Skip to main content

How to Use a Pressure Cooker for Fast, Healthy Meals

Pressure cookers are a great way to cook food thoroughly and—most important—fast. This simple but brilliant device is essentially a kitchen pan on steroids with a lid that locks in super-high heat and pressure. It's a genius tool for the time-stretched.

Why Pressure Cookers Rule

Typically, anything made in a pressure cooker is ready in one-third of the time it would take with the stove top or oven. That's because of the intense steam and pressure built up in the airtight pan. And because of the quick cook time (we're talking an entire pot roast can be ready in about an hour!), what you're preparing retains more of its original vitamins and minerals. Yet this unsung hero of the kitchen has earned a bad rap in the past (heat + pressure can be scary for some) and can be intimidating to the uninitiated. But our guide to the virtues of today's versions of the pressure cooker will make your crock pot jealous.

pressure-cooker-chili-photo-by-meredith

First Things First: Eliminate the Fear Factor

The pressure cooker is a time-saver and it's healthier—what's not to love, right? Well, this appliance has gotten a bit of a bad rap in past years. And partially rightly so. Yes, we've all heard the horror stories: Explosions! High velocity gusts of steam! Things flying across the room! But that is all in the past. Modern versions of pressure cookers (a device that also led to the invention of canning foods) come with some safety measures to ensure they do not explode:

  • The interlocking lid must be locked before the pressure will start to build up. Otherwise it's just a regular sauce pan.
  • A sealing ring helps create an air-tight seal that won't allow steam to escape unless you press the safety valve or regulator (see: quick release below).
  • The cooker comes with either an over-pressure plug and/or back-up vents to make sure things don't get too crazy in there.

Okay, now that we've settled that...

Learn the Lingo

With any new appliance, there may be a word or two (or three) introduced into your vocabulary. Here's a quick run-down of terms that will come in handy as you're getting familiar with all the bells and whistles of your new pan:

Quick release and natural release: Essentially, these terms refer to the way you release the pressure inside to open the pressure cooker when the food is done. You're either going to open the pressure release valve right away (quick release) or you're going to let the pressure drop naturally and gradually (natural release).

  • Use quick release for any type of food that's just kinda done when it's done, like vegetables or eggs. In some cases, you need to use quick release to add food to the pot before you reseal it to resume cooking. Note: this will expel a locomotive-like stream of steam, so make sure it's pointed away from you or any people.
  • Use natural release for meats that might benefit from a little simmer, or any other foods you want to stay toasty for a bit.

Pressure indicator: That's the little plastic piece on top of your lid that'll pop up when the correct pressure has been reached (think those plastic timers jammed into a grocery store turkey that pop up when the bird is cooked). It'll also fall when the pressure has dropped, indicating it's safe to open your lid.

Pressure release valve: You'll find this on the lid—this knob is what you'll use for that quick release we talked about above.

How Much Do You Fill Up the Pan?

Generally speaking, it shouldn't be more than two-thirds full of anything, but every model is a little different, so check your owner's manual for specifics on how much water you need to use and how much food you can cook in yours to avoid burning foods or plugging up the steam valve.

Pressure Cooker Recipes

You're used to certain conventional baking and stove top cooking times, so this new world might be a little disorienting. But—again—fear not! Reference the appliance's owner's manual to get some good rules of thumb for different types of foods. Also, use recipes: They'll send you in the right direction. We've got plenty of our favorites to get you started.

And for those living in wintery climates, these devices come with an added bonus: they create a cozy warmth in your kitchen as they simmer and whistle while they work.


Explore our library of pressure-cooker recipes


pressure cooker barbeque chicken

Related Content:

About Mackenzie Schieck

Writer and photographer obsessed with lattes, Mexican food, and stuff that’s funny.