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How to use an Instant Pot or modern pressure cooker

Instant Pots can help you save time once you know how they work. This guide will help you overcome the learning curve.
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Written by Cynthia Bowman, Contributing Writer on

The Instant Pot has become the latest kitchen must-have. You'll likely find a variety of sizes and styles that can do everything from steam, roast and even air fry. Most Instant Pot or multi-cooker users swear by the ease and speed at which recipes cook. However, there are just as many stories of fails as there are successes. The key is to understand how the Instant Pot works. 

Also: Best Instant Pots and multi-cookers

This guide will walk you through what you need to know about your new Instant Pot and how to use it to create healthy, delicious dishes.

What is an Instant Pot?


An Instant Pot is basically an electric pressure cooker. Pressure cooking has waned in popularity over time due to safety concerns. Instant Pots today are much safer than the stovetop pressure cooker with the loud, spinning pressure regulator. Difficult foods that take hours to tenderize, such as certain meat cuts or dried beans that need soaking, can be cooked under pressure in as little as 20 minutes. A pressure cooker (or Instant Pot ) traps steam that's released during the cooking process. The steam is pushed back into the food for moist and tender results as the pot builds pressure.

Instant Pots do more than pressure cook foods. Most models also sauté, steam and keep foods warm. Some even come with extra attachments that make it possible to roast or air fry foods.

What can you cook in an Instant Pot?

You'd be amazed at what you can cook in an Instant Pot with a little creativity. Most people will use the Instant Pot to make chili or stew. That's just the beginning. Instant Pot cooking can be healthier since you don't use much oil. You can steam rice, cook a whole chicken, boil eggs, sauté vegetables, make spaghetti and cook nearly anything you can think of. The best part is that cooking in an Instant Pot means faster cooking times and far less mess. Most recipes are ready in 30 minutes or less and make cleanup easier.

How to use an Instant Pot

Always read the directions first to familiarize yourself with your Instant Pot's parts and how it works. Here's more on what you need to know.

Safety

An Instant Pot will build pressure as it cooks. The locking lid keeps the steam safely in the pot. However, there is a pressure release valve on the lid that you should know about. There are times you may need to push it to release the pot's steam. Never place your face or hand near it, or you can scald yourself. If you need to release pressure, use a long-handled utensil such as a wooden spatula to release the steam from a safe distance or use an oven mitt to vent the pot. 

Before you open the Instant Pot, be sure you've released enough steam first. You'll know when it's safe to open the pot because the float valve pin near the pressure release valve will be depressed or dropped down.

Inner pot

You'll find that the Instant Pot consists of the base unit itself with a built-in heating element and a removable, stainless steel inner pot that sits inside to hold your food. Most Instant Pot users will make the mistake of dropping food into the pot without the inner pot inserted at least once. It creates a giant mess all over the heating element, which will need to be cleaned up before using. Get into the habit of placing the inner pot back into the appliance as soon as you clean it to avoid this problem.

Timing

When following Instant Pot recipes, keep in mind that actual cook times don't typically account for the length of time your Instant Pot needs to heat up and achieve pressure. If you need to pressure cook something for 25 minutes, the time shouldn't start until enough pressure builds, typically taking about 10 minutes. Get to know your Instant Pot to understand actual cook times. To allow the Instant Pot to heat up properly, you may need to adjust the 25-minute cook time to 35 minutes.

Liquid

Your Instant Pot will need some liquid to cook properly, or it may stop the cooking process if the bottom of the stainless pot starts to heat up or burn excessively. Plan on adding at least half a cup of liquid such as water or broth to your recipe to ensure the Instant Pot can cook the ingredients properly.

Natural vs. quick-release venting

For most recipes, you can usually vent the pot manually to release the lid faster. Known as the quick release method, all you need to do is push at the pressure release valve to allow the trapped steam to escape so the floating pin can drop and the lid can be opened faster. 

However, manually venting some foods -- mainly meats -- can cause them to get dry. It's best to naturally vent meats or other foods that tend to dry out. To naturally vent a recipe, simply leave the pot untouched and let it slowly release its pressure. It will take longer this way than if you choose to release the pressure quickly, but letting the pot sit and vent naturally will ensure that the foods inside the pot reabsorb moisture.

Cleaning

To clean the Instant Pot, you'll typically need to focus on the removable inner pot, lid and other accessories such as the mesh-basket insert. Soapy water is usually all you need to clean your Instant Pot's parts. The base unit itself doesn't usually need much cleaning besides a quick wipe. 

Once you clean the components, be sure to put the inner pot back into the base unit as soon as it's dry. Inspect the rest of the Instant Pot carefully. Something you should look out for is the rubber ring inside the lid, which can be removed for gentle cleaning. Make sure it doesn't feel brittle, and it's free from cracks. Always confirm the ring is in place before cooking -- the ring is crucial to pressure cooking, trapping the steam inside the pot.

What's the difference between an Instant Pot and slow cooker?

An Instant Pot is meant to pressure cook foods quickly. Most recipes can be cooked in half the time (or less) than they traditionally need. On the other hand, a slow cooker is meant to simmer or cook foods over several hours.

What size Instant Pot should I buy?

The size of the Instant Pot you need depends on how many servings you plan on making. If you usually prepare food for two people or fewer, a smaller, four-quart size may be all you need. However, a six-quart Instant Pot is a good size because it can fit a whole chicken or make enough stew or chilly to share. For families of four or more, an eight-quart instant pot (or larger) is the best option.

How do you quick release an Instant Pot?

To manually release the Instant Pot's pressure to open the lid, simply push the pressure release knob at the top of the lid from sealed to venting and wait until all the steam escapes. To reduce the risk of burning yourself, use a spatula or oven mitt to release the knob.

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