Buying and moving into an actual house has put me, once more, into a self reliance kick. I have been doing all of the obvious things to save money; installing compact fluorescent lights, using power strips to turn off all of my “standby” appliances when not in use (some flat panel TVs use almost as much power on standby as when fully running), and programing my thermostat to keep the house cooler when I am at work or sleeping. However, I have also been exploring some perhaps more unconventional methods of energy savings.

I have always been intrigued by pressure cookers, but for most of my life they fell into the same category as dynamite – useful in expert hands, but a disaster waiting to happen for the novice. The pressure cookers of my parents’ generation were often prone to failure. If the sole pressure release valve became plugged they could become a steam powered grenade, and thus took on a bit of a stigma in this country. Moonshiners could adapt them serve as distillers, but most everyone else stayed away.

However, they are a life saver to the rest of the world. I became reacquainted with them while reading “A Cook’s Tour” by Anthony Bourdain (a great book by the way for wanna-be travelers who appreciate the irreverent style of someone who has done everything that was warned against in your high school health class and has lived to tell about it). In his chapter on Morocco he discusses how pressure cookers have simplified life for Moroccan women who cook foods like couscous and tagine which require long cooking times when prepared traditionally. Pressure cookers have at least partially severed the chain holding women to the kitchen in countries where frozen pizza and TV dinners are simply not a viable option.

Pressure cookers cook using pressure (thank you Captain Obvious!).  Water boiled at sea level in an open pot will only ever reach 212° F, but when put under pressure the temperature will rise substantially. Water also will transmit heat much more efficiently than air alone, so that the higher temperature will translate to the food much faster than in an oven. A pressure cooker will cut cooking time by 70% or better versus conventional methods and will do that cooking on a much lower burner setting, resulting in finishing food faster and with less power consumption. You can also save money on food because you can use fresh produce (which is usually cheaper and probably better for you anyway) and lesser cuts of meat instead of frozen, pre-cooked meals which cost a premium for the convenience. Pressure cookers are also much improved from the old days and the good ones have a second safety release in case the primary should fail. I don’t like spending more money than I have to, but in this case it is better to buy a quality pressure cooker (I have a Swiss Kuhn) to have some peace of mind.

I decided to try my first pressure cooker meal last week on St. Patrick’s Day (I am not Irish, but I should have been) by making a corned beef brisket in the pressure cooker. I had tried a brisket several years ago in the oven and the results were less than encouraging. I thought that I had cooked it correctly, but it was as tough as shoe leather. I ate it anyway, but it soured me on making brisket for a long time. For the pressure cooker I made up my own variation, and here is my improvised recipe:

  • 1 Corned Beef Brisket (well rinsed as “corned” refers to the large-grained salt that it was preserved in; save the pickling spice packet)
  • 1 can of Guinness (allowed to go flat)
  • 1 large Onion, thickly sliced

With each pressure cooker there should be a metal trivet to raise foods off of the bottom; make sure that you insert it before cooking meat like this. Lay the brisket in the pressure cooker, making sure that you do not obstruct all of the holes in the trivet. Pour the whole Guinness over the brisket, and sprinkle the pickling spice packet over the top of meat (I also let some fall into the beer to add flavor theoretically, but it might not make any difference). Finally, top the brisket with the sliced onions and seal the lid. You start off on high heat to get the liquid boiling and to pressurize the cooker, but once the valve is about where it should be you drop the temperature to the lowest setting that will maintain the pressure desired (I have an electric range and I had to remove the cooker from the burner after dropping the setting to keep it from over pressurizing while the burner cooled a bit). Once you are at the right pressure you begin the timer. I cooked the brisket for 50 minutes on medium-low and then put it on a cold burner to depressurize slowly (NEVER try to open a hot pressure cooker or you will end up in the hospital; the good models are built to stay locked until the pressure gone).

The results were amazing! I had my family over and they thought it was the best corned beef ever. It was so tender that you didn’t even need a knife to cut it. It was as close to alchemy as you can get on a cook top.

In conclusion, I highly recommend pressure cookers for anyone who does not have all day to cook and wants to save some money on food. Just remember to put safety first; read the manual that comes with your pressure cooker as different models have different settings, and make certain that you clean the valves thoroughly and test them for free movement before cooking.

GSI also makes several versions for outdoor cooking; I might have to give that a try in the future; I could truly be a gourmet camp chef. I have a pork shoulder in my freezer right now; I am thinking that pulled pork will be the next thing to try. And as it will cook potatoes in seven minutes, I will be able to cook this Fall’s potato harvest in short order (assuming I get the garden in on time and we have a good season, of course)!

Party on Wayne; party on Garth!

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