The Instant Pot: Our New Doorstop

A few weeks ago there was this kind of perfect storm in re: the Instant Pot, which is, as you all know, the latest must-have stupid kitchen gadget.

Ok, maybe for many of you it’s a kitchen necessity. I get it. But in our case: we HAVE pots, we HAVE a stove, we HAVE an oven, I’m not afraid to use any of these things, and I have the time in which to use them to great effect. We don’t freaking need an Instant Pot.

But, we kept reading articles about them. My husband — an Instant Pot skeptic by nature — read an article about them in the Wall Street Journal and asked me why we didn’t have one. I sighed. We have, historically, been fairly united on what our kitchen needed and what it didn’t. I accepted that he was correct regarding the Kitchen Aid and the Cuisinart. He admits that the bread machine was a mistake. Do we really need an Instant Pot?

No, we don’t. But then that fateful day arrived when I had an Amazon gift card sitting around and Amazon had an Instant Pot on sale and the long and the short of it was that I could acquire an Instant Pot for a pretty minimal personal cash outlay — about $40. This was a small enough amount of money that I decided I was willing to take the gamble. The Instant Pot arrived, and I was astonished by the size of it. I knew it would be big — I got an 8 quart pot — but Jesus, this thing is ludicrously huge. Dauntingly so. And it has so many buttons. “What the fuck have I gotten into?” I asked myself as I unpacked it. I pulled the pot and its accessories from the packaging, and then settled the packaging back into its shipping box. Roger the cat immediately leapt up onto the box and claimed it as his New Place. “Okay then,” I thought, “I guess we’ll be keeping the Instant Pot.”

It took me ten minutes to figure out how to reconfigure every single item in my one big kitchen cabinet to store this thing. That’s not so bad. My husband was impressed. But the question remained: What would we cook in it? I had no idea. I was, to be quite honest, rather intimidated by the idea of actually plugging the thing in and turning it on. It wasn’t that I was afraid of exploding food — I am given to understand that this cannot happen with an Instant Pot. It’s more than I am terrified of putting expensive ingredients into it, turning it on, and then cooking everything only to discover that I’ve got slop that no one wants to eat.

We had the Instant Pot in the house for a week before anyone plugged it in. I’ll come clean: it was my husband who used it first. I was content to look at Roger the cat curling up on the top of the Instant Pot Shipping Box, next to the kitchen table. That was totally worth $40 and an Amazon gift card. “Let’s fire this sucker up,” my husband said. “Let’s make baked beans.”

He made baked beans.

They were ok. I mean, they were acceptable; they were cooked correctly; but I don’t think any of us were entirely satisfied with how he’d seasoned them, so the baked beans, while technically correct, couldn’t really be construed as a culinary success. Still, it was clear that this device had potential in our household.

I made barbecued chicken in it on hot summer evening. This is the kind of dish I like to make in the oven, and which, done properly, takes several hours of low heat: just the kind of thing an Instant Pot should be good for. The chicken came out quite well, and we were all pleased. “It would be good if I understood how to do the rice in this thing at the same time as the chicken,” I said. “Apparently you can cook a pot of rice in here, separate from the entree, at the same time, I just don’t understand the logistics of it.” “Don’t push it yet,” my husband advised. “Let’s get the hang of using it for simple things first.”

I made Cincinnati chili in it. That went swimmingly. And this past week, I made my Bolognese sauce in it, and it was almost, almost, as good as the transcendent, majestic kind I make in the Dutch oven. However, transcendent Bolognese takes four to five hours to cook in the oven. This sauce took about 30 minutes to assemble and cook (this includes the prep and sauté process for the aromatics; the actual full-sauce-all-ingredients cooking time was fifteen minutes).

With autumn cooking and then winter cooking coming up, it’s pretty easy to see that there will be times when this huge object is quite useful indeed. It will loosen up my cooking schedule in some ways; I think it’ll allow me to get away with a certain kind of sloppiness.

There’s one thing about the IP that has been nagging at me, and I think I’ve figured out how to get around it. The problem is this: because it’s a closed system (the lid clicks on super-tight, for obvious reasons — I mean, it’s a pressure cooker, the lid had better fucking be on tight!), it’s not immediately obvious how you’re supposed to cook a liquid down. For example:  When I make bolognese, or Cincinnati chili, I add the amount of liquid necessary, but if I feel the “finished” product is actually too liquid, too runny, I’m in the habit of continuing the simmering with the lid ajar, so as to allow for evaporation. Any idiot would do this, it’s not rocket science. But, I was thinking, How the hell do you achieve this end with an Instant Pot? It tells you in no uncertain terms that you’ve got to keep the lid on during slow cooking and pressure cooking.

The answer, it now comes to me, is to revert to the sauté function on the pot once all the formal cooking is done. If you treat the sauté button as a “simmer with the lid ajar” button, and maybe jerry-rig a lid or just keep a close eye on things, you could let the sauce or stew or whathaveyou cook off the extra liquid without hurting anything.

Perhaps someone who read manuals more carefully would already have gleaned this because the manual tells us about this. To be honest, I have no idea. I put the manual on the shelf in the kitchen where I keep manuals and haven’t looked at it since. However, it matters not: having made the cognitive leap, I know I can put this plan into action and achieve the correct consistency for my next Bolognese or Cincinnati chili. Both of which I expect to be making in the coming weeks.

My take on the Instant Pot right now is that with our current lifestyle, it was a bit of a splurge and the space investment is not trivial, and occasionally frustrating. However: if I were someone who worked very long hours outside the house, or — this is key — if I were someone who lived in an apartment with a really crappy oven, or no oven at all — the Instant Pot would be a really marvelous thing to have. My husband and I have envisioned a life, already, in which we had no big kitchen, and kept only two appliances for cooking food: the rice cooker and the Instant Pot. And, seriously, if we could figure out how to cook the entree and the rice in the IP at the same time, we wouldn’t need the rice cooker. We’re clearly envisioning a living situation not unlike a dorm room — but, a dorm room that has a decent countertop, a full-size refrigerator and freezer, and a good kitchen sink.

Except: can I cook pasta in an Instant Pot?

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