For years a friend has been extolling the virtues of her electric bean cooker (essentially a slow cooker with a timer) , so I was sort-of in the market for one if I ever came across it. Then one day I came across an ad for the InstantPot at about half it’s normal retail price, saw that it had a bean setting and literally thousands of good reviews, and decided to give it a try.
Mine arrived very well packaged with the unit itself well protected inside it’s retail box, which itself was inside a form-fitting outer shipping box. A bit wasteful on the boxing if it was going to a retailer as part of a multi-unit order, but for something being sold on a website and then being shipped it seems a pretty good idea to be able to combine the factory to distributor and distributor to customer shipping packaging. No assembly was required, and after washing the pot and reviewing the instructions I was ready for the recommended “learning cycle” of generating a pot of steam.
With a cup or so of water in the pot, the lid closed, and the vent knob set to pressurize I set the timer to 5 minutes and let it go. Once the water heated up to near boiling, there was probably about a minute of light steam coming out of the unit before the pressurization valve shut and allowed pressure to build up. Once that happened, the 5 minute timer automatically started and I could hear faint clicks as the control mechanism managed the power to maintain the pre-set pressure level. At the end of the timer the unit beeped and shut off the heat. I wanted to try both release methods, so I momentarily opened the vent knob for the “fast release” option (which vents the excess pressure, along with a fair amount of steam), then closed it again and waited for the pressure to naturally drop enough for the pressurization valve to open, which took about 10 minutes (a bit faster than listed in the manual, but that’s because I had used the vent first). I then opened the lid and was happy to find quite a bit more water than I would have expected to have had if I had boiled the same amount in an open pot on the stove and allowed to cool’ – indicating that the pressure cooker was indeed working properly.
My first real use of the cooker was to make a pot of black-eyed peas. I started with equal weights of dry peas and water, added some garlic and onions, set the unit for a 40 minute bean cycle, then left it alone. When it finished the cycle I used the quick release method and found a pot of cooked peas with not a drop of excess liquid – but unlike what would have occurred in this case on a stovetop, there were no signs of burning or scorching and the peas at he bottom were in the same shape as peas on the top. The only complaint I had was that about half the peas were a touch harder than I would have desired, but still quite edible.
The next attempt was black beans, and for those I used equal volumes of dry beans and water. These came out much better on the same 40 minute cycle, but I also allowed for a natural release. There was a reasonable amount of liquid left and the beans were uniformly tender. The only downside to using the InstantPot relative to an open pot on the stove was that when I cook dried beans on the stove I simmer them for about 4 hours, which seems to break down the enzymes and sugars enough that the resulting beans are almost gas free, wheras the shorter cooking time in the InstantPot still leaves plenty of gas producing elements for the body to process. A huge advantage, however, is that aside from being a switch on and forget appliance and using less energy than a non-pressurized cooking method, the InstantPot, as is also the case with an electric slow-cooker, can be easily setup on a porch or other weather-protected space and doesn’t heat up the kitchen on hot summer days – which can’t be said for an open pot on the stove for 4 hours….
Once I was comfortable with “dump and go” bean coking, I decided it was time to try something to use a few more capabilities of the system – so I opted to make a curry. I used the “saute” feature, which heats the pot to an equivalent of a frying pan, and toasted spices, allowed them a few minutes to infuse into oil, browned meat and veg, then dumped in coconut milk, more veg and spices, and a bit of water. Then I put the lid on, selected a cooking time based on the meat, and let it go. With very little effort after that point, I ended up with one of the best curries I have made, particularly as the more gentle and non-boiling cooking during the pressure cooking stage allowed the excess fat to rise and stay at the top, which was easy to skim off.
There were, however, a couple of downsides to “cooking” in the InstantPot. The pot is relatively deep, making it hard to really “saute” items in it since you can’t really toss the ingredients being sauted nor get a spatula under them – tongs seemed to be the best option for the meat, but some of the veg really didn’t get moved as much as I would have liked. The cord wasn’t long enough for me to be able to put the InstantPot under my range hood, so the kitchen got a touch smoky during the browning phase. I’m unsure if the next time I make a curry or similar dish if I’ll do it all in the InstantPot or if I’ll do the initial “sautéing” in another pan over the stove and then transfer it into the pot.
The next use of the pot was to make yogurt. It was my first time to ever do so, and it was much easier than I had anticipated. After pouring almost a gallon of milk into the pot, I selected the ‘yogurt boil” setting, which heats it up to 185 deg F and holds it there for a few minutes to basically (re)pasteurize it. Then it beeps and you let it cool down to 115 deg F or below (I took the pot out of the unit, set the lid on it, and let it sit in the refrigerator for about an hour). Once “cool”, I took about a cup of the milk and added it to a bowl, added a couple of spoonfulls of commercially produced yogurt with live and active cultures, whisked it together, and added it back into the pot. I then put the pot back into the unit, selected 8 hours on the yogurt setting, and got ready for bed. The InstantPot held the milk at the right temperature all night for the yogurt cultures to work, and by the time I woke up in the morning I had a pot full of fresh yogurt which had just about cooled down to room temperature. For those who like thick yogurt there would probably need to be a straining step, but I’m happy with the thinner style so I ladled it out into 3 sterilized quart containers and ate the rest with my breakfast.
I have yet to try the rice cooker functionality, and I probably won’t as I have a very good (and smaller) rice cooker that fits the portion sizes I typically make much better than the larger InstantPot would. Likewise the steamer function probably won’t get much use unless I’m steaming things for a crowd as my smaller rice cooker’s steaming tray more than meets my usual requirements.
All in all I am very happy with my InstantPot, and it brings the advantages of pressure cooking into the kitchen without the disadvantages of stove top pressure cookers. The built-in control method effectively regulates to pressure, so rather than having a noisy “jiggler” bouncing around and releasing steam during cooking, the heating elements respond as needed, not only keeping the noise down but also reducing energy usage.