The Ultimate Instant Pot Guide

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.

Instant Pot pressure cooker on a table

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. 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.

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!

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 quicker and more uniformly without human intervention.

Benefits of using an Instant Pot:

Speed

Cook foods up to 70% faster due to the pressure built up inside the closed unit, raising the cooking temperature higher before it reaches the boiling point.

Versatility

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.

Green

Less energy is needed for pressure cooking compared to conventional cooking methods like boiling, steaming, use of ovens and even slow cookers. Since less water is used during cooking, the enclosed temperatures heat 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 the faster cook time and higher heat during cooking. This can quickly deactivate 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.

Steam being released from Instant Pot valve

Components of an Instant Pot:

Lid

The lid has a sealing lock on it, which creates an airtight chamber inside. Instant Pot’s 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 also a steam release valve located on the lid with quick-release and natural pressure release options for cooking.

Quick Release (QR)

You can manually vent the pressure on the unit by using the steam release handle until the 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, which may take 10 to 15 minutes. Then automatically the “keep warm” setting will kick in. NPR is 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

Inside the device is a removable metal pot insert made from food-grade stainless steel with a sturdy, three-ply, or copper-clad bottom for uniformed heating. There are markings on the side of the insert that show the various fill level amounts.

Housing Unit

The appliance is made of brushed stainless steel, has a control box inside that regulates the temperature and pressure according to sensor readings and the desired function.

Programmable Settings

The unit has a microprocessor system with smart technology that monitors the temperature and pressure. It can adjust the intensity of the heat inside while keeping 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.

Front of Instant Pot Duo with display and program settings

How to use an Instant Pot successfully:

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 the 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’s recommended that expandable foods like beans, rice or dried vegetables, the inner pot is filled only to 1/2 full.

Liquid

The pressure built up inside the unit is generated by steam. To create this pressure and prevent the burning of your ingredients, at least 1/2 cup liquid should be in the inner pot before starting.

Cooking Time

For pressure cooking, time varies depending on the type of protein, vegetable, grain, and pressure level. The Instant Pot comes with a recipe booklet that includes 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 a 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. For an accurate total cooking time, you need to factor in the time to build up pressure, the cooking time of food, and time to release the pressure.

Video Tips

I find 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.

Sealing and Ventilating valve settings on the Instant Pot

Is Electric Pressure Cooking Safe?

One of the first thoughts that crossed my mind once I plugged in the Instant Pot 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.

Safety Features

  • Built-in pressure regulator and controller to stay within safe 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 quick-release function to prevent possible steam burns. A towel can also be placed over the valve when venting to prevent splattering of the liquids while protecting the face and hands.

Cleaning and Maintenance

  • 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.
  • 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 the 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.

Ground meat and vegetables cooking in the Instant Pot

Tools for the 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. There are also a host of Instant Pot accessories to choose from as well.

infographic showing several Instant Pot tools and accessories

  1. Instant Pot
  2. Steamer Basket
  3. Egg Steamer Rack
  4. Slotted Spoon
  5. Kitchen Oven Gloves
  6. Steamer Basket with Removeable Dividers
  7. Tempered Glass Lid

Some of the links above are affiliate links, which pay me a small commission for my referral at no extra cost to you!

Recipes to try

View all Instant Pot recipes

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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32 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Diane says

    I have been enjoying reading your guide and good info. But my question is still un-answered. And I feel like a dumb dumb asking, but how do you set the time? I was trying to cook meat, I sauted it okay but the next step was 4 minutes. So I tapped tapped the toggle until it reached 4:00. It slipped away then I had to repeat that twice. I fear the toggle will be the first thing to wear out also, I am probably not doing it right but no one gets very detailed about that area.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Diane- Not a silly question at all! Are you continually to saute or pressure cooking after sauteeing? The “timer” button is just for delayed cooking if you are meal prepping, but not actual timing the cooking. I would set a timer on your phone or oven to do that. If you pressure cook you can set the time, or the saute just have a 30-minute countdown and you would just have to keep an eye on how much time passes. I hope that helps!

  2. Paige Jirsa says

    I just got my instant pot about two months ago and love it for cutting down meal time prep! However, it recently started to smell!!! Do you have any suggestions? I make sure to thoroughly clean it after each use.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Paige- Congrats! Do you also clean the rubber ring in the lid? I’ve found that if I make something strong smelling, it takes making another recipe to get that other smell out.

  3. Rose says

    When cooking soup I’d like to add different vegetables and taste my soup while cooking. I have been using my Instant pot with soup/broth program but it’s a nuisance for me to keep canceling the pot when I open it to add and taste. Am I the only one doing this or just stupid on my part?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Rose- Could you cook the hearty vegetables first, then use the saute function to add in and cook the higher moisture vegetables like mushrooms and zucchini, and adjust seasonings?

  4. Barbara Laing says

    Jessica, you are a lifesaver! I’ve just bought a UK version of this and although the description said it included a recipe book there were 4 recipes in the back of the book which were absolutely no help at all. Thank you I now know where to come for some delicious meals.

  5. Dave says

    I thought “yah right! Another dumb pressure cooker.” Now I have two Instant Pots – a 6 quart and an 8 quart. But I still mainly use them as pressure cookers.

    Personally, I find the inside pot a bit too deep to comfortably do much else.

    The 6 quart is great for most every day use and the 8 quart is better for large birds and roasts. Either one perfectly cooks juicy chicken breasts from frozen.

    Like all appliances, these have learning curves so if what’s in there, is not done, restart the process for a few more minutes. It comes back up to pressure very fast.

    Great article Jessica! Very well written and informative, like all your articles.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      You are an instant pot rockstar Dave! I love that you tackled the learning curve, and found the right sizes for various recipes. I appreciate your insight, I know others will find it helpful!

  6. Barbara Ford says

    I bought an Instant Pot about a year ago and have never used it. (I know, it is stupid) However it is about 40 yrs since I used a pressure cooker and have totally forgotten how to use it and I don’t even understand the principle of the mechanics and am afraid to have a go. What on earth am I to do. I know once started I will be fine. Just afraid.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Don’t be afraid! I was too, but once you get the hang of it you build the confidence to try more. I would start off with something simple, then go from there. You can do it!

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