A suspicious food writer tries out the Instant Pot. Here’s her list of what to brace for—and why it’s worth it.
There’s a lot not to like about the Instant Pot. Its logo calls to mind an ‘80s mall store—Claire’s Boutique meets 5-7-9—and not in a good way. There are a full 18 buttons on its control panel, which presumably will require a MacGyver level of skill to defuse if something goes awry. And most dauntingly, it’s a pressure cooker, so it’s designed to cook things fast under high pressure. (Whose mom hasn’t warned them “not to blow up the whole house with that thing?”)
I bought an Instant Pot on sale online, then skulked around my kitchen, avoiding eye contact, for two full weeks. It was only when my groceries were so scarce that I had nothing but dried beans that I turned to Melissa Clark, a cooking hero and the author of a new pressure cooker cookbook. Beans, she had written, are among the things the Instant Pot does best. I sighed, plugged the thing in, and braced. Here are the things I think you should know for your own test drive.
1. It’s really big.
Not only does the 6-quart version I bought take up a 13-by-12.6 inch footprint, but you have to account for the steam that emerges when you manually release it: a foot to two feet of the stuff, straight into the air. This is helpful to know if you have plants above your prep area, or a curious cat.
2. It comes with a ton of literature.
The daunting amount of literature includes a bright yellow warning square, a recipe booklet, an instruction booklet, an “ownership registration card,” an “updated feature information sheet,” and a “quick reference card.” For now, set everything aside except the instruction booklet and the safety card.
3. The primary thing to worry about is steam.
The jiggly little knob atop the beast is the thing to worry about. It won’t feel like it’s securely attached to the IP, and if your fear—like mine—is that you’ll blow up your apartment, this is not a comfort. But that’s how it’s supposed to work; you simply toggle it between “sealed” and “venting” very carefully. Best bet: Never hover any part of you over the IP while it is on.
4. It takes a while to preheat.
You may have read that a pork shoulder is ready in 30 minutes or some such. In truth, your IP needs to come to temperature—in the same way pasta water needs to boil—before you can start your countdown. It’s annoying. My kidney beans—I riffed on a Clark cannellini bean recipe—took 22 minutes to pre-heat, then cooked for 30 minutes.
5. It’s noisy.
This is a highly communicative gadget. It beeps like R2-D2 when you’re putting on the lid. It beeps three times when it starts cooking your food, and ten times when the cooking time has expired. Plus, you’ll hear clicks throughout the cooking process. I appreciated the user-friendliness, but the beeps made me edgy, and I set up camp on the far side of the kitchen. “Set it and forget it” felt a whole lot more like, “Set it and obsess over it.”
6. You can’t use the usual senses.
I use my nose to tell when bread and meat are caramelized, but not burning. I taste food for salt, acid and sweetness. I use my ears and eyes to know when butter is about to brown. The Instant Pot requires you to fly blind until you go through the rigamarole of releasing steam and unsealing it, which takes a few minutes. This is a very different way of cooking.
7. The user manual is not intuitive.
I would have appreciated more illustrations in the manual. It should show you that—after you carefully flip down the steam release gadget, or let it sit and release naturally—the “float valve,” a tiny silver button, will completely drop about a centimeter into the well of the machine.
8. You can fix seasoning relatively late in the process.
I cooked my kidney beans in the IP for 25 minutes before tasting them. They were poorly seasoned and unevenly cooked, so I stirred them, added salt and cumin, pressure-cooked them for another five minutes, and tasted again. I’m sure this won’t be the case every time, but somehow the pressure worked its magic, fixing the seasoning and making my beans velvety in texture and kind of amazing.
9. It works.
Prepping, soaking, cooking, and seasoning the beans took me about an hour and a half—a fraction of the usual time. I’ll tweak things going forward, trying the “sauté” function for onions, then adding the beans. I can’t wait to try homemade meatballs and bone-in pork shoulder. I remain a little intimidated, although yes, I’m glad I bought it. I’ll report back on take two, so watch our Facebook page!
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.