For a meal that needs to be done fast and well, a pressure cooker is often the best way to go. These cookers use extremely high pressure combined with quickly-increasing temperatures to cook even the toughest of meats in less than an hour, and combines this quick, strong cooking power with the ability to gently steam even sensitive vegetables. Using this cooker properly for your own cuisine choices requires careful attention to settings and timing.
When it comes to setting the pressure cooker, nearly all foods should be cooked on the highest setting. When it comes to vegetables, the sole exception to this rule is fresh spinach, which is extremely vulnerable, thin and made of mostly water. Cooking fresh spinach on high will result in little more than a soggy, taste-devoid mess, and so this vegetable should be cooked on low. All meats can be cooked on high, but when dealing with fish, things get a bit more difficult. Because fish is less dense and contains more water than ground-based meats, nearly all fish should be cooked on the low setting. The exception here is with thick fish steaks, or with soups that contain fish; both of these are also cooked on high.
Timing is everything when it comes to pressure cooking. Even the low setting can easily over-cook food if allowed to cook for too long. The hard part is that each individual food will be ready in a different amount of time. In general, the thicker the food the longer the time needed. So if you slice up a squash, it will be ready within three to four minutes; if you only cut the vegetable in half, it will take seven to eight minutes to cook. Some of the smallest foods, such as peas, can be cooked on high for as little as 60 seconds and be ready to eat. Thick, dense beans generally take between 10 and 20 minutes, while many meats are ready within five to 20 minutes. Thick pieces, such as full beef hearts or pork hocks, can take up to 50 minutes to cook fully.
Water is a key part of pressure cooking, and the amount of water you need to add also varies greatly from food to food. For thicker pieces of meat, such as the pork hocks mentioned above, the material should be completely covered in water. When pressurized by the cooker, the water heats up and penetrates the porous food, which is what enables it to cook so quickly. Most vegetables can cook in 1/2 to 1 cup of water. The amount of water you need also rises with the time needed to cook; foods that take 45 to 50 minutes to cook need at least 2 cups of water to keep cooking the whole time. Otherwise all of the water will evaporate and the food will dry out or burn.
When setting your pressure cooker, use the automatic unlocking or alarm timer on the machine itself. This feature will set off an alarm to let you know when the food is done, and some will even release the pressure on their own as soon as time is up to prevent overcooking. Be sure to read all of your cooker's manufacturer's instructions for details of how to set this timer; most of these instructions also provide tips and hints for proper cooking procedures.
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