The speed and efficiency of the microwave oven has caused many people to leave their pressure cookers unused at the back of a cupboard. But there is still a place for this useful item in every kitchen, and there are many dishes which are best and quickest cooked in this way. Not only does the pressure cooker save fuel by cooking so quickly (a third of the time is a good general rule) but it also blends the flavours and tenderises meat in a way that the average microwave cannot match.
A pressure cooker is a large saucepan with a lid, which is usually very deep. (I would always buy the one with the deep lid rather than the shallow, as you can then pile up such foods as Christmas puddings and cook two or three at once, making a further saving on fuel.) The lid is sealed with a rubber gasket and there is a control vent in the top with a safety plug.
The cooker is designed to make use of the steam given off by foods as they cook, or by the water they are cooked in, by confining it so that there is a rise in pressure inside the cooker and a corresponding rise in temperature. The combination of increased pressure and higher temperature forces steam through the food and reduces the cooking time.
The pressure is controlled by small weights which are fitted on the lid - High pressure (15 lb) is suitable for general cooking purposes; Medium (10 lb) is used for pre-cooking fruits for jam; Low (5 lb) is best for cooking steamed puddings. Christmas puddings are especially good cooked in a pressure cooker. The appropriate pressure is always indicated in recipes. Timing starts from when the cooker reaches pressure after the weight is placed on the lid.
Pressure cookers are easy to use, but care must be taken when opening after cooking is finished. The cooker must always be cooled, either by allowing to cool gradually off the heat or by holding under cold running water, and the weight must not be removed until the cooker has stopped hissing. (My mother did this once when cooking beetroot, with the result that the newly-painted kitchen ceiling and walls were suddenly splattered with purple. More importantly, she could have been badly scalded.) Always follow the manufacturer's instructions.
The pressure cooker also has a trivet, which is used inside the cooker to keep foods out of the liquid necessary to produce steam. Vegetables, for instance, are not cooked in water but in steam, and only a small amount of water is needed.Other foods, like steamed puddings, might burn if allowed contact with the bottom of the cooker, so they too can be stood on the trivet.
Some pressure cookers have baskets or separators which can be fitted inside the cooker in order to cook several different foods at once. For instance, turnips may be laid on the trivet and the separators rested on top, two containing different vegetables and one with meat.
If you live over 2,000 feet above sea-level, the cooking must be calculated differently. Again, follow the manufacturer's instructions but in most cases the time will not be increased by more than one minute for every thousand feet and it may be recommended that you simply use a different weight.
Average times for foods cooked in the pressure cooker
Potatoes - 6 minutes
Carrots - 6 minutes
Meat stew - 20 minutes
Braised stuffed sheeps' hearts - 30 minutes
Fish - 4 minutes
Christmas pudding - 2lb pudding at 30 minutes steaming (without the weights) and 3 hours at 15lb pressure. If you have a cooker with a high lid, you can cook two puddings together at the same time.
Soups are wonderful made in the pressure cooker. In our house a chicken is never allowed to leave the house until every atom of goodness has been extracted by boiling it up in the pressure cooker. Bacon knuckles also produce a very good soup, with vegetables and lentils. The vegetables can be fresh or leftover and quantities can be varied according to taste or what you have.