Because healthy cooks can be tech nerds too
Instant Pot Overview:
If you've been on social media at all in the past few months, you've probably seen something about a kitchen appliance called the Instant Pot. It's an electrical pot that's billed as a combination slow cooker and pressure cooker and claims to do a whole host other things like steam veggies, cook eggs, and even bake a cake. It seems like such a multi-functional tool that can save space while making dinner prep faster, easier, and more fool-proof. With promises like that, no wonder it's become so popular!
I bought my Instant Pot 12 months ago, and thought I'd do a full review-style post on it for those of you that are considering getting one and for perhaps a larger group of you who have bought one but aren't quite sure how to use it yet! (No shame--that was me for a few months too.) For reference, I purchased the 6-quart Instant Pot Duo60 via Amazon with my own money in January 2017. However, the info below should apply to really any Instant Pot model.
What Does it Do Exactly?
The new Instant Pot is pitched as a 9-in-1 appliance that does the work of a:
- Slow cooker
- Pressure cooker
- Yogurt maker
- Saute pan
- Rice cooker
- Egg Cooker
- Food Warmer
- Cake maker
However, the main two functions that people use it for are slow-cooking and pressure cooking. The other pre-programmed options like yogurt-making and steaming are essentially different temperature and time settings.
One key advantage of the Instant Pot is the saute function. Traditionally slow cookers and pressure cookers didn't allow for sautéing right in the pot; you either had to skip that step or use a separate pot on the stovetop and then transfer to the appliance, getting extra dishes dirty. Some other brands now have this feature, but I consider it to be an essential one and a HUGE pro for the Instant Pot.
What's the Difference between a Slow Cooker and a Pressure Cooker?
A slow cooker (like a CrockPot) cooks food at a low temperature for 4-12 hours so that you can put ingredients in it in the morning and come home to a cooked dinner. People like the convenience of this appliance, although it traditionally doesn't build the best flavor because there's no browning or high heat. Slow cookers can also be used to keep dishes warm on a buffet for guests (the Instant Pot has special settings for this too). One downside of slow cooker recipes is that they often take 4-6 hours--not quite a full day of work, so you might come home to an overcooked mess. Be smart with your schedule and pick recipes accordingly if you slow cook.
A pressure cooker cooks food under pressure so that a recipe that would usually take 90 minutes might take 30 minutes. Although it sounds like a new-fangled machine, pressure cookers have been around since the 1600s, although they were definitely not electric and also definitely not safe back then. Essentially a valve at the top of the Instant Pot prevents steam from escaping so pressure increases within the pot. This forces steam into the cooking liquid and raises the cooking temperature, usually from 212F (boiling) to 250F-ish. This drastically decreases cooking time and also improves flavor because it encourages browning and caramelization, which typically aren't possible in a wet cooking environment. Modernist Cuisine has a good write up on pressure cookers if you want to know more about how they work.
A couple notes about pressure cookers. The cook times that you'll see sound miraculous. 10 minutes for black bean soup! Yowza. BUT you have to remember that you need to let the Instant Pot come up to pressure first (takes 10-20 minutes depending on what's in there), then the clock starts for the recipe, then you also have to wait for the pressure to come down so that you can open the pot without pressurized liquid exploding onto you. (Don't worry: the Instant Pot has a locking mechanism on it so that you can't open it while it's still pressurized. ) You can do a "manual release" by turning the valve that releases steam until pressure totally comes down (2-3 minutes) or do a "natural release" which simply means letting the pot cool down over time until the pressure is naturally back to normal (might take 15-20 minutes). The type of release you should use should be designated in the recipe and more guidelines are available with the pot itself.
If you can't tell already, I'm a fan of pressure cooking! Pressure cookers are also believed to break down some "anti-nutrients" like lectins in beans, so pressure cooking is a preferred option to slow-cooking for legumes. (Not all medical professionals are in agreement on the negative effects of low amounts of lectins though, but here's a summary.)
How I Use the Instant Pot
I got the Instant Pot for a few reasons:
- I love pressure cooking, but my old stovetop pressure cooker was clunky and hard to use
- I don't love slow cooking but I wanted to give it a try (and be able to create recipes for YOU)
- The built-in saute function
- Potentially making yogurt (dairy and nondairy)
- The ability to essentially expand my stovetop with an extra pot (I cook a lot of things at once)
- The ability to make nutrient-rich broths quickly (both vegetarian and bone broths)
- To be able to cook when I don't have a stove like an at office where I'm doing a wellness workshop (probably relevant only to other pro chefs in the audience)
Since getting the Instant Pot, I've mainly used its pressure cooking function. I've made many a veggie broth (10 mins), bone broth for a sick family member recovering from surgery (2 hours), steel cut oats (10 mins), plain beans from scratch (soaked and unsoaked, 10 mins-30 mins), and Indian dals and curries (10-20 minutes).
Although I cook meat for my clients and my husband is an omnivore, I don't cook meat for myself, so I use the Instant Pot for vegetarian recipes and primarily for beans and grains.
Is the Instant Pot Hard to Use? Is it Worth it?
The Instant Pot is not hard to use but it is not visually intuitive the way most of our electronics seems to be nowadays. You'll definitely need to consult the manual (or try a few YouTube videos if you have trouble with written directions) before trying any recipes. Even if you know you aren't going to read the whole manual, definitely consult the set-up section and the safety precautions. The set-up section takes you through cooking plain water in the various settings, and it sounds timid and nerdy, but I totally did that before attempting to cook any recipes! Although there's lots of cooks and bloggers writing recipes for this appliance now, you definitely still need to rely on your own mastery of the machine before attempting a recipe (that often assumes you already know how to use the Instant Pot).
One big pro is that clean up is super easy with the Instant Pot! After cooking, you just remove the stainless steel pot insert (using oven mitts--it's hot!) and then hand wash or dish wash like any other pot. It's also essential to take apart the lid to clean the rubber ring and gasket, which is easy and more instructions included with the pot.
The Instant Pot is definitely not an appliance for everyone. I like mine a lot but it's definitely not a must have like some of the other kitchen equipment I list on my Resources page.
The Instant Pot is NOT for you if:
- You never do long or slow cooking recipes. My rule of thumb is that if a recipe takes more than 45 minutes on the stovetop, it's worth it to transfer to the Instant Pot. Shorter recipes like veggie soups aren't worth the time save because of the time it takes the machine to come up and down from pressure
- You don't want to take 30 minutes or so to learn the appliance first before getting started with it.
- You don't like soups, curries, beans, braised meats or other wet dishes.
- You don't have counter space or storage space for a big pot.
The Instant Pot IS for you if:
- You cook lots of beans and want to cook them thoroughly, quickly, and potentially breakdown irritating compounds.
- You occasionally use tools like the slow cooker and rice cooker, but don't want several big appliances around.
- You keep meat in the freezer for recipes and don't want to defrost it before cooking (I learned this tip from my readers!). This is good for stews, curries, soups, etc.
- You love Indian food. Pretty much all Indian food can be made more quickly and tastier in a pressure cooker like the Instant Pot.
- You aren't afraid to experiment and know that the first time you use it will be intimidating but then it will get super easy. It's only pressing a few buttons after all.
- You've googled "Instant Pot recipes" and liked a lot of what you've seen.
Tips for Shopping for an Instant Pot
Interested in the Instant Pot? I bought this one on Amazon, but there are many models out there. If I were to buy it today, I'd buy this one (just the updated version). There's not a whole lot of difference among Instant Pot models in terms of what they can do. Most of the differences relate to size (3 quart v. 6 quart v. 8 quart) and tiny differences in the settings.
Expect to pay about $100, less for an older and smaller model, more for newer and bigger. I'd recommend getting the biggest size you think you can handle. Mine is 6 quarts and in retrospect, I would have bought the 8 quart version, especially because you can't fill it up all the way when you are pressure cooking. Obviously larger models will take longer to cook and smaller ones will cook more quickly, but I still recommend getting the largest model you can.
Some models come bluetooth-enabled, which I don't think is worth it. You still have to be in the house to use it via bluetooth (it's not like you can turn it on from the office) and this feature hasn't been widely favorably reviewed.
Best Instant Pot Recipes from Around the Web
Want a few Instant Pot recipes to get you started? Here's a few of my favorites:
Dal Palak from my site (Indian lentils and spinach)
Vegetable Broth from my site (cooked in Instant Pot for 10 minutes)
Bone Broth from Amy + Jacky
Instant Pot Fiasco Beans from 101 Cookbooks
Punjabi Chole from Piping Pot Curry
Black Bean Soup from Serious Eats (I skip the sausage and mushrooms)
Steel Cut Oats from The Kitchn
Will it Explode?
Oh yeah, one final question. And it's a big one! Is the Instant Pot a cool, convenient appliance or is it a dangerous death trap waiting to spew pressurized liquids all over me and my young children?!
This was a surprisingly common question that I heard from students and readers. And I have to admit, even though I grew up with a much stronger familiarity with pressure cookers than most (they are common in South Asian homes and cooking), I was obsessive when I got the manual. The short answer? No they should not explode! Most stories you've heard of exploding pressure cookers are from decades ago (and are also stovetop versions) or freak accidents.
Be sure to thoroughly read the safety section of the pot to learn things like how you should clean out the pressure release valve; to not to try to open it before pressure is released (you shouldn't be able to because of a locking mechanism but it's a double-check for yourself); and how to cook ingredients like beans and oats to make sure they don't clog your pressure release valve (usually by not filling it more than 1/2 or 2/3 way and giving the pot a shake before you open it to make sure there aren't hot pressurized bubbles trapped in the liquid).
I don't think there is any appliance that's 100% safe all the time or immune to manufacturer defects but as far as I can tell, there's no reason to be extra afraid of the Instant Pot if you are following directions. (After all the stove is technically the most dangerous appliance in the kitchen causing more house fires than anything else, often because people walk away from it while cooking! At least the Instant Pot is designed to be walked away from.) Just my 2 cents, but I'm also a girl who plays with knives and fire for a living ;)
Want to learn more? I found HipPressureCooking.com to be a good resource. Did I miss any of your questions on the Instant Pot? Let me know in the comments below or leave your favorite Instant Pot recipe.
Curious to Check it Out? See the latest model on Amazon.
*Some of the links in this article are affiliate links.