glowing recommendation to buy an Aroma brand rice cooker from Costco. It was a cheap unit costing perhaps 30 dollars. The non-stick coating in the inner pot became scratched, despite my use of plastic tools. I didn’t cook much rice in the vessel and began using its slow cooker function instead. From there I transitioned to an ordinary crock pot, albeit a older model that had a rotating knob that controlled temperature.
Not long ago I became fascinated with Indian cuisine, probably because of its inclusion of strong spices. I began to watch Indian cooking videos on YouTube. Many of them utilized pressure cookers, particularly to cook “dal” or split legumes. Many of the units in these videos vented intermittently rather than continuously, as did our family’s unit from the 70’s. I decided to buy a pressure cooker for myself so I could cook Indian food at home.
I didn’t research this class of machines before actually buying one. I didn’t know that modern units are considered “third generation” vessels, per Wikipedia.
I gather that modern units employ thermostats and relays like those found in rice cookers, and are thus programmable. Per Wikipedia:
“3rd Generation with smart programming. Smart Programming includes pre-set cook times and settings, based on heating intensity, temperature, pressure and duration. Programmable electric pressure cookers have become as intuitive to use as the microwave.”
While the Wikipedia entry sounds like hyperbolic advertising copy, I would have to concur! The ability to set the cooking time is obviously a virtue. Yet the greatest advance is simply that the machine does not have to be constantly monitored for malfunction. I’ve had my Farberware cooker for about a month now, and it’s experienced ZERO malfunctions. I suspect, but do not know, that this is due to the taller, more cylindrical shape of the machine as compared to our 70’s unit. The unit does not vent at all during its operation. This completely eliminates the low grade fear induced by continuous venting. The “ticking time bomb” is a cliche for a good reason: The ticking sound reminds us of its inescapable presence and threat.
The go-to virtue of the pressure cooker is that it cooks food quickly. But so does a microwave oven, and we don’t hold the microwave oven as a tool that facilitates fine dining. In my opinion, the primary virtue of the pressure cooker is that it retains moisture better than a crock pot. My unit has a “warm” function that automatically kicks in after the “cook” cycle. I can set food in the vessel late at night and have a hot breakfast ready for me the next morning. The food will still be perfectly moist even after 7 or 8 hours. I doubt this would work with a crock pot.
The go-to virtue of quickness is a benefit when I cook my lunch. I usually combine bulgur, buckwheat, or barley with some sort of dal, usually one of the quicker cooking varieties like masoor dal, urad dal, or moong dal. Cooking times are similar, and I’ve gotten excellent results in only 20 minutes. From there I add chopped vegetables, and allow them to warm for 5 minutes or so. Delicious and nutritious!
I no longer use a rice cooker to cook rice. I’ve had perfect results cooking slightly tricky sorts of rice in the pressure cooker. I cook big batches of brown, red, or black rice that lasts for several days. I soak the rice overnight then rinse it in a colander. I add water at a ratio of 1.5 times the weight of rice.
The freedom from worrying about overcooking curries and stews is a godsend. I can start dinner cooking any time in the day then dine at any hour of my choosing without worrying that the food will be desiccated. The Farberware unit that I own has a more robust inner metal pot than the flimsy Aroma rice cooker. The non-stick coating seems to be superior as well, but I’ve not owned it long enough to assess its long term durability.
I never thought I would give up my crock pot! I imagined it to be a perfect and mature technology. I no longer think this, and now swear allegiance to the modern pressure cooker. Though it sounds hyperbolic and exaggerated, the pressure cooker has changed my life for the better, and I HIGHLY recommend people seriously consider buying one.