Insta-curious? Julie Van Rosendaal takes the Instant Pot for a spin

The Instant Pot has been the runaway appliance hit of 2017. The multi-cooker is an electric pressure cooker and slow cooker in one, with additional functionalities that set it apart from similar appliances.

'If you love it, great and if it helps you cook more, it’s a winner'

If you have one in your kitchen or are among the Insta-curious, here’s a quick rundown of Julie Van Rosendaal's weekend spent taking one for a spin. (The Canadian Press/Bryce Meyer)

The Instant Pot has been the runaway appliance hit of 2017. The multi-cooker is an electric pressure cooker and slow cooker in one, with additional functionalities that set it apart from similar appliances.

If you have one in your kitchen or are among the Insta-curious, here's a quick rundown of my weekend spent taking one for a spin.

Yes, the Instant Pot is more than a slow and pressure cooker. It's also a rice cooker, and some models make yogurt. The sauté function allows you to brown meat or veggies before continuing on to cook your soup/stew/curry, allowing for browned bits that add so much more flavour.

What seems to get most people excited about the Instant Pot is its pressure cooker functionality, which allows for food to be cooked in about a third the time it would under normal cooking conditions. However, the saved cooking time isn't always as significant as it sounds.

Often the time it takes to bring the machine up to pressure, which typically takes 10 to 40 minutes, and the additional time to depressurize after the food is cooked and the machine can be safely opened, isn't factored into the total cooking time.

For example, five minute hard-boiled eggs actually took over 16 minutes to cook when you include bringing the pot to pressure and the time it takes to depressurize, even using the quick-release valve. However, the finished eggs peeled easily and beautifully, something I haven't experienced under any other cooking conditions.

The one-minute quinoa and three-minute steel cut oats in the recipe book take one or three minutes of actual cooking time, but that doesn't include the time it takes to pressurize, and suggests letting the unit depressurize naturally, which takes about 10 minutes.

Be careful with quick manual steam release

A friend told me she jump-starts the pressurization process by using boiling water from the kettle.

When you do the quick manual steam release, make sure your hand isn't over the valve when the hot steam escapes. I like to use the handle of a wooden spoon or spatula to push it to one side.

A big part of the appliance's appeal is that you can press a few buttons and walk away — set it and forget it — which many home cooks love, but I found it often detracted from the cooking experience.

It became clear when I was making risotto — an example a lot of Instant Pot fans use because you can make it without stirring — and after the four-minute prescribed cooking time, I released the steam and opened the pot to find it very liquidy and not done.

Rather than continue to cook it as I would on the stovetop, stirring and watching for the rice grains to absorb the rest of the stock, I had to seal and re-pressurize the unit, add a few more minutes of cooking time and hope for the best.

The finished risotto was fine, but a little stodgier than I would have liked if I had the opportunity to pull it off the heat when I saw it was done.

Dry bean cooking a hit

The pot did a great job of cooking dry beans — no need to soak, despite the recipe on the website that says beans must be soaked for eight hours or overnight first.

The recipes in the booklet and on the Instant Pot website appear to be pulled from other websites rather than developed for the Instant Pot itself.

Dry black and navy beans took under an hour — 25 minutes of programmed time, plus bringing the pot to pressure and depressurizing after. I made another batch of dry white beans with a smoked ham hock, and they cooked together in under an hour, providing a base for soup.

Not always a time saver

A pot of soup — sweet potato, using the recipe in the booklet — was fine, but between sautéing the veggies in the pot on the sauté function, then setting it to cook for 25 minutes and then puréeing the mixture in the pot using a hand-held immersion blender, I didn't find it saved any time compared to cooking it on the stove.

Stock was great though — dumped in the turkey carcass and a few veggie scraps and it did its thing, but I tend to put stock on a back burner to simmer and rarely need it to cook faster.

Another benefit I've heard from friends is that they can plop frozen-solid meat into the unit and let it do its thing with great success. This isn't recommended with slow cookers, but gets the green light in an Instant Pot.

I found the beef stew I made — not from frozen, and I cooked the meat with some stock, garlic, thyme and stout first before adding the vegetables, like I do on the stovetop or in the oven, to prevent them from turning to mush — was more watery than usual, like the slow cooker. A pressure cooker retains the moisture in a dish, so the sauce or gravy doesn't condense like it would in the oven or on the stovetop.

Stove top yogurt also works

My model doesn't have a yogurt button, but some people love that they can make a batch in their Instant Pot — the machine scalds the milk, and once it cools you stir in a spoonful of good-quality yogurt to inoculate the milk, which then spends eight hours at 110 degrees transforming into yogurt for you to spoon into containers and refrigerate.

I do this in a pot on the stove, scalding the milk then cooling it slightly before stirring in some yogurt and pouring the mix into a thick glass jar to sit on the countertop, wrapped in a tea towel, overnight. The next morning — yogurt.

I tried a batch of mac and cheese using a recipe from Melissa Clark's Dinner in an Instant. She's one of my favourite food writers, but the mac and cheese was not a hit; half the noodles fused to the bottom of the pot (other recipes say to put pasta on top of the saucy ingredients, creating a buffer) and the cheese kind of split. I managed to resurrect it with the grated cheddar but the result was heavy and dense, and not as easy or good as my regular stovetop formula, which doesn't require a package of cream cheese: boil and drain pasta, then add milk, a couple spoonfuls of flour and grated cheese to the pot and bring to a boil, stirring, until you have a creamy sauce.

Ironically, I think this is a streamlined version of another Melissa Clark recipe.

Verdict

I can see why people love their Instant Pot, and how it makes mealtimes easier for busy families, but I'm not convinced it will wind up in heavy rotation in my house — unless I want to make a batch of devilled eggs (seriously, they're so easy to peel).

My husband looked up from a bowl of ham and white bean soup and said, "everything you've cooked in it tastes a little … odd."

I had the same sense — everything seemed to taste a bit flat. Perhaps I just need to spend more time getting to know it a bit better?

Like other pressure cookers, I think in general the Instant Pot works best for dry beans, curries, stews and braised dishes, and meats like ribs or lamb shanks that would otherwise take two to three hours to break down and tenderize.

I've used an old-style stovetop pressure cooker for years, but not often.

Don't expect any crispy skins or edges, and keep in mind you'll need to cut back on liquid by about half, as moisture is trapped and you don't get the same evaporation as you do in a pot.

When pressure cooking manually, aim for about a third the cooking time a dish would require under normal circumstances. If the broth is too thin, you could add a slurry of flour or cornstarch and water and set it to cook for a few more minutes, or put it on the sauté setting to cook excess moisture off.

And if you love it, great! If it helps you cook more, it's a winner.

About the Author

Julie Van Rosendaal

Calgary Eyeopener's food guide

Julie Van Rosendaal talks about food trends, recipes and cooking tips on the Calgary Eyeopener every Tuesday at 8:20 a.m. MT. The best-selling cookbook author is a contributing food editor for the Globe and Mail, and writes for other publications across Canada.