Pressure cookers take some of the pressure off the cooks

February 19, 1997|By Wendy Lin | Wendy Lin,NEWSDAY

I know a guy I think of as the Martha Stewart of dads. He has two sons but never used a disposable diaper, preferring to wash his own cloth ones. He teaches his school-age children himself at home. And, most amazing of all, he makes fresh stock from scratch using scraps of vegetables -- in nine minutes.

We were both at work when he told me the secret of how he cooks dried beans in less than half an hour, and puts soup on the table in 40 minutes: the pressure cooker.

Wanting to be the kind of super-parent he is, I began thinking about the appliance the way other women look at Retin-A or breast implants, wondering to myself, "Could this change my life?"

I have a young family and although I love to cook, I don't have the luxury of time, especially on weeknights. I do have a hankering for hearty, home-cooked meals that I can enjoy with my family after work. So, last week I got a pressure cooker and took the plunge.

I started with a recipe for beef stew from Lorna Sass' "Cooking Under Pressure" (Morrow, $18.95) that boasted moist, tender morsels of beef chuck in 16 to 20 minutes. I bought a bag of groceries and shortly before 7: 30 was at home chopping.

Within half an hour I had assembled the ingredients, sealed the pot and turned on the heat. But it took 21 minutes for the pot to reach "full pressure," the point at which you start timing the 16 minutes. After that, the recipe required a "natural release" of steam, which means leaving the pot covered on the stove for 10 minutes longer.

Finally, I carried the pot to the kitchen sink, and, following instructions, ran cold water over it to release the pressure before opening it.

Then I froze. I suddenly remembered the reason why pressure cookers had fallen out of favor. Stories of explosions in the kitchen, splattered food on the ceiling and flying vegetables came back to me in a flood of panic.

I held my breath and opened the pot to find a beautiful beef stew inside. The meat was meltingly tender, the juices flavorful and the potatoes perfectly done. We were eating by 9.

Not exactly fast food, but I put it in the category of a minor miracle and set out to find out more about this old/new appliance.

Sass has been preaching the virtues of pressure cooking since 1989, when she proclaimed it the answer to the working person's dinner dilemma. But now, even after new, safer models have made their way to department and discount stores, the appliance has not exactly caught fire.

An estimated 1 million pressure cookers are sold in the United States each year, and the number has been steadily increasing over the past five years, but still is only a fraction of the $2.5 billion cookware industry. "It's certainly getting more publicity," said Hugh Rushing, executive vice president of the Cookware Manufacturers Association. "But it's not explosive growth."

Sass sighed when asked about it. "It's been both frustrating and disappointing that more people have not embraced the pressure cooker," she said. "I have been humbled by the power of fear."

Indeed, when I started asking people if they would ever try a pressure cooker, you would have thought I was talking about nuclear waste. One friend said, "Are you kidding? I've got kids in the house." Another said she got one for a wedding present more than 10 years ago, but finally gave it away, unused, to her baby sitter because her husband continues to be haunted by memories of one exploding when he was a child.

The new pressure cookers are safer and, depending on how much you spend, quieter than the ones introduced in the United States more than 50 years ago. Virtually all come with safety mechanisms that will release steam if left on the stove too long. Many have three, and even four, backup systems to let steam escape.

"It virtually cannot explode," said Richard Braun, a spokesman for T-Fal, which makes several types of pressure cookers. The pots are designed so that once pressure begins to build, the top will not come off "even with a pile driver."

In a worst-case scenario -- say, if you light a flame under the pot and pull out of your driveway -- all the steam eventually will escape, the liquid will evaporate and the pot will burn, he said. But it will not explode.

Sass is hoping a new generation of cooks, ones who haven't heard the horror stories, will embrace the pressure cooker. "Once people discover it, they become almost missionary about it. That's what happened to me," she said. "Both I and everyone I speak to who has used one agrees it's the answer to preparing the kind of long-simmered, slow-cooked-tasting, soulful food that we all miss terribly."

Indeed, after the beef stew, I went on to make vegetable stock in half an hour. Then I turned around and used the broth to make mushroom barley soup. It was devoured gratefully by two friends with colds.

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