I’ve been reading more about pressure cooking in the British press lately. Recently, the very popular, veteran cookery writer Delia Smith praised pressure cooking in her blog, and lamented the lack of good “pc” books in London. A few days later, a young blogger for the Guardian, UK, Catherine Phipps, spoke about her conversion to pressure cooking and received 131 comments from readers who use them every day.
I refuse to show you the atrocious photo they ran with the blog: a huge pressure cooker canner from the 1970s, clamped down like batten down the hatches–enough to scare anyone away. Outrageous!
Here’s Catherine’s blog with a nice passing reference to my Pressure Perfect. No surprise that she was introduced to the magic of pressure cooker by her Brazilian sister-in-law who, like most cooks all over the world, wouldn’t be without one.
“If you are of a certain age, you probably have some scary memories of pressure cookers. They had monstrous reputations – ferocious, steam belching geysers, they hissed and rattled away ominously on the stove, threatening to explode if not carefully attended and able to administer nasty scalds if not treated with properly insulated kid gloves. So it’s hardly surprising that they are viewed by many as something to be handled with extreme caution at best, dangerous and to be avoided at worst.
The publishing industry until very recently has seemed to agree – there is a real dearth of decent books on the subject, though there are a huge number on slow cookers – why? When I started using a pressure cooker, I found myself reliant on the accompanying recipe booklet, an old Marguerite Patten from the 1970s which is unsurprisingly very out of date, and an American title by Lorna Sass, Pressure Perfect, which is great if you can be faffed with all the cup measurements and is unsurprisingly good on beans. More recent is Australian Suzanne Gibbs’ recent book which has some very fresh tasting dishes…However, I am more excited by the fact that Grub Street have recognised that pressure cookers are woefully under represented, and have therefore commissioned Marguerite Patten to update her 1970s book to reflect modern eating habits – the book will focus more on pulses, grains, stews and soups and will be released as one of the Basic Basics Handbooks sometime in April.
My own upbringing rarely brought me into contact with this method of cooking – at home we had a solid fuel Rayburn, complete with its own belching issues (especially when accidentally fed creosote coated wood – the meat served up on that particular day had the taste and consistency of a rubber tyre), so the emphasis was on slow cooking. As with Agas, lids were kept down as much as possible to conserve heat, most things suitable for pressure cooking were cooked over a period of hours in the low oven. My mother did have a pressure cooker, but says she hated everything about it, especially the noise and the condensation filled kitchen. Consequently as an adult it never occurred to me to get one – slow was definitely best as far as I was concerned, and several years of living the Good Life and cooking on an Aga did nothing to diminish this view.
That is, until last year when for the very first time my Brazilian sister-in-law offered to cook for me and with very little effort produced a hearty meal of black beans and sausages. Initially, I was very sceptical when I saw her reach for a packet of dried beans and the pressure cooker, but she confounded my expectations – dinner was on the table within 40 minutes. The beans had cooked with some aromatics and were ready by the time some bacon and sausages had been fried separately, all that was necessary to finish was a few minutes of simmering to amalgamate the flavours. It was delicious, and I was instantly converted.
My sister-in-law explained that a number of factors make pressure cookers indispensible to hard working Brazilian women. Beans are a daily staple, and a pressure cooker removes the need for either soaking or long cooking times, so evening meals can be on the table relatively quickly. Also, the fact that the heat source does not need to be on for so long means that fuel costs are kept to a minimum (especially as they work on a very low burner once up to pressure) and kitchens are kept cooler. The obvious immediately struck me – here in the UK we’re all trying to conserve energy and we’re all trying to find ways of quickly producing healthy, cheap meals, so why, when it seems perfect for dealing with credit crunch staples such as dried pulses and cheap cuts, aren’t more of us using pressure cookers?
Of course, I had to buy one and soon realized that today’s models are a far cry from those of old – not as noisy for a start, and with a plethora of safety features including safety valves, pressure gauges and interlocking devices which mean kitchen explosions are (almost) a thing of the past. Early experiments proved quite successful, despite the lack of reading matter on the subject.
The first dish I produced was lamb shanks and cannellini beans, with gremolata. The lamb was succulent and full of flavour, with the meat falling off the bone into a well rounded broth (full of creamy garlic cloves) and the beans were perfectly and evenly cooked. I was equally successful with ham hocks and some particularly tough ox cheeks. As for vegetables – as cooking times are reduced by 70% and less water is requried, flavour and nutrients are locked in making them apparently more nutritious than if cooked conventionally – I can’t vouch for the science, but vegetables certainly cook well, retaining bite and colour – very far removed from the mustard brown sludge I was expecting. Some of the beans (such as black eyed beans) cook in a scant 6 minutes, unsoaked, which seems miraculous to me.
I am won over on pretty much anything one pot, including soups. They cook steamed puddings very well, which means that I risked an outing this Christmas for the pudding, which is surely the king of all things suet (although almost all of the suet leaches out during the cooking – why is this?) I intend to experiment with jams and chutneys this summer. The only thing I am doubtful about is stocks, as too many people have said that they end up sour tasting, and I admit I am addicted to the slow way and the faint plup, plup of the gently simmering stock pot.
So, do you own a pressure cooker and if so, do you use it? Do you have any tips to share with a recent convert? Or are you a naysayer and remain unconvinced?”