The World of Pressure Cookery: Enter at Your Own Risk
by Marjorie Dorfman

Pressure cookers create healthier, tastier meals and yet have remained an enigma to American cuisine and cooks. Why has using them become an adventure and more times than not, a misadventure? Read on for some facts and a chuckle or two.

Green peas on the ceiling, way up I can see.
Oh, carry my vacuum safely to thee…
– The Dorfman Archives

My very first experience with a pressure cooker came after I was given one for a housewarming present too many years ago for me to feel comfortable discussing honestly. I tried it out and boy, did I learn the wrong way to use it fast! I followed the directions (famous last words, n’est ce pas?) and to this day I do not know exactly what went wrong. I can say, however, without any doubt, that the green peas I was preparing didn’t have any answers either and they got the shock of their lives (if peas have lives and the capacity to be shocked, that is).

My story begins one night when I was seated in my living room watching television and awaiting dinner. I suddenly heard a loud "popping" noise from the kitchen. I ran inside and found the cooker still on the stove with water dripping everywhere, and the lid rocking and rolling mysteriously on the floor. The peas, however, were like the crew of that ill-fated schooner, The Mary Celeste, nowhere to be seen. This situation was only alleviated when I dared to look up instead of everywhere else. There they were, those green little darlings, plastered all over my white ceiling in a design that not destined to become the newest rage in kitchen design.

I never used the pressure cooker again and it ended up in a Salvation Army thrift store waiting for some poor unsuspecting family to take their chances with it. This has been the fate of many a pressure cooker, even though today they are made in a much safer fashion. Believe it or not, these old cookers keep popping up, like bad acting in an old horror movie. They can often be found at garage sales, on E-Bay and even at estate sales. According to experts, if you run across one of these and feel that you must own one, at least decide that you will never cook anything in it. Pot a plant, hang it on the wall, hit your IRS representative with it or use it as a door stop, but whatever you do, don’t ever USE it. There’s a reason why you got it so cheaply and also why no one else wanted it. Sometimes things are too good to be true simply because they are!

But how did these cookers begin their journey up popularity’s fickle path? A gentleman named Denis Papin, who referred to his creation as a "steam digester", invented the very first pressure cooker known to man in 1679. It was a large cast iron vessel with a lid that locked. It successfully raised cooking temperatures by 15% over boiling, and accordingly, reduced cooking time. Unfortunately, it also reduced the life span of some of the cooks who got in the way of the steam and building temperatures and became as one with the incurring explosions. (This may or may not have also been the time when insurance for cooks was first invented, but historians in the know dispute this theory.)

One hundred and twenty years later, Napoleon Bonaparte offered twelve thousand francs to anyone who could find a way to preserve food for his hungry troops. In 1809, the prize went to Parisian Nicholas Appert who utilized an early version of the pressure cooker to vacuum seal foods in clean jars. This led to the eventual development of the canning industry. His nephew, Raymond Chevallier-Appert (no relation to Maurice or to the American made car), improved upon the design by inventing and patenting a sterilizer that provided more consistent results.

Early pressure cookers were huge industrial-size canners. In 1905 they were known as "canner retorts," and were manufactured by National Presto, then called Northwestern Iron and Steel Works. Soon fifty-gallon capacity pressure vessels for industrial use were developed and subsequently, thirty-gallon canners for hotel use. Soon thereafter, the ten-gallon models, more suitable for home canning, were also developed. In 1915 the term "pressure cooker" first appeared in print and National Presto installed an aluminum foundry for the specific purpose of manufacturing large-size pressure canners for home use.

Lightweight aluminum was used in manufacturing the canners for home use to promote canning as a means of preserving food in the days before refrigeration. In 1917, the United States Department of Agriculture determined that pressure canning was the only safe method of preserving low-acid foods without risk of food poisoning. In 1938 at a New York City Trade Show, Alfred Vischler introduced his Flex-Seal Speed Cooker, the very first pressure cooker designed for home use. His creation was so successful that it wasn’t long before other manufacturers in America and Europe were producing many brands of pressure cookers in order to keep up with their growing popularity.

As people migrated from the country and a farming life-style to the cities and suburban living they craved all the comfort foods that Mom used to make in the big pressure canner back home. Housewives wanted a smaller, more convenient size and so the new pressure saucepan was developed. Smaller than the big farm-sized canning kettles, the new cookers were perfect for smaller families and the modern kitchen of the time.

The production of pressure cookers by eleven major manufacturers was tightly regulated during World War II, as aluminum was needed for the war effort. Many cooks held onto their pre-war cookers and often several families shared a single cooker. In a time when fuel and food were carefully rationed and shortages were commonplace, the pressure cooker became a necessity rather than a convenience. In 1945, with the war ending, the pressure was on for more pressure cookers (Forgive the pun. I couldn’t resist.) Soon there were eighty-five manufacturers and because of the overwhelming competition, production methods favored quantity and not quality. These inferior cookers flooded the market from the late 1940s through the 50s. Cooks suddenly found exploding bombs in their kitchens and word quickly spread about accidents, resulting in a decline in their use. Marked with a bad reputation, pressure cooker usage seemed doomed, and coupled with newer, modern cooking methods such as the arrival of the microwave oven, the art of pressure cookery nearly disappeared in the United States.

While American cooks were storing their pressure cookers in basements and attics, Europeans were content with their old prewar cookers and never experienced the problems of their American counterparts. European and Asian manufacturers developed new valve systems, safety features and improved pressure release methods. Americans soon began to adapt the new designs, although the jiggle top still remains the US standard. Millions of European and Asian cooks continue to rely heavily on pressure cookers. In countries where the cost of fuel, natural gas, propane and electricity is very high, they have become an economic necessity in every home. India, Japan, Spain, Switzerland and Germany manufacture several brands of pressure cookers that are exported daily to the United States.

New pressure cookers, with their multiple safety features and improved vent systems, are once more catching on in The United States. These vessels offer a choice of a quick-release option, taking even less time to finish that meal and without the need for the water to cool down. Busy cooks with hectic schedules, demanding jobs, an active family and little spare time are looking for fast, economical ways for preparing home-cooked, nutritious meals. Television ads market overpriced cookers with fancy new names, touting the "latest, greatest new invention" to cooks who would never have considered buying a pressure cooker. Wide spread advertising has brought with it a resurgence of interest in pressure cookery, and now this old fashioned cooking method is suddenly new again!

The moral of the story is a moot one indeed. If you get a used pressure cooker, it is crucial to make sure that the gaskets (rubber seals) are still in the top of the pressure cooker. (Those that were a part of my first cooker probably ended up with the peas somewhere on my ceiling.) You must also make sure that the steam vent works properly. If you opt to buy a new cooker, keep in mind that the 6-quart size is the standard for most recipes. Select a cooker with a detachable pressure regulator that can adjust the pressure to low, medium and high. The higher the pressure, the higher the internal temperature and the less cooking time required. The safety valve automatically vents steam. (That’s the plan anyway.) Choose a pot with heat resistant handles, a locking lid that is easy to maneuver and a heavy bottom of stainless steel construction so that the same pot can be used to do preparatory sautéing.

I am including a recipe for Pot Roast that is said to work every time. It comes from a cookbook entitled Crockpot Cookery by Mabel Hoffman and was originally designed for preparation in a crockpot. Kim Tilley adapted it in her new book entitled Crockery Cookery. Proceed at your own risk and remember that only you can prevent forest fires!

Favorite Pot Roast
For CrockPot
3-4 pound beef rump or chuck roast (you can also use arm roasts)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1-tablespoon instant minced onion (can substitute onion powder, but use half as much)
1 cup beef stock

For Pressure Cooker
Increase beef stock to 2 cups

Makes 6-8 servings

In a bowl, combine salt, seasoned salt, pepper, paprika and minced onion. Rub all sides of the meat with this mixture. In a slow cooker or crock-pot, combine seasoned beef with onion and bouillon. Cover and let cook on low for 8-10 hours (50-60 minutes in pressure cooker) or until meat is tender. 4. Remove from pot; slice.

Favorite Pot Roast (adapted for the pressure cooker)
For the pressure cooker, more liquid is needed. Double the beef bouillon in the recipe. When converting crockpot to pressure cooker, the cooking time is cut way down. 8-10 hours on low in the crockpot is about 50-60 minutes in the pressure cooker under 15 pounds of pressure and a little longer under 10 pounds of pressure (perhaps an hour and 15 minutes).

In a bowl, combine salt, seasoned salt, pepper, paprika and minced onion. Rub all sides of the meat with this mixture. In pressure cooker, combine seasoned beef with onion and bouillon. Place lid on pressure cooker, lock down and cook under 15 pounds pressure for 50-60 minutes. Bring down pressure either naturally or use the water method. Meat should be tender when you open the cooker. (If not, you can put the lid back on and pressure cook for another 10-15 minutes). Remove from pot; slice.

If gravy is preferred you can thicken juices with flour dissolved in small amount of cold water. Just bring the pressure down, open the cooker, and then add flour and put on low-medium heat until everything thickens (you can remove the meat first and just thicken the juices if you like). If desired, vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, white onions, celery, mushrooms or turnips may be added with the bouillon and cooked at the same time with the meat.

Enjoy, but don’t say that I didn’t warn you! Good luck!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2003