Six appliances in one: Why you should jump on the Instant Pot bandwagon

The Instant Pot promises the functionality of six appliances: slow cooker, rice cooker, steamer, sauté pan, yogurt-maker and warmer.
The Instant Pot promises the functionality of six appliances: slow cooker, rice cooker, steamer, sauté pan, yogurt-maker and warmer. TNS

The greatest trick the Instant Pot played on people was convincing them that they were trying something new.

Pressure cookers, slow cookers, rice cookers, steamers — these appliances have been around for years. Sure, they are all combined into one shiny device, along with a few other ones, but they now have the cachet of a catchy new name. Your grandma used a pressure cooker. You have an Instant Pot.

The device has been riding an incredible wave of popularity over the past couple of years, but most of the guides showing the best way to use it have lived online on blogs and message boards. That changes this fall, as a slew of new Instant Pot cookbooks hits the shelves, all trying to convince you to jump on the multi-cooker bandwagon. (Prices range by size, from $69.99 to $159.99; we used the 8-quart at $129.99.)

I knew I’d like it before I ever opened the box. It wasn’t the fawning praise from the hundred of thousands, if not millions, of ardent fans. No, it’s because I already love electric pressure cookers, and despite what anyone might have told you, the Instant Pot is basically an electric pressure cooker spruced up with some extra features.

Designs have changed over the years, but all pressure cookers do basically the same thing. By increasing the pressure inside the pot, you can raise the temperature of water from a maximum of 212 degrees to nearly 250. This allows you to transform tough cuts of meat and dried beans into dinner in less than an hour.

You might remember a hulking stovetop pressure cooker from your past. It did the job, but it also hissed and sputtered, and it required constant attention to maintain the right heat. Electric pressure cookers, on the other hand, are the ultimate set-it-and-forget-it devices. Just add the food, set the time and walk away as it cooks in almost silence. It’s a godsend in my kitchen, and I’ve used mine regularly for the past two years. Even if you don’t buy an Instant Pot, consider picking up an electric pressure cooker.

But the Instant Pot also promises the functionality of six other appliances: slow cooker, rice cooker, steamer, sauté pan, yogurt-maker and warmer. My only question was whether it worked as well as the products it is intended to replace.

Some of these claims immediately sounded a bit off to me. First of all, what is a warmer? Also, does a sauté pan really count as an appliance?

But after testing an Instant Pot for a few weeks, I, like most who give the machine a go, have fallen under its spell. The Instant Pot pressure-cooks, slow-cooks, makes phenomenal rice, steams, sautes and makes yogurt. It also can keep things warm, if that’s what you’re into.

In fact, I like everything about the Instant Pot except how it looks. The interface is riddled with so many buttons, it’s hard to know where to start. On the other hand, my Cuisinart electric pressure cooker kept its interface intuitive and streamlined. (The Cuisinart also sautés and keeps things warm, if you’re keeping score at home.)

Plus, a lot of those buttons give you a false impression of how the Instant Pot works. Some of the buttons are labeled with various foods (beans, soup, poultry, rice), which suggest that all you have to do is add the necessary ingredients, press a button and wait for dinner. Finally, the convenience of “The Jetsons” has arrived! You can do that and hope for the best, but I never use any of them, because I want to be precise.

Take the beans button. Not all beans finish cooking in the same amount of time. The difference between pinto beans and black beans might seem slight, but black beans have thinner skins, and if cooked as long as pintos, they will get blown out. Nobody wants that. The beans button does allow you to adjust the cooking time, but only in five-minute increments. That’s an eternity in pressure-cooking time, when beans can go from tender to mushy in two minutes.

Instead, if you plan to cook things under pressure, disregard all those food buttons, acquaint yourself with the manual button, and all will be fine. This allows you the flexibility to pick the proper time for each component.

It also means that I never use the rice button, because doing so will pressure-cook the rice on the low setting, and that takes an absolute age. Rice prepared on the stovetop or in a cheap rice cooker is much faster.

I can already hear you say, “But I thought you said it makes great rice?” It does, but you’ll have to again reach for that manual button. Just add 1 cup of well-rinsed basmati rice, 1 1/4 cups of water and a pinch of salt. Press the manual button, and set the timer for three minutes. Yes, three minutes. When the time is up, turn off the unit, and let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork, and get ready to dig into distinct grains of fragrant, tender rice.

But the manual button can lead to apprehension. Once any electric pressure cooker is fully pressurized, you can’t open the lid, so you can’t check the progress of your dish. Accurate recipes are essential. Fortunately, the people behind the new Instant Pot cookbooks are true believers.

Deb Brody, the editor behind “Instant Pot Miracle,” (out now) first noticed people on social media talking about the device. Curious, she tried it for herself and was a quick convert. “It’s amazing what it can do,” Brody said. “One of the first things I made with the Instant Pot was pulled pork. It maybe took an hour and a half from beginning to end, and it was outrageously delicious.”

Brody thinks the Instant Pot’s incredible success came because it hit a sweet spot for the cooking public. “I think it appeals to people across the spectrum,” she said. “The foodie people love it. But if you look at the Instant Pot Facebook page, (you’ll see a lot of comments from) the busy parent who is trying to put food on the table every night. There aren’t that many appliances that do that.”