Food & dining

It may be an Instant Pot, but mastery of it is not

It’s a slow cooker! It’s a rice cooker! It’s a pressure cooker! It’s the Instant Pot, the season’s hottest kitchen gadget. This compact, multifunctional appliance steams, warms, sautés, and saves counter space — but it just might lead you to order takeout in a fit of annoyance.

The product was developed in Canada in 2009, but it’s gained steam lately (no pun intended). To date, there are 730,000 members of an Instant Pot Facebook community, where fans swap recipes and ask questions about steam-cleaning utensils and making homemade ketchup, all in a judgment-free zone. In fact, several Instant Pot cookbooks have hit the shelves in recent months, capitalizing on the popularity just in time for holiday gift-giving.

“I started to see it pop up; all of a sudden you see something once, and you see it everywhere,” said Deb Brody, editor in chief at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who spearheaded the new “Instant Pot Miracle” cookbook, which is authorized by the Instant Pot company. “It allows you to get rid of a lot of other gadgets. Rice cooker, slow cooker, pressure cooker — you only need one,” she said.

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Dutiful reporter that I am (and seriously lacking counter space myself), I tried three recipes from two new cookbooks, “Instant Pot Miracle” and “How to Instant Pot: Mastering All the Functions of the One Pot That Will Change the Way You Cook” to determine the gadget’s life-changing capabilities.

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Some people love it, especially because of the electric pressure cooking feature.

“I can get dinner on the table in a half-hour, and my meat tastes like it’s been slow-cooking for days,” one aficionado told me.

This is Instant Pot’s calling card. Essentially, as Canadian author Daniel Shumski explains in “How to Instant Pot,” a pressure cooker is “just a pot with a very tight lid.” When the liquid inside the pot heats up, steam is trapped — spiking the pressure and temperature within. A valve atop the Instant Pot’s lid slowly releases steam when food is cooked.

“You can throw a hunk of meat in there, and you’ll get something like you slow cooked it for six hours or roasted it in the oven. That’s the star feature,” Shumski told me.

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But yank off the pot too early, and you might be faced with a pressure-induced explosion. (More on that later.) Still, this shouldn’t happen, making it safer than stovetop pressure-cookers with dials from days of yore. There is no guesswork.

“The lid is very well-sealed and won’t let you open it unless the pressure is low enough to be safe. A lot of families have stories about food that ended up on the ceiling. This is not your grandmother’s pressure cooker,” Shumski said.

Safety aside, others can’t abide the thing.

“There’s nothing instant about it,” was the gist of one complaint.

“The interface is seriously confusing,” another detractor confided.

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This is true: My Instant Pot has settings for Porridge (really?) and Cake, yet there is no Pressure Cook button, despite it being the “star feature.” Instead, the correct button on my version is Manual. (Note to potential buyers: Do not embark on your Instant Pot experience expecting a full dinner prepared in under 30 minutes in your first go-round for two hungry children. Please read the fine print.)

Though it’s OK to improvise, the Instant Pot isn’t a Miracle Pot. You can’t just throw food inside willy-nilly and expect a gourmet meal.

Shumski has heard all the gripes: too many weird buttons, doesn’t heat quickly enough, too many instructions.

“I had friends who ordered it and heard how great it was and then left it in the box. This is why I thought, ‘This is ripe for someone to lay out, step by step,’ ” Shumski said.

For a maiden foray, I made something almost foolproof: eggs. For this recipe, I chose Shumski’s hardboiled eggs recipe. Easy. I’d hardboiled eggs dozens of times.

But none quite like these.

I gingerly placed my eggs on the Instant Pot steaming tray, filled the pot with the appropriate amount of water, and locked the lid. The recipe said to press Manual. Confusingly, my Instant Pot also has an Egg setting. Surely that was correct. I pressed and waited the suggested five minutes.

I retrieved the eggs, only to find them ice cold and impossible to peel. Maybe this was some kind of secret Instant Pot amenity? No need to ice the eggs after cooking? I clawed at the shell like a desperate animal for a moment until concluding that they were just completely uncooked. I returned them to the Instant Pot and followed the recipe exactly, taking no liberties with tempting buttons. This time, it worked.

The next day, I told Shumski how I’d erred. He sympathized.

“I do understand the temptation to just press the ‘Egg’ button. I tried to be careful about telling people which button to press and when. There are too many buttons on this thing, and it can be confusing,” he said.

In fact, Instant Pot intimidation even happens to professional cookbook authors — which is what led him to write the book.

“I got my Instant Pot two years ago, and I was really excited, but I took it out of the box, and I thought, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ There is nothing about looking at it that seems intuitive. And Porridge! Why devote 10 or 20 percent of the interface to a Porridge button? There are some interface challenges,” he said.

Maybe meats would be safer. I tried to make dinner for my family using a chicken cacciatore recipe from “Instant Pot Miracle.”

Waterbury Publications
Chicken cacciatore

It was not a miracle, not in my novice hands. It was stressful.

First, I tried to brown the chicken, but it took a very long time for the pot to heat up. Plus, the surface area of the pot is small — difficult for browning, though I made do. Just as I was lamenting the cozy cooking surface, the pot heated up in a hurry. The oil began splattering into the air, splashing my ceiling like an ancient popcorn maker. How could I brown the chicken without burning off my face?

I called an Instant Pot-loving friend in a panic.

“You don’t use the Instant Pot to sauté,” he confided. “You can just do that on your stovetop. It’s way easier.”

Apparently the first rule of Instant Potting is that you don’t use it for everything, despite its many functions.

After the oil stopped sputtering, I cautiously removed the chicken and browned it on my stove top in five minutes.

Next, the recipe specified Poultry to cook. Just one problem: My Instant Pot doesn’t have a Poultry option, despite having Cake, Multigrain, and Porridge settings. I chose the most logical button, Meat/Stew, and hoped for the best. Then I spent the rest of the meal wondering if the chicken was, in fact, thoroughly cooked — or if I’d poison somebody.

Everyone was alive the next day, but the leftovers went uneaten. I don’t blame my family. The chicken was OK, but the tomato sauce was watery.

When you’re cooking on a stovetop — or baking, or using a slow cooker — it’s easy to monitor how things are going. You can stir, season, adjust, peek into the oven. Not so with the Instant Pot. Once this baby is sealed, it’s locked. Walk away, or else: You do not want to lift off the Instant Pot lid prematurely, so as to avoid a pressure-induced disaster. Instead, you turn a valve to gently release the pressure, releasing a slow waft of steam (great for the pores, but not ideal if you’re in a rush). What happens inside the Instant Pot stays inside the Instant Pot.

Because I was afraid to lift the lid, I didn’t tend the sauce at all. It’s a common rookie mistake, said Melissa Clark, a New York Times food columnist and author of the new “Dinner in an Instant: 75 Modern Recipes for Your Pressure Cooker, Multicooker + Instant Pot.”

“That’s the learning curve right there!” Clark told me when I disclosed my mishap. “The watery thing is a normal part of cooking, but you need to account for that and warn people that it might [happen]. Moisture content is tricky,” she said.

For next time, she recommended that I adjust the setting to sauté when done, which will reduce the moisture level by simmering the mixture down to thicken it.

But though it’s OK to improvise, the Instant Pot isn’t a Miracle Pot. You can’t just throw food inside willy-nilly and expect a gourmet meal. If you want to prepare delicate fish, for instance, this isn’t the pot for you.

“Things happen so quickly, you could overcook it,” said Shumski. “The Instant Pot is capable of all kinds of things, but it’s not for everything.”

But it is great for meat. “The pressure itself is good at breaking down those tendons in meat that can make it tough. What you get out of the pressure cooker will not be tough,” Shumski promised. As such, he suggested trying his beef barbacoa recipe with garlic and cloves for redemption.

Armed with more confidence — and, full disclosure, a husband willing to participate this time — we successfully made beef tacos. He used the pot to sauté the meat, and again, he thought the surface was too small. Other than that, though, we ended up with very edible (enjoyable, in fact) tacos that tasted like they’d been slow cooked.

So will the Instant Pot enter into regular rotation? Maybe, if I can get over gadget intimidation.

“You need to trust yourself more than a recipe,” Clark assured me.

Her point is well-taken. But there’s something satisfying about stirring a sauce, or lifting up a Crock-Pot lid to inhale chili, that you just can’t get from a locked Instant Pot. On the other hand, how often do I hover over a stove, stirring sauce or inhaling aromatic soups? Not much. If the Instant Pot begins to feel a bit more instant for me, I just might use it again. After I clean my ceiling.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com.