Is it worth getting a pressure cooker for lockdown?

Whether lockdown means you have less time to spend in the kitchen or more time to experiment with cooking, Best Home Cook winner Pippa Middlehurst can help.

Lockdown has changed the way we cook. Shopping less frequently means stocking your cupboard with long-life staples, while shortages have led us to swap those old faithful quick pasta dinners for an odd assortment of unfamiliar ingredients, and we’re using up every bit of food. You may find yourself busier than ever, juggling childcare, home-schooling, work, your new fitness regime and family video calls. Under all these demands, one device comes into its own: the pressure cooker.

“I first started using my pressure cooker because I could remember my gran using it”, says Manchester-based cook, Pippa Middlehurst. “Once I started experimenting with it, I realised just how versatile it is.” Pippa’s developed pressure cooker recipes for BBC Food, from stocks and soups to curries and bean stews, that will help you transform store-cupboard staples into dinner in a fraction of the time they’d normally take to cook.

How does a pressure cooker work?

The steam trapped inside the pressure cooker builds up pressure to twice that of our normal atmosphere, so the temperature of the liquid can rise above the boiling point of water (100C/212F). Heat cannot escape, so the cooking temperature is maintained with minimal energy input. A pressure cooker saves 90 percent of the energy used to boil a pot on the hob.

Some foods are perfect to cook under these hot and steamy conditions: a meat stock, for instance, takes advantage of all the pressure cooker’s benefits. The higher temperature breaks down the collagen in the bones and tissues quickly, creating body and richness. Flavour is extracted efficiently as it’s not floating away in steam. The pressurised atmosphere keeps gas from bubbling out of the stock, creating less agitation and making a clearer stock. And the sealed pressure cooker eliminates the need for topping up the water. In all, a chicken stock that would take 4 hours to cook on the hob is done in 45 minutes (and there’s no steamy kitchen).

Having fresh stock in the freezer is a great shortcut to dinner. “It’s just the most useful thing to have”, says Pippa, “because you can put it in anything – you can put it in a risotto, have it with noodles – that’s my favourite thing and if I don’t have that in my freezer, I panic! I just put the ice block of broth in a pan and it defrosts very quickly.”

Pippa’s Pho ga (Vietnamese chicken soup) takes 1 hour of hands-off cooking. “I just bung all the ingredients in a pressure cooker when I get home from work. Then I can go upstairs, have a shower, get changed, come downstairs and it’ll be ready.”

Create taste, not waste

The convenience and speed of the pressure cooker can help you fight food waste, too. “If you had a roast chicken for dinner, rather than throw the carcass in the bin, you could use it to make soup,” says Pippa. “If you pop it in the pressure cooker, then in half an hour you’ll extract everything from it you need.”

Pippa’s Miso corn chowder takes 30 minutes to cook and magically extracts flavour from another often-chucked ingredient: the humble corn cob. “When I’m making this soup, I use corn on the cob rather than loose sweetcorn because the pressure cooker is so good at taking all the flavour from the cob.”

Pippa’s Fennel and butternut squash stew and Paul Ainsworth’s 5-minute Pressure-cooker minestrone are great recipes for hoovering up odds and ends of vegetables.

How to cook beans and pulses

Lentils and beans are a store-cupboard cook’s friends. Dried beans are lighter to carry, take up less storage space and are more flexible than tinned beans.

In a pressure cooker, you can halve the cooking time of soaked beans. Making the beans for these breakfast burritos with the pressure cooker means they can be ready in time for breakfast. In truth, you don’t have to soak them overnight (because who remembers?), but they will take an extra 10 minutes or so if you don’t. The exceptions are kidney and soya beans, which must be soaked to remove toxins.

Dal is a dream to make in the pressure cooker, with chunkier mung beans or chana dal cooking to tender, soupy perfection in around 15 minutes.

It can be tricky to adapt recipes for the pressure cooker, because you must account for the change in cooking time and the reduction of liquid. A good rule of thumb for cooking beans and lentils in a pressure cooker is to just cover the ingredients with water (or stock) and halve the conventional cooking time. Older beans do take longer to cook, so this isn’t always consistent.

Meaty dishes

While Pippa uses her pressure cooker to cook all sorts of meat, she explains it really comes in handy with cheaper, tougher cuts. “Cheaper cuts of meat have more flavour, but traditionally they would need a long and slow cook to make them soft and delicious. Ox cheek, for example, takes a really long time to cook, but a pressure cooker can do it in half an hour. The same goes for tougher cuts of lamb – it gives the result of a low and slow cook."

Pippa’s Beef rib bao burger and Beef shin pie from Best Home Cook relied on the pressure cooker to get results in the competition. But if you need a laid-back, “throw it all in”, cheap and cheerful Sunday lunch, Pippa’s Pantry-raid pot roast will tenderise an inexpensive cut like beef brisket and use up any odd bits of vegetables to make its own gravy.

As well as making meat tender, the sealed environment helps flavours meld more quickly, as in Pippa’s pressure cooker Thai red curry. “Normally you want to get the flavour of the curry paste into the meat and the flavour of the meat into the curry, and then you want the two to amalgamate. All these steps take time. But the pressure cooker will do the hard work for you in around 25 minutes.”

But aren’t pressure cookers, well, a bit scary?

“The first time you use them they are quite scary because they make noises and they clunk and there’s a big fountain of steam coming out of the top, and I think the main reason people worry is they think they’re gonna blow up”, says Pippa, before adding, “but all the pressure cookers these days have mechanisms so they couldn’t physically blow up. All that would happen is the nozzle would come away, creating a big hole for all the steam to escape, and the pot would depressurise on its own.” The new wave of electric pressure cookers make a lot less noise (they are eerily quiet) and sound less like they will go off at any moment.

When the pressure cooker isn’t as fast as it seems

Many recipes specify the time at pressure, but don’t include the time it takes to come up to pressure or the time to release the pressure. A big pot of soup will take time to heat up enough to create steam, so can increase your cooking time significantly. Some dishes require the pressure to be released gradually. Releasing it after only a few minutes (known as “quick release”) will cause the food to go through a rapid boil, as the lower pressure equals a lower boiling point. This is useful if you are cooking vegetables as you don’t want them to overcook. But if you are cooking rice, this can cause it to stick or burn during that quick release. Releasing the pressure slowly, known as “natural release”, can take an extra 15 minutes or so that you may not have factored in.

We’re splitting hairs. Pressure cookers save bags of time on everyday dinners, and on those once-a-year occasions too, from steaming a Christmas pudding to making marmalade. They’re definitely worth experimenting with, if you have the time.