Full steam ahead Pressure cookers are back -- faster and safer than ever

May 19, 1993|By Nancy E. Schaadt | Nancy E. Schaadt,Dallas Morning News Universal Press Syndicate

Pressure cookers are ideal for the fast-paced health-conscious '90s.

They cook some food faster than a microwave oven, and use almost no oil. Foods prepared in a pressure cooker are intensely flavored and retain their color and nutrients.

In a pressure cooker, chicken stock takes 20 minutes, risotto 10. Vegetables cook in five to 10 minutes. Brown rice, which takes up to an hour even in the microwave, cooks in 17 minutes.

Soups and meaty stews that would take hours on top of the stove cook under pressure in an hour. Inexpensive cuts of meat come out tender.

In my kitchen, the pressure cooker ranks right up with good, sharp knives and my great-grandmother's iron frying pan.

Cooks who use pressure cookers love them; cooks who don't may still erroneously believe they are dangerous.

"Sure, so is a frying pan if you're swinging it," my mother tells me. She received a pressure cooker for a wedding present in the 1950s and used it frequently.

Pressure cookers use a technology that has been around since Napoleon. What's different about pressure cookers in the '90s is that they're safer than the heavy, hissing models of old.

Horror stories of pea soup on the ceiling were the result of older technology combined with improper use. The new cookers have a number of safety features. The instruction manuals are easier to read as well.

And pressure cookers inspire intense loyalty.

"I had a friend over for dinner one evening, and I served risotto," says Lorna Sass, author of "Cooking Under Pressure" (William Morrow and Co., $18.95). "My friend was so smitten, she stopped at a store on the way home and bought a pressure cooker."

If you make only one thing in the pressure cooker, make risotto.

The pressure cooker uses a basic principal, according to Mirro Corp. engineer Terry Hacker. Food and liquid are sealed in the cooker and heated, causing the food to superheat to more than 250 degrees -- some 40 degrees above the boiling point.

Food cooks faster with less oil.

"The enclosed environment and intensely heated steam heighten the flavor of food," Mr. Hacker says.

Cooking time is cut to one-third to one-tenth the original time, author Pat Dailey writes in "The New Pressure Cooker Cookbook" (Contemporary Books, $8.95).

Ms. Sass prefers the pressure cooker over the microwave for three reasons.

"The pressure cooker provides deep and complex taste -- two-hour taste in 10 minutes -- and mingles flavors in record time," she says.

"Push-button cooking is sterile. Pressure cooking, stove-top cooking, better resembles traditional cooking in that aromas and flavors are much more satisfying."

And, finally, "The pressure cooker is fabulous for quantities. Pressure cooking doesn't take longer with increased amounts, whereas the microwave does."

Introduced at the fair

The Presto Co. introduced the pressure cooker to the American public at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. The timing was

perfect. In a few years, every housewife in the country had one. The slight hiss of escaping steam and the rattle of the pressure valve were sure signs that dinner was almost ready.

During World War II, the Presto facilities were used to make defense equipment. Women marched off to the factories and used the home as their battleground to fight waste and inefficiency.

Housewives were urged to aid in the war effort by sharing their pressure cooker with friends and neighbors. Presto ran the following footnote to an ad in July 1943: "The manufacturing facilities of the makers of Presto Cookers are now devoted to war production. Once victory is won -- there will be Presto cookers for everyone. Until then, if you own one, share it, won't you? It's a good neighbor policy."

In 1945, Presto resumed domestic production and urged patience as the company filled a backlog of orders.

The cookers were being snapped up in Europe, too.

"As a result of the war, Europeans had to make do eating very old cows, making the tenderizing properties of pressure cooking attractive to them," says Rudy Keller, U.S. president for Kuhn-Rikon, a Swiss company.

Pressure cooker technology took a leap forward in 1949 when Kuhn-Rikon developed the fixed, spring-loaded, pressure-regulating valve, creating the second generation of pressure cookers.

"Technological advances in the pressure cooker became a priority because pressure cooking is used in virtually every cuisine in the world," Mr. Keller says. Any cuisine that uses grains, legumes or rice uses a pressure cooker.

Declining popularity

In the 1950s, the pressure cooker's popularity began to decline in the United States -- done in by the new frozen meals, pressure cooking was considered old-fashioned.

Now, Mr. Keller says, "The U.S. is the least pressure-cooker populated country in the world. Nowhere else does the cooker have such a stigma."

In Europe, he says, "Cooks have different sized pressure cookers for each need -- one for canning, one for fast meals, one for stew. Most cooks use two at a time: potatoes in one, meat in another."

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