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Published January 17, 2014, 10:36 AM

Prairie Fare: Today’s pressure cookers not like Grandma’s

I have been leery of pressure cookers most of my life. Like many people of my generation, I grew up eating lots of soups and stews prepared in our family’s pressure cooker.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

I have been leery of pressure cookers most of my life.

Like many people of my generation, I grew up eating lots of soups and stews prepared in our family’s pressure cooker. When I heard the sound of the jiggling weighted gauge and the soft hiss of steam escaping, I knew that dinner was going to be something with lots of vegetables or dry beans in it.

Dinner would be on the table in short order because pressure cookers cook food in about one-third of the time.

My fear of pressure cookers didn’t come from direct experience but from family lore.

Our neighbor, who was my great-aunt, made bean soup in her pressure cooker one day and blew the lid off. Fortunately, she had left the kitchen for a few minutes, so she escaped being scalded and pelted by boiling-hot beans.

She chuckled when she told the story of finding beans stuck to the ceiling and cupboards weeks after the “explosion.”

After hearing that story, I didn’t want to be in the same city with one of these devices. Food should not fly out of pots and attack you.

Later, as a graduate student in food science, I perused the manual for the course I was assigned to teach. I would be teaching the undergraduates how to use, of all things, a pressure cooker.

I really needed a heat-resistant wet suit, goggles, hard hat and a life insurance policy. I probably needed to bubble wrap my students and the room in heat-resistant plastic, too.

I carefully followed the directions and tried to act fearless as I showed them how to make corned beef. When the pressure gauge began jiggling and hissing, I nearly ran out of the room. The pressure cooker managed to tenderize the not-so-tender meat into a flavorful main course perfect for an Irish celebration.

A few weeks ago, I noticed a pressure cooker in a department store. It was daring me to buy it with its “price-reduced” tag and the promise of speedy meals. I put it in my cart. This was the year to conquer my fear and bring a pressure cooker into my home.

Although pressure cookers may remind us of our mothers or grandmothers (or maybe fathers and grandfathers), the appliances have become popular again. The models are much safer, compared with the devices introduced just before World War II.

My new saucepot has a locking handle, safety valve and a pressure indicator that pops up when the correct pressure has been reached.

Pressure cooking is an application of the principles of physics. Typically, boiling water reaches a maximum temperature of 212 degrees at the altitude where I live. In a closed vessel with a gauge set at 10 pounds of pressure, you can reach about 240 degrees. That makes food cook very quickly.

Some people use the words “pressure cooker” and “pressure canner” interchangeably, but cookers and canners are two different devices. In other words, I won’t be canning green beans in my pressure cooker.

To be a pressure canner, the device has to be able to hold four upright, quart-sized glass jars.

Today’s pressure cookers can be made of various sizes for different needs. You may find them in 4-, 5-, 6- or 8-quart sizes. The smallest ones work well for singles or couples.

Pressure cookers made of stainless steel will cost a little more but provide a durable cooking pot. Aluminum pressure cookers usually cost less and weigh less but conduct heat well. However, they may stain and “pit.”

When cooking with pressure, be sure you carefully read the instructions. Never overfill pressure cookers, especially when cooking beans.

I read the manual cover to cover, then I followed the directions step by step as I made beef stew with carrots, onions, celery and potatoes. The manual encouraged me to be creative, but I was respectful of the device.

My jokester family, knowing my trepidation, sneaked up behind not once but twice and exclaimed “Kaboom!” I saw them with the eyes in the back of my head and didn’t flinch. However, I contemplated sending them outside to forage for food in Fargo’s wintry weather.

When it was time to release the pressure, I brought my husband into the kitchen because he is the family mechanic. After the pressure went down, he removed the lid while I cowered around the corner, ready to call 911.

My stew turned out tasty with about 10 minutes to achieve pressure, 25 minutes of cook time and a 10-minute cool-down. We could have quick-cooled it by placing the cooker in the sink under running cold water.

After opening the cover, I added some thickening agent to the bubbling liquid and it formed a smooth gravy in about three minutes.

Be a little daring with food preparation in 2014. This beef stew recipe can be simmered slowly on a stove top, cooked in a slow cooker or made in a pressure cooker.

Old Fashioned Beef and Vegetable Stew

1 tablespoons canola oil or other cooking oil

1½ pounds stew meat, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 cup onion, cut in 1-inch chunks

2 cups carrots, peeled and cut in ½-inch slices

1 cup celery, cut in 1-inch chunks

3 cups potatoes, peeled and cut in chunks

3 cups beef broth (canned or made from bouillon or soup base)

1 bay leaf (remove after cooking)

3 teaspoons cornstarch in 3 tablespoons cold water to make slurry

Salt, pepper (to taste)

Heat the oil in a large pot (or pressure cooker). Add beef and cook until the beef is browned.

Pressure cooker directions: Add remaining ingredients (except thickener) to browned beef, then bring to pressure and cook for 20 minutes at high-pressure setting (10 pounds) or as directed in the manufacturer’s directions. Release pressure as directed.

Test for doneness. If not done, continue cooking. Thicken with corn starch slurry.

Stovetop directions: Add remaining ingredients to browned beef, bring to boil and then simmer covered for about 90 minutes to two hours. Add more liquid if needed.

Bring to boil at end of cooking time. Mix cornstarch with about 2 tablespoons of water to form slurry, then add to pot and allow to thicken while gently stirring.

Slow cooker directions: Spray slow cooker with nonstick cooking spray. Mix browned meat and other ingredients (except thickener) and cook on low for eight to 10 hours. Increase heat to high at end, add thickener and stir gently.

Makes eight servings.

Each serving has 230 calories, 8 grams (g) of fat, 21 g of protein, 16 g of carbohydrate, 3 g of fiber and 115 milligrams of sodium.

Garden-Robinson is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professior in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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