5 Steps to Pressure Cooker Perfection: An Instant Pot Guide for Newbies

5 Steps to Instant Pot Perfection: A Guide for Newbies

Not sure where to start with your new pressure cooker / multicooker / magic cooking robot? Yes, you have to take it out of the box first. From there, follow these five steps to take you from packaging to (delicious, easy) pork.

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So you got a new Instant Pot. Now what? First — and stay with me here — you should probably take the Instant Pot out of the box. I mention this only because I know many people who stopped before this step, including a professional chef who admitted to me while I wrote "How to Instant Pot" that she could not make heads or tails of her new kitchen appliance.

But fear not. Besides writing a book on the machine, I’ve spoken to hundreds of people in Instant Pot seminars and I can confidently say: You got this. The Instant Pot will not defeat you. You will learn to master this pressure cooker/slow cooker/rice cooker/yogurt maker and you will come out the other end unscathed — and well fed.

Let’s talk pressure cookers.

An electric pressure cooker operates on the same principle as a stovetop pressure cooker: A sealed chamber allows the boiling point of water to increase, meaning food cooks in less time — sometimes a fraction of the time.

Yes, there is a learning curve. But with this article, we can make that curve more of a gentle slope. In the end, you’ll be so comfortable you’ll be clamoring for new recipes with the best of them.

Here are the five best ways for beginners to build confidence.

1. Learn The Parts

There are several models of the Instant Pot: each is a little different, but they do have many parts in common. Taking stock of what comes in the box and how it all fits together will help you figure out how to use the machine. You’re not trying to learn to assemble it with your eyes closed; it’s just a question of getting to know your new kitchen helper.

  • Sealing ring: This rubbery gasket fits around the inner portion of the Instant Pot’s lid and helps achieve the tight seal necessary to build pressure.
  • Inner pot: All the food and water goes in this stainless steel insert. Don’t put food into the other parts of the Instant Pot, where the electronics live.
  • Float valve: This little metal doohickey in the lid seals the pot when it reaches pressure. It also indicates when the lid may be opened: If it’s popped up and flush with the plastic of the cover, pressure has been reached and the lid cannot be opened. If it’s sunken into the lid, there is no pressure and the lid can be opened. (Though take care because the contents can still be hot and may give off steam, just like hot food on a stovetop.)
  • Steam release valve: This black plastic valve on the lid helps to regulate pressure inside the machine. It must be set to the "Sealing" position for pressure cooking; When slow cooking, the valve should be set to "Venting" to let steam escape. This valve often has a lot of “play” — it can feel oddly loose at first, but that’s part of what lets it do its job.
  • Condensation collector: This translucent plastic piece fits in a slot on the side of the machine just under the lid and collects moisture during slow cooking. (In pressure cooking, the moisture is trapped in the machine.)
  • The control panel: The bottom line is that you are not going to need most of these buttons. You can pretend they don’t exist. That’s a relief, right?

2. Do The Water Test

OK. Let’s put this machine into action. If you’re afraid of ruining a meal, this is a good place to start because you can’t ruin water. Also, now that you’ve taken your Instant Pot out of the box, you’re going to want to make sure your machine works. The water test ensures your machine can build and maintain pressure. It helps familiarize you with the steps and buttons you’ll be using when you make a recipe with more than just water.

  1. Place 3 cups of water in the stainless steel inner pot.
  2. Place the inner pot in the base of the cooker.
  3. Make sure the sealing ring is installed correctly on the inside of the lid. A groove on the ring fits into a wire that runs around the edge of the lid’s underside.
  4. Place the lid on the machine and turn until closed. (Your Instant Pot will make a jaunty little electronic sound when it's closed.)
  5. Set the steam release valve to the “Sealing” position.
  6. Press the "Manual" or "Pressure Cook" button. At this point, you can also use the "Pressure" or "Pressure Level" button to choose the pressure setting: low pressure or high pressure. Most Instant Pot recipes use high pressure.
  7. Use the + / – keys (or the dial if your machine has one) to adjust the cook time to 5 minutes. On most models, the machine will kick into action automatically after several seconds. If your machine has a start button, press it.
  8. When the cycle is complete, you will hear a beep. From here, you can choose how to release pressure. (For water, it doesn’t matter; for food, the recipe typically specifies the method):
  • Natural release: You do nothing and the pressure dissipates on its own. This takes from 10 to 45 minutes depending on the volume of liquid and food. The float valve sinks down into the lid to tell you that you may remove the lid.
  • Quick release: Taking great care because hot steam will be released, use a long-handled wooden spoon to move the steam release valve to the "Venting" position. A geyser of steam will come whooshing out. This is normal. And it’s why you were careful.

Things are getting real now. You’ve familiarized yourself with the machine. You’ve tested it out. Let’s get cooking.

3. Make Some Beans

Beans are a delicious, inexpensive, and healthy kitchen staple. Best of all, dried beans don’t require pre-soaking when cooked under pressure. A tip: Because different batches of beans may require different cooking times, don’t hesitate to cook not-quite-done beans under pressure for another 5 minutes or so if necessary.

Instant Pot Black Beans

Instant Pot Black Beans

4. Now Make Some Stock

Chicken stock is a very handy thing to have on hand and a very forgiving dish. (Your chicken won't know if you use a bit more vegetables or a bit fewer.)

One thing to note with this and other pressure cooker recipes: The cooking time you enter on the control panel does not include the amount of time required to build pressure or the time for pressure release. That’s why a recipe with a cook time of 20 minutes might take 40 minutes from start to finish. That said, that time is hands off and is still frequently quicker than traditional cooking methods.

Instant Pot Chicken Stock

Instant Pot Chicken Stock

5. Make Your First Main

Pork shoulder is one of the most rewarding pressure cooker preparations. A cut of meat that would ordinarily require hours of cooking becomes fork-tender in a fraction of the time with an Instant Pot. Dig into this simple recipe and see what all the fuss is about.

5-Ingredient Instant Pot Pork Shoulder

5-Ingredient Instant Pot Pork Shoulder

And with that, you did it! You tackled the Instant Pot. Good going. Now you can recycle that box.

Want more recipes? Try a Yummly search, or give these favorites a try:

Instant Pot Butter Chicken RecipeInstant Pot Butter Chicken RecipeGaram Masala, diced tomatoes, minced ginger, salt, garlic, paprika and 8 more
Instant Pot Chili Verde RecipeInstant Pot Chili Verde Recipetomatillos, cilantro leaves, poblano peppers, water, onions, ground cumin and 5 more
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Instant Pot Chipotle Pork Shoulder RecipeInstant Pot Chipotle Pork Shoulder Recipefreshly ground black pepper, corn tortillas, onions, cider vinegar and 7 more

If you’re hungry for more — more insight and more recipes — check out the author's book, "How to Instant Pot."