I keep having moments when I really appreciate the quiet wisdom of my mom. She grew up in modest economic circumstances in the 1940s and 50s as the daughter of a farm manager and so she learned all kinds of do-it-yourself skills and techniques that people now are trying to recapture. Nowadays, many of us are trying to figure out ways to live more simply and use fewer resources in response to a global ecosystem brought to its knees by the over-consumption of advanced industrial capitalism. My mom’s 4-H skills were just her being practical — but they are like a time capsule of hints at how people used to live just fine with a lot less ecological destruction.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been learning to cook with a pressure cooker — something you don’t see much anymore but something my mom always did.
If you want to cook beans, doing so without a pressure cooker uses much more energy. It can take 3-4 hours to adequately cook black beans in a pot — 3-4 hours that your gas or electric stove is spewing emissions into the atmosphere. With a pressure cooker, it takes 20 minutes, i.e. only 20 minutes of emissions. Garbanzo beans — which are notoriously difficult to cook on the stovetop — are an even more dramatic example. Just 25 minutes in the pressure cooker. This is because water boils at a hotter temperature when it is under pressure, so the food cooks significantly faster.
So here’s my rough how-to guide, because when I started using a pressure cooker, I was a bit lost. This is just for beans or vegetables because I’m vegetarian — let me know what you learn about other stuff.
1. First, you have to find one. Check second hand stores — there are a lot of them around not getting used. You need a weight for the top that fits with the one you buy. It has to have a rubber seal around the lid so be careful the rubber still looks good. There is also a pressure relief plug to avoid explosions — make sure it hasn’t blown out. I would suggest testing a new one carefully to make sure it won’t blow up on you — heat it carefully in an empty kitchen and keep hands clear and eyes protected during the test. If it survives the test, you can cook calmly. Or you could buy one new.
2. For beans, you cover them with at least twice the amount of water as beans, if not more. It still helps to pre-soak beans but you don’t have to. It can be fun to first soak, and then sprout the beans for a day for extra-woo woo health benefits. Be careful about putting too many beans in — they expand a lot. I add spices and salt after cooking except that I put in bay leaf, clove and garlic, if applicable, before hand. You can’t add them while you’re cooking because you can’t open the lid once it is under pressure. Salt changes the boiling temperature of water at sea level — it makes sense to me it would change things under pressure, too, which is why I avoid putting it in first.
3. For vegetables, you can put a steamer in and just put water on the bottom of the pressure cooker. It only takes 4-5 minutes to steam whole potatoes in a pressure cooker. For softer veggies, just a minute or two.
4. Put the top on and lock it. Bring it to a boil gradually with the weight not on the top of the pressure cooker. After steam not mixed with water or other matter starts shooting out the top, you know it is boiling and you can put the weight on the top. Some beans like garbanzos make suds so it can take a few moments of sputtering before you get a nice clean flow of steam — you don’t want to put the weight on while it is sputtering.
5. Once you put the weight on, set a timer. Bigger beans take a bit longer but not too much. Experiment.
6. Once the timer goes off, turn off the heat and let the steam out gradually by lifting (but not removing) the weight from the top. You can’t open the lid or you’ll be seriously injured. Once you’ve released the pressure, open the lid and enjoy a faster and lower emissions dinner.