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Grad Student Cuisine Part I: The Pressure Cooker

By JackStraw in Culture
Mon Apr 13, 2009 at 09:21:07 AM EST
Tags: pressure cooker, food, cuisine, cooking (all tags)

This post is about pressure-cooking, how to do it, and what it's done for me. But first, some background:

Like most on this site, I graduated college with a taste of triumph, ecstatic to start my new life. I would follow my dreams, live on my own. I'd be out of the dorms, making my own choices, shaping my new life. And, even though I was going to graduate school, I'd finally have my own kitchen. No more dining hall food for me.

Yep, that dream lasted until about a week into graduate school. Where did it end? It starts with doing the dishes... goddamn, cooking a three-course meal makes a lot of dishes. And, it takes a lot of time. Then, there's the money: fresh vegetables get expensive, quickly. With my lifestyle, conventional cooking was unsustainable. I took the obvious approach: go old school.

Part I of that adventure is chronicled here: the pressure cooker (an old-school tool that cooks food very quickly at high pressures). It's cheap, it's fast, it's healthy, and it's delicious. I'll explain what it is, why it's great, and how to use it. I'll give some fast, cheap, and fantastic recipes for Bean Soup and Cajun Red Beans with Rice. And, I'll make sure you have the resources you need to adapt your own recipes to this underappreciated but fantastic tool.

Free food. I can now sniff it out from blocks away. Hear the murmur of distant small-talk? There must be "light snacks" nearby. But, what free food lacks in price, it also lacks in variety. Bagels, cookies, cold pizza... finishing off with Ramen when I get home at night. I sought a better way, and I found it.

Through introspection, I've found that I judge my food choices by just a few criteria:

  • Calories per dollar

  • Taste

  • Nutritional value

  • Preparation time

  • Number of discernible ingredients

Noticeably, these are all met by an all-you-can-eat buffet (e.g., dining hall). But, we need an option for home.

Enter the pressure cooker: a popular cooking tool in much of the world, and even with our grandparents, but almost un-heard of by US'ian 20-somethings. It can cook meals in as little as 10% of the time of a normal cooking pot.

A pressure cooker is a strong tightly-enclosed pot with a regulated pressure-release valve. It cooks like a normal pot until the water starts to boil. Then, pressure builds up to a steady-state value of (usually) 15 psi (compared to the surrounding air), which is maintained by the pressure regulator (often, simply a weight placed on a hollow stem on the top of the pressure cooker, which is pushed up by pressure above 15 psi, releasing steam). This is the crucial point: at 15 PSI, water boils at 257 F (125 C), instead of the usual 212 F (100 C). Because most chemical reactions go exponentially with temperature, this small difference leads to drastically reduced cooking times.

There are many pressure cookers on the market. They perform very similarly. Some have weighted pressure regulators, while others are spring-regulated. Some are even electronic. I say: go with a cheap, simple, and reputable one. I got mine from walmart for around $25, and I've used it every ~4 days for 2 years. It holds about 6 quarts. You can always trade up from there.

To re-iterate: Here are the benefits of a pressure-cooker

A pressure cooker allows you to cook huge (6 quarts!) quantities of food (cheap food, e.g. bean soup or cheap beef) in a very short time (compared to a slow-cooker, grill, or saucepan). And, it tastes just as good in 1 hour as if you'd spent 8 hours cooking traditionally.

Overall approach, and common ingredients

Pressure cookers are versatile, but they excel at ingredients which are slow to cook. For instance, you could cook raw chicken in 3 minutes instead of 15 minutes, but that's not my angle. My primary pressure-cooking ingredients are beans (see below), or cheap meats that tenderize upon long cooking: corned beef, beef brisket, and other cheap beef or pork cuts made for slow-cooking. These meats are fatty cuts that disintegrate into loose, tender morsels over time--perfect for pulled-pork sandwiches or juicy pot roasts (you can pour off the fat if it concerns you). As far as vegetables, I stay away from fragile plants like broccoli or peas--they're better done in a steamer. But, the pressure cooker is great for long jobs like mashed potatoes or cabbage. Alternatively, if I roast a chicken, I'll throw its remains in the pressure cooker and pulverize the hell out of it for an hour. Strain it, and it makes delicious soup stock. That would take you a day without a pressure cooker.

The approach is this: Add your ingredients, plus ~1/2 inch of water at the bottom (which will boil off). Hit it on "high" until the pressure cooker starts to make noise (first a hissing, then a "taht-taht-taht" rhythmic sound. Once you hear that sound, you are "pressure-cooking"; times in pressure cooking recipes refer to the length of time you hear that sound, not the time since you turned the stove on. Turn it down to medium-medium-low, and let it gently hiss until everything's cooked. Run cold water over the pressure cooker to stop the cooking and release the pressure (the pressure is released when you hear an abrupt "gurgling" noise), and check for doneness. Most ingredients cook about 5x faster in a pressure cooker than in a simmering pot, though there is some variation.

Bean Soup

This is standard 15-bean soup, great by itself, on crackers, or on toasted bread. Here are my ingedients (it's flexible, based on what I forgot to get at the store, and what's on sale.)

1 lb 15-bean soup (or similar).

8 oz bacon, cut to ½"x1/2" squares

~4 oz tomato paste

2 cans diced tomatoes

1 cube chicken boullion

2 large onions

Spices (salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic, thyme, "seasoning salt")


In pressure cooker, add the bean mix and tomato paste (the tomato paste helps to keep the beans whole while they cook; without it, they tend to split). Add water (~4 cups; I've never measured it. Just cover the beans, plus ~2 inches.) Bring to a boil, then cover with lid and pressure regulator, and cook for ~20 minutes.

In separate saucepan or skillet, sautee bacon, onions, and (optionally) garlic. Feel free to keep most of the grease--it'll still be a pretty healthy meal.

After the beans are cooked for 20 minutes, add the bacon-onion-garlic mix, and add the can (or two) of diced tomatoes. Simmer, stirring well, and taste it. Add salt, pepper, etc., until you're happy with it. Congrats: You now have an incredibly nutritious (depending on how you prepped it, it may be high in saturated fat, but it's much better than your normal grad school diet) meal that will give you a good 8 servings, for under $10.

Don't underestimate the nutrition of this meal: it has tons of vitamins, unbelievable amounts of fiber, a wide range of micronutrients, and (depending on how you deal with the bacon grease) it can be low in fat. Feel free to substitute ham for bacon, ignore the meat altogether, or add interesting new spices.

Cajun Red Beans and Rice

This is a classic Cajun meal, usually served on Mondays, although my preparation is a bit unorthodox (mostly due to the tomato):

1.5 lb small red beans

2 medium onions

1 green pepper

4 stalks celery

~ 1 lb bacon, ham, or other flavorful meat

1-2 cans diced tomatoes or 6 oz. tomato paste (the unconventional part)

Spices (traditionally: garlic, cayenne pepper, salt, black pepper, thyme, sage, rosemary)

6 cups cooked basmati rice (any rice is fine, but I love basmati)


You could spend forever cooking this meal, but this is my method:

1)    In the pressure cooker (uncovered), quickly fry the meat, garlic, celery, onions, and green pepper (all finely chopped) to bring out their flavor.

2)    When the veggies are translucent and odorous, add the red beans (NOT THE TOMATOES), and water to cover the ingredients plus ~2 inches.

3)    Pressure cook as long as you want; I usually go an hour or more. You want to cook the crap out of these ingredients; they will be almost indiscernible. Keep the heat low enough that the ingredients are cooked without burning (you want a bit of hissing, maybe a little gyration of the pressure regulator if it's the weighted type, but nothing more).

4)    When the cooking's done, mash most of the hardly-recognizable red beans against the side of the pot with a whisk or large spoon. Continue cooking; the mixture will become pasty; mashing the beans gives you the nice pasty consistency, but for visual and textural reasons you'll want some remaining whole beans.

5)    Add the tomatoes, taste, and add seasoning. This dish needs to have some serious zing to it.

Serve on rice. I recommend Basmati--it's a brilliant strain of rice. All of this dish's ingredients are cheap, and to top it off, it's served on rice (one of the cheapest source of calories, unless you're going to eat cattle corn). But, it's still very nutritious. I doubt that one could cook a decent stir-fry, no matter how expensive or elaborate, that is more nutritious than red beans and rice.

Other Meals

Mashed Potatoes: Proceed as usual (cut up potatoes into ~eighths, and cover in as much water as possible); but, instead of simmering for 1 to 1.5 hours, just pressure-cook for 20 minutes.

Corned beef: Cut beef brisket (perpendicularly to the grain) at ~1 inch intervals. Pressure cook (with ~ ½ inch water) for 45 minutes. Remove cover; add veggies (cabbage, carrots, potatoes, etc) and simmer for 30 minutes, or pressure cook for about 10 additional minutes.

Pulled pork: Pressure cook (with at least ½ inch water) the cheapest pork roast possible (remove the enclosing "net" if applicable; it's hard to do afterwards) for about 1.5 hours. Let it cool down, and just massage the meat with your hands. Wash your hands, add a good amount of cheap honey barbecue sauce... you now pulled pork BBQ which will go great on a bun.

Conclusion, and Important Points

My pressure cooker has changed my culinary life--it's made real, nutritious, great-tasting food possible for me, at nearly the price of Ramen noodles. Here are some final pointers:

  • Just do it. Experiment. These meals are cheap enough and fast enough that you don't need to worry about it.

  • Add a splash of lemon juice (tip courtesy of Alton Brown) to recover some of the zest that's lost with the high temperatures of pressure cooking.

  • Don't be afraid to stop cooking by putting the pressure cooker under cold water quite often, especially when you're beginning. Better to undercook than overcook--you can cook more, but you can never go back.

I'd love to hear anyone else's favorite pressure cooker recipes.


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My experience with pressure cookers:
o I use them constantly 25%
o I've used them 8%
o My grandmother used them 16%
o I plan to buy one 8%
o I skimmed the article; what is a pressure cooker? 0%
o I'm unconvinced and will not buy one 16%
o I don't care 25%

Votes: 12
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o pressure cooker
o Also by JackStraw

Display: Sort:
Grad Student Cuisine Part I: The Pressure Cooker | 32 comments (28 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
You are clearly an amateur. (none / 1) (#1)
by TDS on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 11:16:02 PM EST

Wisdom lies herein.

And when we die, we will die with our hands unbound. This is why we fight.
utter nonsense (none / 0) (#2)
by N0574 on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 11:25:26 PM EST

real grad students only survive on peanut butter and ramen.

u r a 2l (none / 1) (#3)
by JackStraw on Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 11:46:29 PM EST

-The bus came by, I got on... that's when it all began.
[ Parent ]
I am afraid it is going to explode. (none / 0) (#4)
by tdillo on Sat Apr 11, 2009 at 12:13:10 AM EST

I have had one for awhile that used to belong to my grandmother. The most wonderful beans and soups used to come out of that pot. I have also seen the little taht-taht-taht thing come off and the shit just freaking spewed out of that sum-bitch.

She gave me some starter one time in a big glass jar. I didn't know I wasn't supposed to screw the lid down. It went BLOOEY! and I was digging glass out of the walls for awhile.

So I'm kinda leery of the pressure cookers. I stick to my crock, I don't think it will try to kill me.

The stories and information posted here are artistic works of fiction and falsehood.Only a fool would take anything posted here as fact.

Grandma Crawford blew a hole in her kitchen ceilin (none / 1) (#8)
by MichaelCrawford on Sat Apr 11, 2009 at 02:16:25 PM EST

-g with a pressure cooker.


Live your fucking life. Sue someone on the Internet. Write a fucking music player. Like the great man Michael David Crawford has shown us all: Hard work, a strong will to stalk, and a few fries short of a happy meal goes a long way. -- bride of spidy

[ Parent ]

lol ignorance of basic physics (none / 0) (#10)
by lostincali on Sat Apr 11, 2009 at 07:09:29 PM EST

"The least busy day [at McDonalds] is Monday, and then sales increase throughout the week, I guess as enthusiasm for life dwindles."
[ Parent ]

Hey I was *much* younger then and (none / 0) (#17)
by tdillo on Sun Apr 12, 2009 at 10:01:28 PM EST

besides, I majored in Computer Science not Physics you nerd.

The stories and information posted here are artistic works of fiction and falsehood.Only a fool would take anything posted here as fact.

[ Parent ]
that's not college-level physics, genius (none / 0) (#20)
by lostincali on Sun Apr 12, 2009 at 11:11:47 PM EST

the idea that a gas phase takes up more volume than a liquid phase was goddamn middle-school level for me; i can't imagine even the massively deficient public education system not getting around to teaching that before the end of high school.

"The least busy day [at McDonalds] is Monday, and then sales increase throughout the week, I guess as enthusiasm for life dwindles."
[ Parent ]

But I went to school in Texas. (none / 0) (#21)
by tdillo on Sun Apr 12, 2009 at 11:49:07 PM EST

In the 70's.

It was good times.

The stories and information posted here are artistic works of fiction and falsehood.Only a fool would take anything posted here as fact.

[ Parent ]
Yeah, old pressure cookers are terrifying (none / 1) (#14)
by JackStraw on Sun Apr 12, 2009 at 08:00:34 PM EST

I actually prefer the ones from Wal-mart to rare ones from specialty stores, because even though my handle is falling off, I'm sure that Walmart would only stock safe ones (b/c of the liability).

It's incredibly rare for new ones to burst (the most common reason is if beans are boiled too fast, and they foam up and block both the main release and the emergency release).

But, if they do, that's about one ton of pressure pushing up on the lid; quite a scary prospect.

-The bus came by, I got on... that's when it all began.
[ Parent ]

Also (3.00 / 3) (#6)
by QuantumFoam on Sat Apr 11, 2009 at 06:27:34 AM EST

Best thing I've made in a pressure cooker: sterilized brown rice and vermiculite substrate for an experiment in amateur mycology.

- Barack Obama: Because it will work this time. Honest!

That could be a good story (none / 0) (#7)
by some nerd on Sat Apr 11, 2009 at 09:55:52 AM EST

I've done it myself, but went for the lazy option of pre-sterilised bags. Contrary to what I've read in some places, fruiting from rye most definitely does work, I got 7 flushes ... it took quite a long time (54 days) for pinning to start though.

Home Sweet Home

[ Parent ]
temperature (none / 1) (#25)
by the77x42 on Mon Apr 13, 2009 at 09:02:34 PM EST

I use an incubator made from two rubbermaids, an aquarium heater, spare jars, and some water. I fill up one rubbermaid up with a bit of water, drop in four jars filled with water to act as spacers, put in the aquarium heater set to 80F, then all my mushroom jars go in another rubbermaid that sits on the spacers. A large dictionary holds everything down and I cover it all with a black towel.

Pinning also depends on the strain, but at 80F you should see pinning in less than a month.

"We're not here to educate. We're here to point and laugh." - creature
"You have some pretty stupid ideas." - indubitable ‮

[ Parent ]

did you trip balls? (none / 0) (#16)
by rhiannon on Sun Apr 12, 2009 at 08:28:06 PM EST

inquiring minds...

I continued to rebuff the advances... so many advances... of so many attractive women. -MC
[ Parent ]
They were OK (none / 0) (#18)
by QuantumFoam on Sun Apr 12, 2009 at 10:08:31 PM EST

As good as any I've had before.

- Barack Obama: Because it will work this time. Honest!
[ Parent ]

did you eat them raw? (none / 0) (#26)
by rhiannon on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 02:26:53 AM EST


I continued to rebuff the advances... so many advances... of so many attractive women. -MC
[ Parent ]
Tea is the way to go with fresh ones (none / 0) (#27)
by some nerd on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 03:25:05 PM EST

Old white sock tied off as a teabag* + Ribena Really Light or equivalent + optionally some lemon juice for pH adjustment, if you use a decent amount of ribena it's probably not needed though. Chop mushrooms a bit (oxidation is your sworn enemy), make sure the teabag is as submerged as possible, stew on low heat (no bubbles) for ~20 mins stirring regularly.

It's great as a storage medium too: strain into suitable airtight containers and freeze, and it will keep for months on end without noticeable loss of activity. Compare and contrast with the alkaloid holocaust that accompanies drying.

* You might think the fine mesh of tights/pantyhose would work better, and you'd be right, if you enjoy drinking dye.

Home Sweet Home

[ Parent ]

in fondue is good too (none / 1) (#29)
by rhiannon on Wed Apr 15, 2009 at 03:58:27 PM EST

I continued to rebuff the advances... so many advances... of so many attractive women. -MC
[ Parent ]
EWW SEMEN!! (none / 0) (#30)
by lemonjuicefake on Thu Apr 16, 2009 at 05:20:12 PM EST

[ Parent ]
distillation (none / 1) (#9)
by horny smurf on Sat Apr 11, 2009 at 02:20:10 PM EST

Back when I was in high school, I briefly tested using a pressure cooker for distillation (the idea being I could throw some yeast, sugar, and water into a bottle, let it ferment, then distill the alcohol).

So i hooked up some tubing to the pressure cooker stem and boiled some water. I ran the tubing through some cold water to cool down the steam, but that was ineffective. In the end, I got bored and went back to making bongs.

Not a bad idea, but (none / 0) (#13)
by JackStraw on Sun Apr 12, 2009 at 07:57:26 PM EST

are you sure that the second pressure release (the one that plugs up under pressure to lock the pressure cooker closed) wasn't letting all the vapor out?

A great idea, I may have to try this.
-The bus came by, I got on... that's when it all began.
[ Parent ]

Yay for recipes on k5 (none / 1) (#19)
by Cambria on Sun Apr 12, 2009 at 10:49:16 PM EST

especially for poor uni students like me :-)

This sounds great (3.00 / 2) (#23)
by Gruntathon on Mon Apr 13, 2009 at 09:19:22 AM EST

I may invest in one.

One gripe though, plox use standard units. Nobody understands this crap about oz an lb. Or use both if you feel part of your audience needs the old units (eg old people on k5).
If they hadn't been such quality beasts (despite being so young) it would have been a nightmare - good self-starting, capable hands are your finest friend. -- Anonymous CEO
Pressure cookers are popular here in Brazil (none / 1) (#24)
by LodeRunner on Mon Apr 13, 2009 at 01:38:21 PM EST

...since we eat so much rice-and-beans. But I can't get myself to get one, as I'm just too distracted and I'm sure I would make some mistake and manage to blow it up.

"dude, you can't even spell your own name" -- Lode Runner

my experience: spaghetti (none / 0) (#28)
by Abominable Abitur on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 08:40:13 PM EST

i was 10. mom used the pressure cooker all the time, i just wanted to use it as a pot to boil water. i accidentally locked the lid so the pressure built up. i made a big mess and couldn't get the lid unlocked. i think my parent's fixed it, I don't remember anymore...i just remember I got in a LOT of trouble.

"Terrorism is only a viable "political activist" method for marginalized nutjobs, bottom line. The backlash that it causes makes it intractable for any reasonable ideology. Which is why you don't generally see wild athiest suicide bombers in america's streets." - lonelyhobo
great (none / 1) (#31)
by nateo on Thu Apr 16, 2009 at 10:53:45 PM EST

jackstraw you are doing a wonderful job contributing.  thank you.

"I'm so gonna travel the world, photographing my dick at every location."
  - Vampire Zombie Abu Musab al Zarqawi
Warning about reducing pressure with cold water (none / 0) (#32)
by jonUr on Sat Apr 18, 2009 at 02:48:23 AM EST

The trick of reducing pressure under the cold water tap works fine for the old-fashioned pressure cookers where you turn a screw to clamp the lid on. However, that is a VERY BAD IDEA with the modern ones where you twist the lid on and the two handles line up.
With the more modern cookers, pouring cold water over the lid will (as far as I can make out) shrink the rubber seal, with the result that your high-temperature stew will spray out in all directions (I'm speaking from personal experience here).

On another note: cooking times vary with the pressure that is attained. The modern "line up the handles" models tend to get higher pressure and, therefore, take less time. For example, the idea of boiling your leftover roast chicken for an hour sounds like total overkill to me. Ten minutes should be more than enough.

We're old pros at cheap sustenance (none / 0) (#33)
by Deagol on Fri May 01, 2009 at 06:08:56 PM EST

Get one of these little beauties and you can do some serious cooking!  Not to mention canning.  We'd often buy pinto and kidney beans by the 25- and 50-pound bags, then can a full load of each in pints (that model will do 19 pints at once) for near-instant soups or refried beans, along with the addition of canned tomato products and meats.

These days, we do the crock pot thing more often than not.  No need to pay much attention to it, and you can have kick-ass cheap meals waiting for you when you wake up and/or get home.

Another good tip is to buy whole feed corn by the 50-pound bag (around $10 in these parts), then get some lye (seems mostly extinct at retail, but good deals can be had at online soap-making supply wholesalers).  For $20 you can have a year's worth of fresh hominy and masa.

But yeah... I'm a huge pressure cooker fan.  They're quite safe these days, given how litigious people are.  My only gripe with models other than the over-sized All American are the gaskets -- they wear out and become unusable after a few years' time, much sooner than the life of the rest of the unit.

Grad Student Cuisine Part I: The Pressure Cooker | 32 comments (28 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
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