Andrew Coppolino: Pressure cooker trend gathers steam

Pressure cookers really do allow you to set it and forget it and cuts down cooking time significantly, says food columnist Andrew Coppolino.
An Instant Pot cooking device is shown.
Food columnist Andrew Coppolino says that pressure cookers are growing in popularity, and they're a speedy way to get family dinners together. (CBC)

French physician and inventor Denis Papin felt the pinch of time even 300 years ago.

He invented the "pressure digester" – which came to be called a pressure cooker – in 1679 in order to cook his food more quickly. That ancient cooking device has seen a renaissance lately, and it's become a sensation for home cooks also looking to save a bit of time preparing family meals.

Stove-top pressure cookers were popular in home kitchens beginning in the early 1900s, but a new generation of pressure cookers with electronic technology and multiple "7-in-1" functions can be found in department stores, kitchen supply outlets and online.

One particular Canadian model, Instant Pot, has captured much of the market and has a devoted following. 

Robert Wang is the CEO of Instant Pot, based in Ottawa, Ont.

Wang, an engineer by training, said much like Denis Papin in 1679, cooking for the family inspired his invention.

"The need came out of our personal lives. My business partner and I both have kids at home and we and our wives are all working, so fixing a dinner is rather difficult if you don't want to go to a burger place. That was one of the motivations for us, to look for a kitchen appliance to automate the cooking process," Wang said.

Instant Pot inventor Robert Wang is shown with the device he created.
Instant Pot founder and CEO Robert Wang says he caught the "entrepreneurial bug" and used his engineering skills to create the very successful cooker. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

A marketing phenom

The fact Instant Pot became a marketing phenomenon was accidental.

"I have to confess that we are not from a marketing background. We are engineers, and not marketers or pitchmen in any measure," Wang says.

The idea was simply to create the best product in the market so that naturally people would talk about it.

"It solves a problem for them in their daily lives," he added.

Word-of-mouth became their best marketing strategy and Instant Pot was even the top seller on Amazon Prime Day with more than 200,000 sold. The community Facebook page has 450,000 members.

Those numbers signify other pressure cooker models have become popular as well.

Raising the boiling point to reduce cooking time 

The principle of any pressure cooker derives from the same scientific understanding that evolved during the era of steam in the industrial revolution of the 1700 and 1800s. Notably, the autoclave for sterilizing hospital instruments was an allied steam invention.

The basic physics are simple: A small amount of liquid is boiled in a closed chamber, and the steam that results is trapped so that it can't evaporate, unlike in a standard pot on the stovetop or in the oven.In that chamber, the steam increases and raises the boiling point of the liquid to about 250-degrees Fahrenheit or 120-degrees Celsius.

The hotter temperature results in faster cooking because a wet cooking environment transfers heat efficiently. There is a difference between heat and temperature, so think about it this way: You can't stick your hand in pot of boiling water at 100 C, but you can stick your hand in a 200 C oven fairly comfortably. 
Instant Pot owes its viral success online to old-fashioned word-of-mouth. (Submitted photo)

Quick and convenient cooking

While you do have to account for time for the pressure to build up and for its release when the cooking is complete, pressure cooking can save time. The general estimations are that pressure cooking can reduce the cooking time for many dishes by 50 percent or more compared to a typical stove-top Dutch oven. 

In addition to faster cooking, pressure cookers preserve nutrients, save water and are more energy efficient – up to 70 percent by some reports – than conventional cooking. It takes a cup or two of water to cook dry pasta in mere minutes, rather than boiling four litres on the stovetop.

Pressure cookers today also have several functions. They can brown and sauté and finish under pressure – that means using just one pot, a significant convenience as well as a time saver.

You can cook main course proteins and the side dishes that go with them: I did some BBQ-style ribs with cannellini beans and collard greens all together in the pressure cooker and in less than half the time.

Pressure cookers today also have several functions. They can brown and sauté and finish under pressure – that means using just one pot, a significant convenience as well as a time saver.

Inch-thick porks chops can be browned and then cooked in about three minutes. I've taken dry beans, added some water and seasoning and cooked them in 15 minutes, when I forgot to soak them over night. I poured some home-made pasta sauce into the pressure cooker and some dry penne, added a cup of water and the pasta was cooked and sauced in four minutes.

Potatoes braised in oregano and lemon are excellent, while brown rice does very well under pressure. You can also make congee and desserts like pot de crème and crème brûlée as well.

What's old is new again, as the cliche goes. We can also attach the marketing slogan, that when it comes to pressure cookers, you can "set it and forget it." That's one of the device's greatest advantages.


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.