Instant Pot guide on how it works, how to shop, how to use, cooking benefits and recipes. Learn how this multi-use programmable appliance can help create easy, fast and flavorful recipes with the ability to apply different cooking methods all in one pot.
If you have an internet connection, it’s impossible for you to have not heard of the Instant Pot. It took me a minute to take the plunge and figure out what all the hype was about, myself. I have to admit, initially reading the manual through all safety and user instructions had me intimidated. Plus, I was a little frightened about releasing the pressure gauge after cooking, but once I made my first recipe, my fears were calmed and I was ready to take on the next! After a few months of cooking with the Instant Pot, I’m ready to share my thoughts with you.
The Instant Pot was created by clever Canadian technology experts seeking to be the ultimate kitchen mate, from stir-frying, pressure cooking, slow cooking and cake making. Can it truly be the one-stop shop to help home cooks make a tasty meal all at a press of a button? Will I be tossing out my trusty wok, saute pans, and crock pot for this stand-alone solution?
What is Pressure Cooking?
Pressure cooking uses steam pressure to cook foods. At its simplest, a sealed pot with a lot of steam inside builds up pressure, which in turn cooks food more quickly and uniformly without human intervention. Pressure cookers have a valve that controls the steam inside. Liquid forms inside the steam as the pot heats, raising the overall pressure in the pot. This forces liquid into the food, which tenderizes meat and cooks food quickly, and increases the temperature past boiling–something that only steaming can do when cooking with water.
How Does the Instant Pot Work?
How does the Instant Pot work? At its core, it’s an electronic pressure cooker. Here is a list of terminology to better understand the lingo for using the multi-cooker. It has three parts: the lid, inner pot, and housing unit.
- Lid: The lid has a sealing lock on it, which creates an airtight chamber when locked on the inner pot. Instant Pots have what’s called a float valve, which is a pin-lock mechanism that prevents the lid from accidentally being opened by the pressure contained. There is a steam release valve located on the lid with quick-release and natural pressure release options for cooking.
- Quick Release (QR): Manually venting the pressure on the unit using the steam release handle until float valve drops down. Good for delicate proteins like seafood, lean chicken breast, vegetable steaming. Do not use for high volume liquids and starchy foods or it could splatter out of the valve.
- Natural Pressure Release (NPR): The pressure is slowly released by the Instant Pot after cooking is complete. May take 10 to 15 minutes and then “keep warm” will kick in. Recommended for a high volume of liquid, high starch content foods (ie. oatmeal and starchy soup) and tougher cuts of meats like beef stews.
- Inner Pot: The inner pot is removable, and made from food grade stainless steel with a sturdy, three-ply, or copper-clad bottom for uniformed heating. There are markings on the pot typically at the 1/2 and 2/3 mark for max fill. This is where all the cooking action happens!
- Housing Unit: The appliance is made of brushed stainless steel, has a control box inside that regulates the temperature and pressure of the Instant Pot according to sensor readings and the desired function. A favorite aspect is that it’s programmable, depending on the ingredient and dish–just set it and let it. The unit has a microprocessor system that speeds up the time it takes to cook by 2 to 6 times while using up to 70 percent less energy. The smart technology monitors the temperature and pressure, can adjust the intensity of the heat, and keep track of cook time.
- Accessories: Most units come with a stainless steel steam rack, condensation collector, rice paddle, soup spoon, a measuring cup, and a book of recipes.
How to Shop for an Instant Pot
When shopping, you’ll want to consider you and your family’s needs. There are different models (Lux, Duo, Smart, and Ultra), sizes (3, 5, 6, and 8-quart) which all vary in the level of technology.
- The Lux– Features 6 functions; pressure cooker, saute/browning, slow cooker, rice cooker, steamer and warmer. Contains the most basic cooking needs. It has 10 built-in smart programs, 24-hour delay, automatically keeps food warm once cooking is complete, and 3 temperature levels for sauteing/browning. The LUX60 model doesn’t have yogurt making capabilities and you can’t toggle between low and high-pressure cooking, however, newer versions are adding those functions. A good beginners model without all the frills.
- The Duo– Features 7 functions; pressure cooker, saute/browning, slow cooker, rice cooker, steamer, warmer and yogurt maker. It has 14 built-in smart programs, dual high and low-pressure settings, 24-hour delay, automatically keeps food warm, and 3 temperature levels for cooking. The DUO60 model is the most popular model. The DUO Plus model adds cake making, egg cooking, and sterilization to the program.
- The Smart- A version for the ultimate techies! The Smart version has Bluetooth, which enables you to control and monitor cooking on your smartphone and comes with a free app for recipes. There are 14 pre-programmed cooking abilities and two that you’re able to program yourself. It has 7 functions; pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, yogurt maker, steamer, sauté and warmer. If you like the idea of being able to cook remotely and ensure your food is ready when you get home, this high tech version is for you!
- The Ultra– This latest version has 10 functions; everything that the Duo offers plus and “Ultra” program to give the user complete customization for programming exact parameters for various cooking methods. It has 16 built-in smart programs, altitude adjustment, 24-hour delay, automatic keep warm, and 3 temperature settings for sauteing, slow cook and keep warm. If you’re looking for more control and precision cooking, this advanced model is for you!
I actually own two Instant Pots: the DUO60 six-quart 7-in-1 and the DUO Plus six-quart 9-in-1 versions. I like how the DUO Plus has a sterilize function, perfect for sterilizing baby bottles, utensils, and jars for jams. I would recommend getting a 6-quart size so that it can fit larger roasts and 4 to 6 servings, perfect for leftovers!
How to Use an Instant Pot
- Functions: This multi-use kitchen appliance performs many functions: it works as a slow-cooker, an electric pressure cooker, a saute pan, a steamer, a warmer, a yogurt maker and a rice cooker, sterilizer, egg cooking, and cake making.
- Programs: Each model has different cooking programs that you can select to take the guesswork out. For example, soup/broth, porridge, poultry, multigrain, meat/stew, rice cooker, steamer, saute, slow cook, cake maker, yogurt maker, sterilizer, warmer, and timer for delayed cooking. Please see manual for detailed instructions. These are average cooking times for a starting point but will vary based on the type of food being cooked.
- Control Panel: The LED display helps you navigate and control the cooking process. It contains information about pressure levels, mode, function keys, operation keys and some units have status icons. Here you can change the settings of the cooker (standby, pre-heat, program operating). The operation keys allow you to adjust the pressure level (high and low), time and temperature level.
- Fill Level: Pay attention to the maximum level marking on the inner pot. Food should never exceed this level, and the unit should not be over 2/3 full for pressure cooking. It is recommended that for foods that expand like beans, rice or dried vegetables, the inner pot is filled only 1/2 full.
- Liquid: Pressure is generated by the steam built up in the trapped housing unit and lid. To create pressure and prevent burning of the ingredients, at least 1/2 cup liquid should be in the inner pot before pressure cooking.
- Cooking Time: For pressure cooking, time varies depending on the type of protein, vegetable, grain, and pressure level. Your unit should come with a recipe booklet included, inside is a cooking timetable, which serves as a guide based on “high” pressure cooking. A lot of experimentation with different ingredients is required, especially depending on if the final dish is a soup, stew or whole piece of meat. Frozen foods do not need to be defrosted, however the lower temperature delays the pre-heating time, so a few additional minutes are needed to complete the cooking process.
- TOTAL Time: It takes the unit 10 to 40 minutes to come to pressure, so the actual total cook time from start to finish will take longer. Factor in time to get to pressure, the cooking time of the food and time for pressure to release.
- Videos: I have found that the manual provides basic information on safety precautions, set up, cooking preparation, safe lid opening and general guidelines for the different functions. However, I gained more confidence by going to the Instant Pot website or YouTube to watch how-to videos for understanding how to use each function properly for various models. I highly recommend watching some videos before starting, because the manual can be confusing and not specific enough for certain recipes. It’s a lot of trial and error, but can have some really tasty results!
Is Electric Pressure Cooking Safe?
One of the first thoughts that crossed my mind once I plugged in the Instant Pot and was ready to make my first pressure recipe was, “Is this thing going to blow up?” The good news is no, the manufacturer has taken many safeguards to ensure that using the unit is safe, but you have to pay attention and follow directions. Here are some key things that have been incorporated into the design for safety:
- Built-in pressure regulator and controller to stay within safety limits.
- The lid will lock and not open when the cooker has been pressurized, so no accidental user openings.
- The lid can sense when it’s not in the correct position, and will not pressurize.
- Excess pressure is monitored and released if dangerous levels are detected.
- Temperature is monitored based on the selected program to help avoid burning food.
- The user should always cover their hands with oven mitts when performing the pressure quick release to prevent possible steam burns. A towel can also be placed over the valve when venting and using a long spoon or pot holder to vent the valve to prevent splattering of the liquids while protecting the face and hands.
Cleaning and Maintenance
Cleaning the Instant Pot is easy–after unplugging the unit and allowing it to cool, follow these guidelines:
- Like any pressure cooker, you’ll want to make sure the nooks, and crannies of the appliance don’t have leftover food stuck in them.
- Wipe the black inner housing rim and slot dry with a cloth to prevent rusting on the exterior pot rim.
- Remove the lid, take out the inner pot, and hand wash it with warm, soapy water, rinse and wipe dry with a cotton or microfiber cloth.
- The inner pot, lid, and steam rack are all dishwasher safe making clean up easy.
- Use water to clean the lid, sealing ring, exhaust valve, anti-block shield. Wipe them clean with a dry soft cloth/ Do not take apart steam release pipe assembly.
- Clean housing body with a clean damp cloth. Do not immerse in water!
- Dry all of the parts with a clean towel to prevent rusting.
Benefits of Using an Instant Pot
With so many features, also come with benefits once you explore the possibilities.
- Speed: It boosts cooking foods up to 70% faster when pressure cooking. This is due to the pressure built up inside the closed unit, raising the cooking temperature higher before it reaches boiling point. The results are foods that are cooked faster. It simulates braising and cooking techniques, without the long wait.
- Versatility: As a multifunction cooker you can perform numerous techniques, all within one recipe. I like how in one pot you can saute meat and vegetables to add more flavor and texture before pressure or slow cooking, which cannot be done in a stand-alone slow cooker. You can also thicken or concentrate flavors after it’s cooked using the saute function and desired heat level.
- Green: Less energy is needed in the pressure cooking process compared to conventional cooking methods like boiling, steaming, use of ovens and even slow cookers. Since less water is used during cooking, cooking temperatures are higher for faster cook time, and the unit has an insulated external pot, overall less energy is required.
- Healthy: Pressure cooking needs minimal water to operate, just enough to create steam. This means that nutrients are better preserved in the food because they are not leached out into the water. It can also preserve up to 90-95% of the vitamins in vegetables, due to increasing speed and heat during cooking and well as quickly deactivating some of the enzymes that may cause nutrient loss.
- Food Safety: One of my favorite features of pressure cooking is that it helps eliminate harmful microorganisms in food and on glass containers. The temperatures inside the cooker reach above the boiling point of water, which can kill most harmful bacteria and viruses. As a scientist and mom, I like having the ability to sterilize tools or bottles used to feed my family, as well reduce risk in the food I serve.
Instant Pot Recipes
What can you make with the Instant Pot? With books, blogs, and websites dedicated to the cause, the options seem nearly limitless. I suggest trying out cooking a pot roast, mac n cheese, carnitas, any kind of soup you can dream up, beef stew, legumes like beans or lentils, spaghetti sauce and even a whole chicken–there’s a function for that! Here are a few Instant Pot recipes to get you started:
My Final Thoughts
I’ve spent most of my test kitchen time trying out the saute, pressure cooking and slow cooking functions. Overall I enjoyed experimenting with the technology, even though I candidly had some frustrations at first, but was able to troubleshoot. It requires practice and refinement to nail different types of recipes. However, I can’t wait to try the plethora of additional functions of this all-in-one kitchen appliance and report back.
It takes a little practice and openness to play around and explore the uses of the Instant Pot, but once you get the hang of it this appliance can be very a helpful tool. I will still use other equipment to nail the perfect sear on a steak, but if I’m looking to make a quick big pot of chili, pulled pork, or instantly cook quinoa, I like the option of grabbing my handy Instant Pot to reduce cook time.
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