As I was doing dishes the other night and pondering a topic for this week’s column, I looked down and realized the answer was right in my hands. I’d been using one of my pressure cookers for yet another deeply flavored, easy meal – one that required homemade chicken stock. With this great tool, it was quickly made, too.
How does a pressure cooker work? It’s quite simple. At sea level, water boils at 212ºF. You can’t get the temperature any higher than that… unless you can seal the vessel. With an air- and steam-tight seal, pressure is created. When the pressure in the cooker is increased to 15 pounds above normal sea-level pressure, the boiling point of water increases to 250ºF. This means that food cooks in about one-third to one-half the time it normally would. That’s a considerable savings of time and energy.
My first Christmas away from home, to my surprise – and a bit of consternation, as this seemed anything but romantic – my boyfriend gave me a pressure cooker. Fortunately, I had no innate fear of them, as many do. I grew up seeing my mom use one at least once a week. She was a frugal cook, and she made the most of this kitchen tool.
Well, the boyfriend is a distant memory, but I still have the pressure cooker. It doesn’t get used much since I upgraded to a newer stainless steel model with a more modern regulation system, although the old one still works fine. Call me sentimental. Some of my other favorite tools are vintage, too, like a rotary egg beater and a non-non-stick waffle iron. Like those things, a pressure cooker is every bit as useful today as it was in my mom’s day.
She used hers a lot for cooking chicken; this was in the days when fowl (a tough old hen past her egg-laying days) was cheaper than a broiler/fryer or a roaster. In half an hour, she would have cooked chicken and chicken stock at a bargain price. In addition to saving time and money, she also cut down on the heat in the kitchen. In Houston’s sweltering summers before we had air conditioning installed, this was a true blessing. I have a very clear memory of her sitting on her kitchen stool picking the meat off the bones in preparation for making chicken soufflé or pot pie.
I use my pressure cooker now for much the same reasons. Packages of raw giblets from a roasting chicken, leftover chicken bones or carcasses, bones from a roast beef or leg of lamb? Throw them into the freezer until you have enough accumulated, and make stock. Your sauces, soups, and stews will improve dramatically.
What can you prepare in a pressure cooker other than stock? Almost anything – soups, stews, braises, dried legumes, grains, certain vegetables (not the quick-cooking ones), and desserts. Obviously, you can’t grill a steak in one or bake cookies, both dry heat procedures. But you can steam brown bread or custards, cook a cheesecake or cornbread. Enterprising cooks have successfully made risotto and polenta (no more endless stirring!) in them, with remarkably good results. Look into getting one of these versatile kitchen tools. There are lots of models and resources available to ensure your success using one.