Learning the ins and outs of multi-cookers

Brenda Aufdenkamp, a University of Nebraska Extension educator, releases the steam from a multi-cooker electronic pressure cooker on Tuesday. Releasing the steam is an important step in cooking food with the device. She’ll teach another such class Feb. 2 at the West Central Research and Extension Center from 10:30 a.m. until noon.

Instant Pots take time.

The brand name has become synonymous with a variety of electronic, programmable pressure cookers — each with their own safety features that are billed to cook foods anywhere from 2 to 10 times faster than standard cook times.

But Instant Pots take time, emphasized Brenda Aufdenkamp, a food, nutrition and health educator at the West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, where she hosted a class about the devices Tuesday evening.

They take time building up the pressure to cook your dish. They take time to clean. And, as she told one student just wondering which of the many buttons to use for which meal, they take time to play with, learn and get to know.

Instant Pots, or multi-cookers, as Aufdenkamp called them, can work as a pressure cooker, a rice cooker and a yogurt maker. They can saute or brown your meat. They can steam your vegetables — and all this can be done faster than your standard cook time. You don’t even have to thaw your frozen meat or soak your beans when you begin making your meal.

Or, if you want, you can use your multi-cooker as a traditional slow cooker.

Still, you should read the manual and know what each button does, and the standard time each takes, Aufdenkamp, who showed many multi-cooker models in her class, said.

The multi-cooker’s steam factor means it requires plenty of water — one cup at a minimum, and that could increase by recipe. For safety, you shouldn’t fill the pot more than half-full, she said. You should also be aware of foods that can expand — such as cranberries. Pressure-cookers shouldn’t be filled more than ª full, and foods that will expand during cooking shouldn’t fill more than half of the pot, Aufdenkamp said.

While some settings are automatic — one device’s saute setting is automatically 30 minutes — you can override this in your kitchen, Aufdenkamp said. For example, 5-6 pounds of roast will require longer to cook than a lesser amount of meat that might be programmed into the presets.

Aufdenkamp said that as you go, you learn which settings you like using the most.

Throughout the class, she repeated a mantra: “It’s not an exact science.” That goes not only for the method of cooking, but the ingredients in recipes, too.

Aufdenkamp used chicken broth as a substitute for the water in Tuesday’s demonstrations. This has more vitamins and minerals than plain water, she said. In a shrimp and rice recipe, she used Jasmine rice, which she said gave an “added nutty flavor” that you don’t find in white or brown rice.

When one recipe doesn’t work out, “dump it out, give yourself a couple of days to recover and then try again,” she said.

“I’m not an exact cook,” she said. “And this pressure cooker, I’ll tell you, is not either.”

When cooking the meal, it takes 10-15 minutes to build up the pressure before the advertised 10-15 minutes of cook time.

“So these 10-15 minute meals they’re touting maybe aren’t 10-15 minutes,” Aufdenkamp said.

When the meal is done, you also must release the steam that’s built up before opening your device, to prevent, well, your cranberries literally blowing your face off. One device in Aufdenkamp’s class took about a full minute to release all of its steam before the lid was ready to open.

While some national headlines have told tales of exploding multi-cooker accidents, neither the North Platte Fire Department nor Great Plains Health reported local pressure-cooker related injuries.

But even with updated devices that stay locked until it’s steam is fully released, there are still safety measures you should take. Don’t throw a towel over an multi-cooker if the steam is bothering you — you’re just creating an enclosed space for steam to build up, Aufdenkamp said.

Instead, if steam is bothering you, “get it out into the open.” she said.

Make sure you take out the device’s valve when not using it.

Be aware that the device’s rings, found in the bottom of the pot, can take on smells. Many people have one ring for sweet dishes, and another for savory, Aufdenkamp said. After cleaning each of the dish’s parts, make sure each pot is re-installed correctly. Use non-abrasive scouring cleanser that’s made for cooking pots, or soak a cup of white vinegar in the inner pot, let it soak and pour it out to rinse, Aufdenkamp said.

Sanitize each part of the device — the rings, seals, pot and lid — after cooking with allergens such as nuts.

When converting a dish from the slow-cooker to the multi-cooker, Aufdenkamp gave these guidelines: A meat dish cooks an average of 8 hours on low, and 4 hours on high in a slow cooker. In a multi-cooker, it cooks 25-30 minutes. For these recipes, you want to set your cooker to “sealing” and not “venting,” so you know the meal is cooked properly.

Foods like dry beans and grains can be cooked without soaking, but should still be rinsed well first.

Like every meal Aufdenkamp demonstrated or discussed, the key is to “use enough water, but not too much,” she said.

Other tips she shared included that dairy should be added to meals after cooking to prevent curdling and to store the pot with the lid up, not latched.

And before starting on your next multi-cooker adventure, always read through a recipe twice.

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