Chicken is awesome. Instant Pots are awesome. But how do you cook the former in the latter without screwing it up? (It’s harder than you’d think.)
It’s a truism in food media that if you write an article about chicken, people will click: The relatively cheap and healthful protein is generally quick to cook and tasty if you know what you’re doing. So when I tried my first chicken recipe in my new Instant Pot—and screwed it up—I knew I had to reach out to a poultry-and-pressure-cooker professional.
Melissa Clark, author of Dinner in an Instant: 75 Modern Recipes for Your Pressure Cooker, Multicooker, + Instant Pot® and a food reporter for The New York Times, is a cooking hero to many. Her recipes work. For starters, I’d recommend her splayed roast chicken with caramelized ramps, red tofu curry, and green goddess recipes. When I informed Clark, an acquaintance, that I had bungled a whole chicken in my new Instant Pot and could she help, she replied via email, “The short answer is that whole chickens in the Instant Pot are foul. It just doesn’t work.”( She didn’t seem to notice her poultry pun.)
Not everyone agrees with Clark on that point, including our own crack culinary team, but I wanted more chicken opinions than just that one for my new gadget, so we hopped on the `phone to chat. Here are Clark’s top tips for poultry and pressure cooker aficionados.
1. Salting in Advance Isn’t as Crucial
The first part of the recipe I tried—green chili chicken using thighs and legs—was a success. I was astonished in part because—per the recipe—I only threw a big pinch of kosher salt in with the bird, chiles, garlic, and onions. (Typically I’d salt in advance, as Clark has recommended in past recipes.) Incredibly, the entire dish—including the thick pieces of meat—were well-seasoned. This is typical, says Clark. “What’s great about the pressure cooker is the pressure helps the seasoning get into ingredients. That salt really penetrates the chicken in a way that’s great.” Though she still generally recommends salting your chicken well in advance of cooking it, that’s not as crucial with a pressure cooker. “You can still get great results.”
2. It’s OK Not to Have a Ton of Liquid in There
By the same measure, it’s totally fine not to have a ton of liquid in your pressure cooker, which is a new thing for some of us to wrap our heads around. It’s the pressure doing the cooking, not liquid. “People get so upset about the liquid thing,” said Clark. “Things have liquid in them! You can get away with a couple tablespoons.” As opposed to a braise, in which liquid does half the work (of poaching) and steam does the other half, “the pressure helps it cook evenly.”
3. Cook Dark Meat Separate From White Meat
None of the recipes in Clark’s new book call for white meat (although she says that her forthcoming book will pay more attention to it). “What pressure does is cook everything evenly,” she explains. If placing white and dark meat together in one pressure cooker, “One of them is either going to overcook or undercook.” If you have a whole chicken to use, she says, either cook breasts separately on the stovetop, cook them in the IP on their own, or roast the whole thing!
4. Don’t Mix Up Bone-in and Boneless Cuts
By the same measure, go with “either off the bone or on the bone,” says Clark. “Don’t mix things up; it can’t handle that.” Chicken on the bone, she explained, takes longer to cook than chicken off the bone, and you’ll get inconsistent results.
5. Pressure Cookers Aren’t Great for Precision
Dark chicken meat is forgiving, says Clark. “If you overcook by a minute or two, it’s great.” Not so with chicken breasts, getting a steak cooked to rare, or “anything with a margin of error that’s a minute or two.” If you must cook chicken breasts in the IP, that’s fine, but “it’s a lot harder than with other chicken methods.”
6. Make Sure Your Pressure Cooker is Not Venting
For my chicken chili verde, I removed the chicken thighs, wings, and legs from the pot to shred their meat and reserve it. Using an immersion blender, I pureed the salsa right in the pot. Then, not wanting to waste the breasts that were still on the carcass, I plopped the whole thing in the Instant Pot with that salsa, set it to high pressure for 10 minutes, and crossed my fingers.
When I manually released the pressure, I noticed the skin on the breast, which was touching the hot bottom of the IP, had burned, but the breasts were still raw. This made no sense to me, but Clark identified the problem immediately. She asked if I was certain the handle on top of the IP hadn’t been set to “venting.” In hindsight, I’d noticed a ton of steam emerging from the pot during the cooking, which had seemed counterintuitive. “I get questions about that every day,” she told me, and she’s made the same error herself. My pressure cooker knob had flipped to “venting,” with no indication that that had happened. “That’s a real problem,” she said of my model of Instant Pot. “You need to see the valve is all the way over.” So be certain your pressure cooker is actually pressure cooking!
Craving More? Check Out Our: Instant Pot Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic, Easy Pressure Cooker Chicken Pho, Pressure Cooker Chicken Spaghetti, Pressure Cooker Chicken and Dumplings, or Pressure Cooker Chicken Adobo
7. Let Pressure Naturally Release
If I’d submerged the chicken breasts in that salsa verde for five minutes at low pressure, they should have cooked through, she said, particularly if I’d let the pressure naturally release afterwards, which helps keep the meat from seizing up and becoming tough. This can take 10 to 15 minutes—“the more liquid you have, the longer the natural release takes”—and will help finish cooking them through.
8. Save That Carcass for Stock
My instinct for throwing in the whole carcass wasn’t terrible, said Clark, as in this instance, “the pot failed you.” Next time I’ll chop up the breast into even pieces and cook them without the carcass, reserving it for the stock recipe in Clark’s book.
9. Trust Your Instincts
With cooking poultry, many variables are at play, notes Clark. “The amount of liquid, the size of the bird, and the fat content of bird” will all vary. “People want it to be an exact science but it’s not,” she says, so in the end, do what every good cook does: “Trust your instinct and not the recipe.”
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.