In the last few years, Instant Pots have become the go-to small kitchen appliance for home cooks. Busy parents use them to get dinner on the table in minutes, while batch cookers use them to simplify midweek meals. From oatmeal to chili to casseroles, it seems that just about everything can be cooked more quickly and easily in an Instant Pot.
“A few years ago the idea that people would be cooking in pressure cookers en masse was unthinkable,” says Elizabeth Barbone, a cookbook author and the creator of the pressure-cooker blog Cook Fast, Eat Well. “It’s been really fun to see folks not only embrace it, but to embrace it in different ways.”
Instant Pots have come down quite a bit in price, and you can find them on sale for under $60. The Wirecutter says to expect good deals on small kitchen appliances on Black Friday and during Cyber Week.
WHAT ARE INSTANT POTS?
Instant Pots are a brand of electric pressure cookers or multicookers. Pressure cookers work by creating heat under a tight seal, so the temperature is much higher than the boiling point of water and the steam can’t escape. The steam cooks food much more quickly than traditional stovetop or oven cooking.
DO THEY REALLY COOK THAT FAST?
“The claims sound outlandish — it reduces cooking time by 70 percent — but that’s because of the steam and the pressure,” Barbone says.
There are a couple of caveats, though. You need to add in the time it takes the machine to come up to pressure. That can take 15 or 20 minutes.
And for some dishes, you’ll want the pressure to dissipate gradually. That can take five to 40 minutes depending on the dish. “For meat-based dishes I like to release the pressure naturally for at least 10 minutes. If you release it right away the meat can seize up and become tough,” Williams says.
Stovetop pressure cookers got a bad reputation years ago because it was relatively easy to remove the lid before the pressure released. So there was a risk of burns and messes. “You could end up with soup on your ceiling,” Williams says.
Today’s electric models have built-in safety features so you can’t release the lid when the pressure is still high.
“Pressure cookers are safe, but we need to be following good practices,” Barbone says. Some of the things you might see on the Internet, like covering the steam release valve, aren’t safe. Instead, position your pot so the steam isn’t hitting your cabinets or walls if that’s a concern.
And don’t fill your Instant Pot more than about halfway. You need the pot empty enough to get to a safe pressure and remain safe throughout your cooking time.
WHAT FEATURES DO I NEED?
Multicookers add other features to the pressure cooker. You’ll see names like 6-in-1 or 10-in-1, depending on how many of these other options they add:
- High- and low-pressure
- Slow cooker
- Rice/porridge cooker
- Cake maker
- Yogurt maker
- Sauté/sear feature
- Air fryer
- Altitude adjuster
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The sauté setting is popular. It allows you to use the Instant Pot the same way you use an electric skillet, Weinstein says. That saves you the hassle of sautéing in one pan and then transferring your food to another pot for slow cooking.
If you want to make delicate vegetables or cream-based soups, you might want a pot with a low-pressure option. If you’ll do canning, you want a pot with that capability. And if Bluetooth connectivity and high-end electronics are important to you, you can choose from models with those features.
The Instant Pot line includes a range of models — Lux, Duo, Viva, Ultra, Smart Wifi, and Max. Moving up adds more bells and whistles. You’ll need to decide what features you need (will you really ever make yogurt?) to see which model is the right fit for you.
Another consideration? If you plan to leave your Instant Pot out on your countertop, you might want to factor in the different colors and designs you can choose with different models.
WHAT IF I JUST WANT A PRESSURE COOKER?
You might want a machine that’s just a pressure cooker, not a multicooker. “A lot of people are not interested in all those other things — they just want something that can cook their dinner,” Weinstein says.
Companies like Cuisinart make electric pressure cookers. And if you’re just looking to do pressure cooking and you don’t need a bunch of other features, you might find a better price by going that route.
Just keep in mind that Instant Pot multicookers tend to get hotter than most other pressure cookers, so if you’re following an Instant Pot recipe it might take a few minutes longer to cook your dish with another machine.
WHAT SIZE DO I NEED?
For most people, the 6-quart is a good size. It’s the size most recipes are designed for and can easily handle meals for a family of four or five. If you have a big family, want to cook large cuts of meat, or plan on cooking for a crowd, you might want to go up to the 8- or 10-quart.
“With the 8-quart it’s hard to make things for one or two people, because you have to have a certain amount in there to work properly and create pressure,” Weinstein says.
The 3-quart is a good choice for smaller spaces and cooking for one or two people. Some people like the 3-quart as a second pot for cooking side dishes.
I’VE HEARD FOOD BURNS SOMETIMES. HOW CAN I AVOID THAT?
Williams says the burn sensor is more sensitive in newer, higher pressure models. Paying attention to the liquid ratios is key. If there’s not enough liquid or your sauce is thick you could run into burning.
“In testing recipes that has happened to me a few times,” Weinstein says. He says even something like using canned tomatoes packed in juice vs. packed in puree can make a difference.
“The best way to avoid that is to follow tested recipes,” he says. “If it hasn’t been tested you might end up with a burn.”
It’s also best to put your liquids and the foods that will release the most water on the bottom of the pot, and wait until after your dish is cooked to stir everything together.
Make sure you are using a recipe designed for the size pot you have. You could run into burning if you’re using a recipe designed for a 6-quart pot in an 8-quart pot.
HOW DO I GET STARTED?
Before you use an Instant Pot for the first time do the initial test run, which is outlined in the user manual and just heats up water with your pot. “See what it sounds like when a pressure cooker comes to pressure. The steam will sort of violently come out of the valve. If you’ve never heard it before it can be a little startling,” Barbone says.
After that, try something simple like rice, Williams says. That way, if you make a mistake, you’re not wasting a lot of money. Then move on to something like a broth-based soup.
“Start with something simple. Don’t start with a rack of ribs for your first recipe. Do something affordable so if it doesn’t work out, you’re not ruining something that’s really pricey,” Barbone says.
HOW DO I CLEAN MY INSTANT POT?
Just wash the liner and lid with dish soap and warm water, or run it through the dishwasher. Some people find the sealing ring for the lid traps odors, and they like to have two on hand, one for sweet dishes and one for savory foods. But by storing the lid upside down you can probably avoid that. You can also use the steam function with a little vinegar and lemon juice to remove any odor from the liner and sealing ring.
If you scald the bottom of your pot, Williams recommends the powder version of Barkeepers Friend.