Although vegetarianism has made great strides in the last couple of years, people still love their meat. The bad news is that getting your protein in this way can be pricey; in fact, meat is ridiculously expensive in terms of its actual nutritional value. Even if you don’t eat kobe steak costing $150/pound every day, a family of four can easily spend well over three grand a year on this part of their diet alone.
Economizing Under Pressure
Think back over the last couple of ads you saw for meat. Odds are that prestigious, deluxe cuts like leg of lamb, sirloin, and ribeye featured prominently. Now I have no personal beef (heh, heh) with any of these portions: they are all easy to prepare, impressive to serve, and, for the most part, pretty versatile.
Arguably, though, they’re still overpriced compared to the alternatives – otherwise, what’s all the marketing for? Historically, cuts like pork ribs and brisket were seen as inferior or even inedible, yet they’re wildly popular today. This clearly shows that fashion and taste aren’t always the same thing.
So, How Does a Pressure Cooker Work?
One of the reasons the invention of fire was such an important moment in human history is that cooked food is, generalizing a little, much better for you than raw. Boiling or roasting meat, in particular, not only kills any germs that have taken up residence, but makes it more nutritious and easier to digest.
Importantly for the modern palate, cooking meat also makes it much more tender (just try chewing on a slice of raw sirloin if you don’t believe me). However, the chemical processes involved in softening meat and improving its flavor do not proceed at the same rate.
Specifically, meat can be called cooked once its internal temperature reaches 50ºC (120ºF), but the more elastic and resilient connective tissue interspersed with the muscle only starts to get soft at around 70ºC (160ºF). To really get as much of the chewiness out as possible, it’s usually necessary to braise (i.e. cook slowly in a liquid) meat for two hours or more.
Naturally, this kind of thing doesn’t really suit most people’s schedule. There is a trick we can use to speed the process up, though, which relies on the fact that water doesn’t always boil at 100ºC or 212ºF:
The cooking temperature of a stew is obviously limited to the boiling point of water, but this isn’t as much of a constant as high school chemistry might have led you to believe.
Specifically, the higher you go above sea level, the thinner you’ll find the air (less pressure) and the cooler boiling water is. If you were to cook rice in the Himalayas, for instance, you’d have to be very patient. The water will boil more quickly, but it does so at a lower temperature, which means it will take more time for the rice to be ready.
There is a kind of tradeoff between temperature and time: by increasing the pressure and hence the temperature, food cooks much more quickly. It is important to realize, though, that this relationship between pressure and heat relies on liquid being present: if no steam is generated, it doesn’t work. You can, for instance, use your pressure cooker as a steamer, but trying to make a pot roast in one will probably mean ruining dinner and possibly triggering the smoke alarm.
The Difference Between Stovetop and Stand-Alone Pressure Cookers
Aside from the basic body, all pressure cookers typically have the following:
- A lid that locks in place.
- A gasket or seal to keep steam inside under pressure.
- A pin or gauge to indicate the pressure being generated.
- A steam release valve, used both to regulate the internal pressure and prevent hazardous over-pressure.
Both stovetop models and dedicated appliances that plug into wall sockets are available.
Perhaps the most important difference is that a pressure cooker which looks like any other kind of pot is a one-trick pony. This is certainly useful, but countertop models can often do much more. The same device may also function as a slow cooker, a sous-vide machine, rice cooker, and more. Buying one of these can actually save you a lot of money on appliances, as well as expanding your kitchen’s capabilities.
Electric models also allow much tighter control over your cooking. Most stovetop pressure cookers do allow you to set the maximum pressure (and therefore the highest temperature the food will reach), but only offer “High” and “Low” options.
Using digital control, an electric pressure cooker lets you set the temperature directly. This makes it much safer to leave alone, especially if it’s equipped with an automatic timer. The best electric pressure cookers can even be set to start cooking at a certain time, meaning that you can do 90% of the work involved in preparing dinner before you even leave the house for the day.
The downside to this is that countertop models cost more, take up more space and can’t always reach the same temperatures that gas grills or induction ranges make possible. This means that an electric pressure cooker will sometimes take a little longer to finish dinner, but the difference in time is usually marginal.
Making Your Pressure Cooker Work for You
A pressure cooker works great at speeding up the preparation time for all sorts of otherwise time-consuming dishes – tomato sauce, beans, preserves, and classic soups all come to mind. The feature that most carnivores will be interested in, however, is its ability to make even the toughest cuts of meat melt in your mouth.
While cooking under pressure is already a good start towards achieving this, there are also a number of other steps you can take to help your next stew achieve greatness:
1. Remove Connective Tissue
Clearly, some parts of a cow are beefier than others – nobody eats leather, and offal is kind of an acquired taste, while steak is supposed to be the most succulent meat. In fact, the main difference between the cuts we call “steak” and other meat is the amount of sinew and other connective tissue present – the more of this, the chewier and stringier the result will be, even with the benefit of slow cooking.
Most home cooks are a little wary when it comes to learning to butcher, but this is a very useful skill to have and often easier than you think. Just watching this video will already enhance the way you use cheaper cuts of meat. Also remember to always cut against the grain – if the muscle fibers are half as long, the meat will be twice as tender.
Acids, salt, and enzymes found in pineapple and papaya all help dissolve muscle fibers and connective tissue. Whipping up a marinade takes no time at all, while letting your meat lie in it overnight (or even for an hour) can have major benefits. Marinating can also be combined with using a jaccard machine, which tenderizes meat while also allowing marinade and heat to penetrate more easily.
3. Always Start from Room Temperature
Especially if searing your meat before tossing it into the pressure cooker, it’s really a good idea to allow it to warm up or even defrost gradually. Too rapid a change in temperature will cause the muscle fibers to shrink and harden, and it takes a great deal of cooking to reverse this effect.