Pressure cooking for newbies…

Which, effectively, means me, even though I used a pressure cooker extensively, in the 80s, the world, and pressure cookers, has moved on. The basics however remain the same – just enough heat input to maintain pressure, but not so much that you vent steam excessively.

Right now I’m cooking a 2.8lb brisket joint on an electric cooker with solid rings that I thought would be unsuitable. Turns out I was wrong.

There will – certainly with a conventional electric cooker – always be a very small loss of steam, as pin-point precision in heat input isn’t possible (with gas, control is more precise), and a tiny escape of steam is nothing to worry about.

The essential thing is to ensure that the pressure indicator is always showing, and that the hiss of escaping steam is minimal. If you can actually see the steam rather than just hear a faint hiss, you’re losing too much. This means you’re wasting fuel, and that the liquid within is going down. Not a problem if you have plenty, as I have now, but some foods require only a little, and you don’t want it to boil dry, so keep steam loss to an absolute minimum by selecting the lowest possible heat.

Today, for its first use, I brought my pressure cooker up to pressure on the large ring, on full, while at the same time preheating the adjacent small ring  on setting 5 (control knobs are generally numbered 1 to 6). Once it was up to pressure I slid it across to the small ring, then turned it down to 4 and waited to see if pressure was maintained.

That got another 10 minutes to stabilise (the cast-iron rings retain a lot of heat, as does the 4mm thick, stainless-steel, base of the pressure cooker). That was fine, so I turned it down to 3, and there it remained until the last 10 minutes, when out of curiosity, I turned it down to 2. And that, too, was perfectly fine so clearly there is some leeway but, in future, I’ll preheat the small ring to 5, then once I’ve moved the cooker over to it, I’ll reduce it to 2 and all will be well, as shown by the pressure indicator not dropping at all, and the barely audible hiss of steam. Perfect.

Perfect, that is, for a pan half-full of meat and stock (a load of dried vegetables, some herbs, and a little Knorr Touch of Taste Beef concentrated stock).

Cooking, say, vegetables with just a little liquid, it might behave differently (and hobs vary too), so I suggest keeping a notebook for the settings which work best with various foods and with your cooker. In my case, for the brisket or anything else of a similar size and weight, it’s No. 2 on the small ring for 67 minutes.

And yes, I have started a notebook. Well, a Word document on my computer, anyway.

And that’s really it. It’s more a case of getting used to how the pressure cooker behaves on your particular stove, than any need to master an esoteric new technique.

This website has as much information as any pressure-cooking newbie could wish for, and these pages have timings for pretty much everything you’re likely to cook. And they’re accurate, as I’ve checked them against the timings in my cooker’s guide. NB: The timings are all for 15lb cookers; add 20% for 12lb models.

My meat’s cooked and there is no discernible loss of liquid in the pan, which is as it should be. The meat has shrunk somewhat – which seems to be unavoidable no matter how it’s cooked – and looks pallid, as it’s been steamed, but as it’s going to be doused in gravy and frozen, that matters not at all.

One tip: meat, wherever you buy it, will be tied with “elastic string”, or netting. This is OK for presentation, but absolutely useless for cooking, so always have a spool of  butchers’ string** on hand to re-tie it, otherwise cuts like brisket will emerge looking like roadkill (and I always untie brisket to open it up and wash any blood from the inside, and to check that no uneatable crap has been hidden there). Always take a couple of turns at right-angles to the original too, to ensure in doesn’t make an unexpected bid for freedom.

**Always butchers’ string, which is pure cotton with no potentially toxic, or just undesirable,  additives, which you might find in a ball of string from the corner shop.

Finally, to make the meat easy to remove once cooked, I put it in the steamer basket and tied a loop of string to the handles, to lift it out.

It’s now cooling in a smaller pan, with the strained cooking liquor poured over it, so it will absorb flavour as it cools. If the meat protrudes above the surface of the liquor, cover that with clingfilm and, after a few hours, turn it over so that parts submerged and cover the new bit that’s now above the surface.** Refrigerate when cold.

**Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a container of exactly the right size and proportions to completely submerge the meat, you won’t have to do that!

Tomorrow, I’ll make gravy, then slice and portion the meat, add the gravy, seal, name and date it, and freeze once cold (the gravy, being freshly made, will be hot).

One last tip – don’t over-salt the gravy (or any food you’re going to freeze).  Freezing, by some strange alchemy, amplifies the saltiness so err on the low side. You can always add more later, but you can never take it out if it’s too salty.

Depending on your freezer, DIY frozen food will stay in good condition for 6 months. How fast it deteriorates after that depends on how cold your freezer is. I’ve eaten food over a year old from mine, and it’s been fine, but it does seem to be wet food – stuff in gravy – that keeps best. Drier food, like sausages, go with the 6-month limit.

A note about dried vegetables:-

Dried veg are perfect for adding flavour when cooking joints of meat in either a slow cooker or a pressure cooker. As they’re thrown away once the meat is cooked, you don’t want to invest too much, or any, effort in them. I used these mixed veg and dried tomato flakes (the tomato flakes look very unpromising, but they have loads of flavour) and dried onions from here. They also come in handy for adding flavour to soups and casseroles, especially when ground to a powder in a coffee mill kept for the purpose. I also have tomato and onion powders that I’ve bought from the same place as the onions. All of these are perfect for Spoonies, as they need no preparation.

How pressure cookers work:-

Water boils at 100C (212F), at sea level, at an atmospheric pressure of 14.7lb per square inch (psi). This is the pressure inside your cold pressure cooker with the lid sealed. When it’s brought up to pressure, it’s 12lb above atmospheric pressure (i.e. 26.7lb psi). This allows water to boil at a higher temperature (about 115C). The extra heat, plus the steam pressure, is what speeds up the cooking process.

15lb models work at what is effectively twice atmospheric pressure, and at a somewhat higher temperature, about 120C.

Of course, the lower the atmospheric pressure, the lower the temperature of boiling point. This is why, half-way up Everest, trying to hard-boil an egg is an exercise in frustration.

And no – your pressure cooker will not explode. In the unlikely event of the steam vent becoming blocked (look, if the instructions say don’t make porridge or anything else messy in it, then don’t!), there are several other safety devices designed to vent the pressure in an emergency.

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