I’ve been asking friends, family, several of you for the last year:
Do you own an Instant Pot?
What are you doing with it?
Should the rest of us holdouts join the club?
It’s an investment
It’s not like it’s a cheap, gotta-have-it spatula or gizmo, the electric pressure cooker or Instant Pot has a high entry-level price tag. So naturally a skeptic and fearing a gimmick, I held out. I believe in stocking time-test products that have a lot of function and durability last; did an Instant Pot meet that standard? But then I asked again on social media and some of your answers lead me to think a little longer, and fantasize about one more cooking site for canning (not on the already over-crowded stove). I already own a dutch oven, had a clunky rice cooker, and a cheap slow-cooker missing a handle (plus a dinged up lid), so why did I need to pour the money into another hefty apparatus that would mostly do what those were doing? I was tempted but fine. I said I was fine. But then Amazon prime day happened and the price for the mothership, the 8 Quart, dropped so low that I decided to test my curiosity by plunking down the cash. For all of you, I said as I clicked “add to cart.”
The honeymoon period does not exist.
Don’t think for a second that this beast of plastic and metal will come home to your house and will CHANGE YOUR LIFE! like every all-caps and exclamation point-ridden post I’ve read . You probably won’t lose 30 lbs. and have 14 hours of your life back so you can start crocheting all your own socks in the next two weeks. Nope. This beast is not an intuitive machine. Like every pressure cooker, it locks up at pressure, takes time to release, and you can’t see what is happening inside. If you’re used to the ease of a slow cooker with nothing more than a dial this seems like a cruel trick. It takes some time to learn how to use the instant pot and most of the materials that come with it are equally clunky junk. There were grammatical errors in the recipe book. I wondered if I should take it as a sign and return the pot right then and there when I found a possessive s being used as a plural. I’m still shuddering. But I persisted (but could have skipped the proceeding horror if I had stopped, a thing I can still smell in my nightmares).
It holds on to smells (but you can fix it)
This fault may be mine. I did something bad. During the not-a-honeymoon period, I thought I would try to expedite the rice-soaking necessary for making horchata. And then I forgot about it. For longer than I should have. And because it was all so tightly sealed, things got funky. I’m sure the moral of this story is don’t forget about things in the instant pot, ever- I agree that’s the right take away if you learn nothing else today. But I was at the trifecta of things that could go wrong: the not-a-honeymoon period plus the no-way-to-see-what-is-inside feature, plus an overstuffed week? It was bad. Funky bad. Like either something had died in it or was terrifyingly alive. The correct answer here was living: I had a horchata scobby inside my new instant pot that smelled like night of the living dead. But I’m a curious kid, and this franken-creation that smelled of rancid brown rice hootch (because it was) fascinated me long enough for me get a good look at the strange brew then try to avoid puking while I cleaned it out. Lather, rinse and repeat. I now know the best method for clearing out the odors that can linger in these pots: pressure-cook baking soda (a lot), and run the lid and bowl through the dishwasher more than once. But I’m sure the scent of fish pales in comparison and dissipates much quicker.
Timing is everything
After my far-from-a-honeymoon period growing primordial soup, plus a few more conventional recipes in the beast, I was still feeling meh about it. I packed it away and went to visit my sister who had just had a baby (as well as a recently purchased and largely unused instant pot [again, new baby, no shame]). I took it upon myself to fill her freezer and figure out if this could be the magic pot nearly a 1,000 reviewers on Amazon said it was. My baby sister, Lindsay, is still getting started, so her kitchen lacks a few things I take for granted. I kneaded bread and rolls by hand and rolled out pie crust using a glass bottle (which works great in a pinch), but she has an instant pot and I had time. So, I cracked it open, growing familiar with the magic jingle it makes everytime you open it. (Side note, this seems to be a common thing with so many Asian appliances I’ve bought, including a portable washing machine in my San Francisco apartment that held just a few gallons, drained into the toilet and taught my toddler the tune of jingle bells as it finished each load.) Chili, beans, bone broth, oatmeal, rice, and canned peach-vanilla jam all happened in the pot. For a girl who only has a smallish-sized non-stick stockpot, this addition is a wonder: another heat surface and vessel. I was able to cook so much and so much faster as I got comfortable with the pot. I left her pantry and freezer jammed with a lot more food than I could have made otherwise. I was glad to have the time to figure it out (and that is necessary). The beast pot offers a lot of flexibility: speeding up cooking, it can slow it down as a slow cooker or hold temperature for a long time (long and low enough to make hootch with your horchata, but don’t do that.)
But do you need one?
No. I really don’t. I can make a lovely (and more nuanced) braise in my dutch oven and have real control of the temperature for searing, aside from the on/off saute on the instant pot. I can still cook in my one-armed slow cooker (and do), and I know how to simulate a rice cooker in the microwave (from the days before I had one- which I will totally show you how to do soon). But I’m not using the microwave or my clunky rice cooker anymore. I gifted the rice cooker and kept the Instant Pot. It’s grown on me. (It makes amazing rice). During canning season this year it did exactly what I needed, serving as an extra vessel and heat source for even more tomato sauce (since I had more than the one-armed slow cooker could handle) while I was canning tomatoes on the stove. I don’t need it, but I’m totally using it.
But would you enjoy one?
Knowing all the limitations and the drawbacks I would still purchase it again. A tool like this can really help some cooks gain more confidence and try new recipes, and whatever gets you cooking good food at home is a good thing. Many of the boards for instant pots are flush with folks dumping in bottled sauces and small animals on high pressure for 45 minutes and calling it dinner. I am happy for them, but most of those recipes and forums are not where I’m hanging out and often not the style of cooking I’m digging. But again, if it gets you cooking, and makes you happy, own that pot and have fun on those boards. Most are not my style, but Nom Nom Paleo is a wizard with hers and a great person especially if you cook a lot of meat. I don’t and prefer the precision and control of other cooking techniques. All that said, the pot really is a cool tool and I’m completely stoked for cookbooks that will use it to its best advantage. I’ve already pre-ordered Melissa Clark’s forthcoming book (Melissa wrote for the NYT for years and I love her easy style and full-flavored, but common-sense cooking style).
Can I help you with your Instant Pot this season?
Yes, I’m asking because I already wrote the recipes. I have adapted several of the Fall 20/20 recipes to cook in the Instant Pot, because if it makes the difference to get you cooking real food more often, then the answer is a clear yes. Yes, the instant pot is for you if it gets you excited to cook more and if it makes you more likely to do so. Know that there are some challenges with the pot, but it makes the best pot of rice. The best. So the space it has taken from my rice cooker (which was about the same size) was a fine exchange. Plus, I have already started playing with cooking in levels in it, (I made shrimp and grits at the same time) and that is a super cool trick. I’d love to get you comfortable with yours this season if you vibe that way. Let’s do this.
What’s been your experience or thoughts on the instant pot craze?
Join in the conversation, tell me what I’ve left out. And what I really ought to know in the comments below.