It's an article of faith among most foodies that quality and convenience are mutually opposing forces. Followers of this dogma defend the notion that "slow food" is better food, while "fast food," and its homemade equivalent, the "30-minute meal," remain gastronomic heresy.
This prejudice infects the world of kitchen equipment as well. The universe of virtuous, "slow" tools includes the stockpot and, for some, its technological kin, the thermal immersion circulator, a low-temperature water bath that cooks vacuum-sealed foods slowly (sous vide cooking). On the flip side of the culinary divide, the high-tech bêtes noires remain the microwave and its low-tech antecedent, the pressure cooker.
It's time, however, to reexamine our attitude toward convenience.
A new generation of chefs, such as Grant van Gameren of The Black Hoof in Toronto and Chicago's Grant Achatz of Alinea, one of a handful of Michelin three-star restaurants in North America, has already learned that, for some preparations, pressure cookers produce better results than conventional methods. That's why they employ them as essential tools in their kitchens.
Yes, faster is sometimes better.
Pressure cookers work by increasing the temperature at which water boils. At a pressure of 15 psi (that's pounds per square inch, the standard for these devices), water boils at 121 C. This increase reduces cooking times while amplifying flavour. (With zero psi, water boils at 100 C.)
After recently reading of the potential of pressure cookers in Modernist Cuisine, Nathan Myhrvold's encyclopedic examination of the processes, tools and techniques of the modern kitchen, Mr. van Gameren began experimenting with them, and he loves the results. "I'm getting quality stock in 35 minutes - better, clearer, with more flavour extracted than a 12-hour simmer," he says. His conversion has been quick, but chef van Gameren expects plenty of company on the road to Damascus: "I think it's going to start really making an impact [among]North American chefs as far as how they approach techniques that have been instilled in their brains for years."
At Alinea, Mr. Achatz uses this technique for stocks and many other unique preparations. "Cocoa nibs, coffee beans, black peppercorns - we're able to make them tender to the point where you can eat them," he explains, before adding that he also uses a pressure cooker to make meals with his sons on his days off. "It becomes very convenient, especially when you have two young kids and their attention span ... isn't infinite."
Home cooks have as much to gain as the professionals. I experimented with models from two renowned manufacturers, Kuhn Rikon and Fagor, and the chicken and beef stocks I made were easily the best I'd ever produced, but pressure cookers also excel under more conventional circumstances. Braised short ribs taste as if they've spent hours in a Dutch oven after a mere 45 minutes, while a 35-minute, moist, crack-free lemon, mascarpone and crème fraîche cheesecake - a dessert so quaint I was reluctant to make it for a dinner party of food critics - left everyone reaching for seconds. Risotto emerges al dente and creamy after five and a half minutes under pressure, no stirring necessary.
The best advice for prospective purchasers is to buy the largest 15 psi model you can afford - an 8-litre cooker may sound sufficient, but I found it only produced three to four litres of stock. Safety's not really a concern any more; modern pressure cookers have so many safety features that nasty accidents require serious negligence, not mere benign neglect.
The slow-food purist slaving over her low-and-slow ribs and the harried father who worships Rachael Ray and struggles to "get dinner on the table" have, ironically, one thing in common: a desire, subconscious or not, to view cooking as a burdensome responsibility. With a pressure cooker, at least, there's no need for either to sacrifice anything but the attitude.
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