Book Review: Pressure Cooking Perfection

I’ve been waiting for this book for ten years. I’m a loyal Cook’s Illustrated subscriber, and I bought my first pressure cooker in 2003, based on their review. Cook’s trickled out a pressure cooker recipes over the years, but not that many. I wanted to see what Cook’s ultra-analytical style would bring to pressure cooking.

But that title – perfection? That’s a strong claim. I know it was probably the editor, unable to resist the alliterative P in the title. But still. And then the introduction made me sit up:

In the many months of testing, we did come across an interesting fact. Almost all the times listed for basic pressure cooker recipes (vegetables, grains, etc.) were incorrect. We spent weeks testing the basics, getting the timing right, and we have included reliable charts so that you can use the pressure cooker as a useful cooking tool day in and day out.

Was this it? The book I’ve been waiting for?

Um…no.

Now that I have it in my hands, I’m disappointed. I believe them when they said they took months to test all the recipes. It’s what they do. But…

The Good, The Bad, and The Weird. A three part review of Pressure Cooking Perfection.

The Bad: Confusing the pressure indicator with high pressure.

The Fagor Duo is their best buy pressure cooker. It is on the cover, and in all the pictures in the book. (They have a different “best” cooker, but you never see it other than in their equipment review section.) I owned a Duo for years, and it’s a great cooker; I passed it on to a friend, and she’s still using it.

My trusty Fagor Duo 10 quart pressure cooker

But the Duo doesn’t work the way the book says.

From Pressure Cooking Perfection:

Some pots have a knob that you turn to low or high (called 1 or I and 2 or II on some pots), which allows you to indicate your target pressure level before you start to bring the pot up to pressure. The pressure indicator will rise when that pressure level has been reached. [Emphasis mine]

and

Once the lid is in place, heat the pot over medium-high heat until the pressure indicator signifies that you have reached the desired pressure level. On some pressure cookers, you have a knob that allows you to select high or low pressure and you simply wait for the pressure indicator to signify your chosen pressure level has been reached [Emphasis mine]. On other pots, the pressure indicator will have markings for low and high pressure that you have to watch for.

For comparison, here’s what the Fagor manual says about coming up to pressure:

When the pressure indicator has risen and steam starts to come out of the operating valve for first time [Emphasis mine], lower the heat to maintain a gentle, steady stream of steam. At this moment, the COOKING TIME STARTS and you have to start timing you [sic] recipe.

See the difference? Pressure Cooking Perfection is mistaking the pressure indicator for high pressure. The pressure indicator just means the cooker has some pressure, but it pops up as soon as the water in the pot is boiling. It means pressure is starting to build, not that high pressure is reached. The pot is at high pressure when it reaches 15 psi (roughly 1 bar), and there is enough pressure to push the spring in the pressure valve slightly open. The escaping steam tells you the pot is at high pressure. This is a big deal for any pot with a separate pressure indicator and pressure valve, like the Fagor Duo.

They do get it right with “other pots” – on some cookers, like my Kuhn Rikon, the pressure indicator doesn’t work like an on/off switch. It slowly rises, and the indicator has markings for low and high pressure.

Second red ring on the pressure indicator means high pressure.

Why am I so worried about this? Recipe timing is critical with pressure cooker recipes, because the lid locks once it comes up to pressure. (Which is what the pressure indicator actually shows – that the cooker is locked.) Once the lid locks, you have to trust the recipe’s timing.

The Fagor looks like the cooker they used, from all the pictures in the book. And they’re starting their timer before the pot is up to high pressure, according to Fagor’s own manual. Less than a dozen pages in, and I’m suspicious of all the timings in the book.

That quote from the introduction, about “incorrect times”? There’s a reason their times don’t match anyone else’s – and it’s not because everyone else is wrong.

And then? They make the same mistake with electric pressure cookers.

From the book:

There is a lag between the time the electric pots come up to pressure and when the timer starts, which led to overcooked food when preparing recipes with short cooking times.

Again – electric pots do know when they are at high pressure. They have sensors that detect when the pot has reached high pressure and start their timer. The book is making the same mistake, confusing the pressure indicator with reaching high pressure.

I went from thrilled to have the book to highly suspicious of their results…and I hadn’t reached the first recipe yet.

The Weird: Dried bean timings – so short they look like misprints

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get pressure cooker beans right. Most pressure cooker cookbooks underestimate bean cooking time. The dried bean chart was the first thing I checked – I hoped their thorough testing would lead to better bean cooking times.

Then I got the next curveball – the bean cooking times were short. Really, really short. According to their table, soaked pinto beans should cook for three minutes at high pressure, with a natural pressure release. Garbanzo beans and kidney beans? Five minutes.
And, after their pressure indicator issue, I assumed the timings would be extra long, not short.

Every other pressure cookbook says it should take ten to twelve minutes to cook soaked beans at high pressure. (Including the manuals that came with the cookers). My experience is it’s more like fifteen minutes. Maybe twenty with a batch of older beans.

Why the different times? Pressure Cooking Perfection calls for 4 quarts (16 cups) of water to cook 1 pound of beans. Other pressure cooking cookbooks (and the manuals that came with my pressure cookers) call for 6 to 8 cups of water. That’s a whole lot of extra water. Maybe they figured out how to deal with older beans, and had better results with more water?

I tested this technique with pinto beans (because I had a big bag in the pantry). I followed their soaking instructions: dissolve 2 tablespoons of salt in 4 quarts of water, then soak one pound of beans overnight. I cooked the beans at high pressure for 3 minutes, let the pressure release naturally for 15 minutes, then quick released the rest.

That’s when I figured out why they only cooked for 3 minutes under pressure. It takes forever to get 16 cups of water to boil. I did an old way/new way test. The book’s technique (4 quarts of water/1 pound of beans/3 minutes high pressure) took longer than the the traditional technique (2 quarts of water/1 pound of beans/10 minutes under high pressure). Total cooking time was seven minutes longer for the Pressure Cooking Perfection technique, even with the shorter time under pressure.

And the beans? I have to admit – I went into the test with bias in my heart. I was sure three minutes under pressure wouldn’t cook the beans. But, much to my surprise, the beans turned out OK.

I had some tough floaters, like I always do when I buy a bag of beans from my grocery store. The rest of the beans were cooked properly. Maybe a little on the underdone side, but not bad.

But, the beans tasted watery; the bean cooking liquid was diluted by all the extra water. The “old way” beans tasted better.
Both batches of beans were brined and drained; the only difference was the amount of water used to cook them.

The other problem with this technique: too much water for a smaller cooker. 1 pound (2 1/2 cups) of beans plus 4 quarts of water takes a 6 quart pressure cooker over the “max fill” line – you can only use their technique with a 8 quart or larger cooker.

So, beans were inconclusive – much to my surprise, their method worked. But it seemed like change for change’s sake; it didn’t actually improve the beans.

Note: I emailed America’s Test Kitchen, asking if the bean timings were misprints. They never responded. The rest of the book’s timing charts, for meat and vegetables, look reasonable. A little on the long side, but that’s what I expected with the pressure indicator issue.

[Update 2013-04-09: An editor from Cooks Illustrated contacted me, and forwarded my question on to the book department. Stay tuned for what they have to say.]

The Good: Finally, the recipes

By this point, I was prepared for disappointment. Then the book surprised me again. But this time, it was a good surprise.

The book is full of solid recipes. The timings all look good – maybe a little on the long side, but not completely out of range with my own findings.

The following recipes went on my “must make for dinner” list:

  • Farmhouse Chicken Noodle Soup (using a whole chicken in the pot)
  • Sirloin Beef Roast with Mushrooms
  • Chickpea and Artichoke Tagine
  • Macaroni and Cheese

The pressure cooker pasta technique is a winner. They suggest cooking pasta like risotto, with just enough water to cook the noodles. This makes Macaroni and Cheese a one pot meal – no separate boiling step, just stir in the milk and cheese once the noodles are cooked.
My version of their recipe for Mac and Cheese is coming Thursday.

Luckily, recipes with dried beans ignore the bean timing chart and the massive amounts of water. Chickpea Tagine cooks for 25 minutes at high pressure, not the 5 minutes suggested in the chart. Cuban black beans also take 25 minutes under pressure, with a natural pressure release, and some extra simmering at the end.

All the recipes I’ve tried have worked well. I think their testing time was spent working on the recipes, and it shows.

So, what does it all mean?

I wanted to love this cookbook, I really did. But I was disappointed. I have a lot of respect for Cooks Illustrated; they taught me a lot of what I know about cooking. This book doesn’t live up to their standards.

If you’re new to pressure cooking, don’t start with this book – you need a better basic reference. Get either Lorna Sass or Miss Vickie for your first pressure cooking book. This one is good for later, once you know how to use your pressure cooker, and need some new recipe ideas.

Recommended with Reservations.

*FCC Disclosure – I did not receive any compensation for this post, and purchased Pressure Cooking Perfection with my own money. If you buy a copy through my Amazon links, or anything else for that matter, I get a small sales commission. Thank you!

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12 Comments

  1. Good review. Saw the Mac and Cheese recipe on another blog and it looked pretty tasty. Almost picked up the book when I saw it at Costco but wasn’t planning on buying anything else and the checkout lines were ridiculous. Looking forward to seeing your recipe adaptations!

  2. Jill, The Veggie Queen /

    Thanks for the review. I have not seen the book and as an author of a pressure cooking cookbook I have wanted to.

    Interesting about the amount of water and bean cooking. I tend to add less water and do not salt brine my beans. My pinto, black, white or red beans often take about 6 minutes at pressure with 1/2 to 1 cup water per 1 cup dry beans that have been soaked.

    As you know, a lot of the timing depends upon the beans.

    My book is The New Fast Food: The Veggie Queen Pressure Cooks Whole Food Meals in Less than 30 Minutes. I would love to get a copy to you if you want to see it.

    BTW, I just met Chef Maxime Bilet who was involved with Modernist Cuisine (original and at home) and he is a huge pressure cooker fan. Great to have him in the PC arena.

  3. My copy should be arriving tomorrow. I’ll test recipes with you!

  4. Matt Hanson /

    Thanks for pointing out the difference with how the high pressure is indicated. I got this book and my Fagor Duo 10 quart around the same time, and I was making the same mistake as the book’s authors. I’m looking forward to trying your refried beans recipe under actual high pressure.

  5. You’re welcome, Matt, glad I could help. Enjoy the refried beans!

  6. I love your blog and have used more than a few of your recipes without commenting. I guess I’m a stalker. Anyway, I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the book “Pressure Cooker Perfection”. It’s a disaster for Cook’s Illustrated. I made the Sirloin Beef Roast with Mushroom Sauce for guests…what an embarrassment. We ended up going out for dinner while I licked my wounds. I guess I should mention that I bought my first PC in 1982 and now own four (about to be 5!). I know how to use a pressure cooker.

    My acid test was on the following page of their cookbook: “Corned Beef and Cabbage”. They recommend cutting the vegetables smaller than I usually do but they also recommend cooking them for TWICE the time that I do! And we’re the kind of people that like vegetables “well done”. Baby food, anyone? I just finished writing them and recommended that they recall the book. It’s really that bad.

    As an aside, I would like to recommend my favorite pressure cooker author: Toula Patsalis. I have all of her books, but my favorite is her original “Joy of Pressure Cooking”. Out of print, but available used on Amazon. Her newer books seem to be revised and reduced editions of the original, and also seem to “update” certain things (like replacing potato starch with corn starch, which I feel is a mistake). Anyway, try her bouillabaisse or Fennel with Parmesan Cheese recipes to enjoy pressure cooker perfection as it was meant to be.

    Many thanks for a blog I’ve referred to often.

    Patrick M. Mitchell

  7. Patrick,

    Thank you for the Toula Patsalis suggestion – I’ll check her cookbooks out!

  8. foodie7 /

    Thanks for your careful review of Pressure Cooker Perfection, Mike. Many seem to have the same concerns you do. I see that Jill Nussinow, the Veggie Queen has added a comment and offered to send you a copy of her book The New Fast Food: The Veggie Queen Pressure Cooks Whole Food Meals in Less than 30 Minutes. I encourage you to accept her offer. Her book is excellent and if anyone knows beans, it’s Jill Nussinow. Since she’s a vegan, you won’t find meat recipes in her book, but the recipes that are there are wonderful. I’ve yet to make one that hasn’t been delicious. I think her book is also an excellent reference for beginning as well as experienced pressure cooker cooks.

    I hope you hear from Cook’s Illustrated’s editors but alas I will be surprised. They don’t seem to be very responsive to reader concerns and questions. However I’ll be watching for any update you post.

  9. Jim Ambrose /

    I bought the book before your review and your review helps alot.

    Thanks Jim

  10. Jill, The Veggie Queen /

    Thank you so much for this comment on my book. I also hope that Mike will take me up on my offer. I love to spread pressure cooking love and want everyone to want to use one to cook tasty, fast food.

    Luckily there are people like Mike and Patrick and you who understand the value of using a pressure cooker.

    The offer still stands Mike. Just let me know.

  11. againstthegrain /

    I bought the ATK/CI Pressure Cooker Perfection book when I saw it at Costco, and it tipped me over the fence on whether to buy a pressure cooker or not (I’d been mulling the decision for a couple years). However, I didn’t buy any of their tested PCs; I bought the newest model from Instant Pot DUO 7-in-1 , because the only person I knew with a modern pressure cooker used the previous Instant Pot model (LUX) and raved about it, plus the DUO has a 2 stage yogurt program.

    PCP was my first PC cookbook (besides the small booklet that came with the Instant Pot), and yes, it was a huge disappointment. I really wish I had read some reviews before I bought it. I’ve collected about a dozen other PC cookbooks in the 7 months since my Instant Pot arrived, and while I definitely prefer some books over others, I’ve barely glanced at the ATK/CI PCP in the past 6 months. The only cookbook I regret buying more than PCP is a Bob Warden book because nearly every recipe uses mostly high processed packaged “ingredient” items like sauces & canned foods.

    ATK/CI clearly don’t like electric pressure cookers very much, either, possibly because they didn’t test very many (it’s really too bad they didn’t review an Instant Pot LUX or DUO model, which come with a substantial stove-top capable tri-ply bottomed high quality s/s liner pot instead of the non-stick coated thin aluminum pots standard on most other electric PCs – the overall finish and component quality of the IP models is head and shoulders above other ePCs I’ve seen). I quickly learned to ignore the specific timing and release instructions for ePCs because they always yielded poor results.

    Additionally, the collection of recipes in the book is really limited – primarily main dishes with a few starchy side dishes tossed in as an afterthought. Where are the cheesecake, custard, and non-starchy vegetable side dish recipes? How about egg recipes and cooking techniques? No mention of how easy to peel even very new hard boiled eggs are when cooked under pressure. Any food typically cooked in a bain marie/water bath in the oven will cook really well in a fraction of the time in a pressure cooker, but from the recipes and techniques discussed in the book, ATK/CI doesn’t seem to know that.

    And not enough is mentioned about using other PC techniques – to steam-reheat leftovers, to cook items that need different cook times with the interrupted method, or cook several items at the same time with the pot-in-pot or “stacked” method. The book claims it will “change the way you cook”, but it was Miss Vickie’s Big Book and other PC cookbooks & PC blogs that truly showed me how to change the way I cook.

  12. Thank you! (Especially for the Bob Warden thoughts – I keep seeing that cookbook pop up, and I was curious about it. I’m glad I didn’t buy a copy yet…)

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