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Is the Instant Pot as great as it seems?

I was skeptical about my first Instant Pot. Then I tried the pork.

Within minutes of making my first Instant Pot recipe, an error message flashed over and over on the pot’s small screen: food burn, food burn, food burn.

I had just added a 3-pound pork shoulder, some garlic cloves, a jalapeno and spices to the large stainless steel pot, sealed the lid and set the timer for 35 minutes, then slowly slinked away, unsure of what exactly would happen next.

On my new Instant Pot, the Duo Nova 8-quart model, there is no “Start” or “Enter” button, or any sort of “Okay, I’m ready, let’s go!” action to take. Seal the lid, set the timer, and within seconds the pot starts to heat up. After this preheating phase, it clicks into pressure cooking mode.

That’s when the error message flashed. I thought it was confirming my probably unfair snap judgments about the Instant Pot, the modern pressure cooker that has consistently been one of the top-selling kitchen gadgets the past couple of years.

15-Bean Soup, made in the Instant Pot.
15-Bean Soup, made in the Instant Pot. [ MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times ]

This one was a Christmas gift from my dad, who identified it as one of the year’s hottest cooking tools, knows I love to cook and thought I could find it useful.

I was intrigued, but trepidatious. Would it do too much of the work for me, a person who does genuinely love to cook? Would food come out bland and mushy, as it can in a slow cooker? Would the learning curve be so steep that I wouldn’t want to bother?

Here’s how it generally works. You add food to the Instant Pot’s large, removable vessel. From there, you can saute or slow cook, but the Instant Pot’s most effective function is as a pressure cooker. There’s a big lid that clicks shut to help form that intense pressure, and once that’s all locked into place, you can manually set a type of cooking and a timer, or choose from presets like “Rice” and “Meat/Stew.” My model proved very easy to work with, so much so that I was sure I was missing a step.

Everyone I know who has an Instant Pot loves it. When I posted about taking it out for a test run on my Instagram, I received the most feedback of almost anything I’ve ever cooked. In these pages, we’ve written about the device multiple times, our resident Instant Pot fan Sharon Kennedy Wynne raving about the ease with which her device hard-boils eggs, makes beef stew and much more. Read her comprehensive guide here.

So I knew it had value. I was more interested in seeing how it could fit into my kitchen without taking away from the things I love to do. Basically, is it worth all that counter space? Here’s what I discovered.

Figure out what saves the most time and effort.

As with all kitchen gadgets, you won’t save time or energy making certain dishes in the Instant Pot. Anything that needs to develop a nice crispy skin, like a roasted chicken or potatoes, is better off in the oven. But it became evident very quickly what kinds of foods become their best selves in the Instant Pot.

For me, the two immediate revelations were that pork shoulder, which cooked for 35 minutes and then was completely fork tender in a way my oven-roasted pork has rarely been; and dried beans, which needed just 45 minutes (and no presoak) to turn into stew. Rice cooked in the Instant Pot came out good, but I would probably just make it in a pot if I wasn’t already using the cooker. Same with hard-boiled eggs. But for large cuts of meat and dried beans? Total game changer.

I consulted with Times correspondent Lorraine Fina Stevenski, who cooks often with her Instant Pot and shares two of her favorite recipes below.

“I think the Instant Pot is the best at making recipes that usually take hours of cooking time to gain flavor and reduction,” she said. “In most Instant Pot recipes, less than 1 hour is all you need, from prep time to cook time, to get perfect results. My favorite recipes are soups, stews, beans and sauces.”

15-Bean Soup, made in the Instant Pot.
15-Bean Soup, made in the Instant Pot. [ MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times ]

Not all models are the same.

Not all models of the Instant Pot are the same, and that may be one reason for my “food burn” error. The recipes I consulted for the Pork Carnitas below didn’t call for any additional liquid. But I heard from other Instant Pot users and gleaned from various Instant Pot tutorials online that my particular model may need more liquid than some older models to use the pressure cooker function.

Stevenski also urges all users to make sure the bottom of the pot is free of any bits of food, especially after using the Saute function, before pressure cooking. That will help avoid any error messages. Her favorite way to keep that stainless steel pot clean is Barkeepers Friend, a powder cleanser that helps scour baked-on food and other caked-on deposits.

It’s important to realize that your friends (and your recipes) may not be referencing your exact model. As with all cooking, pay attention to what’s working, and what isn’t, in your own kitchen.

You can go deep with flavor, too.

The thing I was most surprised by in the handful of Instant Pot recipes I tested was that the flavor of each was quite deep and complex.

The pressure cooker concentrated the flavor of the ingredients as well as transformed the texture of things like meat and beans. I didn’t expect this, after years of finding slow cooker dishes somewhat lacking in the flavor department.

I can’t wait to try something like pho, a dish whose super flavorful broth has always intimidated me at home.


15-Bean Soup

1 (20-ounce) package Hurst’s HamBeens 15 Bean Soup, or a similar dried bean blend

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

½ cup diced celery

½ cup diced carrots

2 cloves garlic, minced

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

4 cups water

2 teaspoons kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

Rinse beans in a colander and remove any debris.

Select Saute option on Instant Pot. Add the olive oil and onion and cook until onion is sizzling. Add celery and carrots and stir, cooking for about 5 minutes until somewhat tender.

Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute more, then add the beans, broth, water and seasonings.

Lock the lid in place and cook on Pressure Cook for 35 minutes.

When the cook time ends, turn off the pressure cooker. Let the pressure release naturally for 10 minutes and finish with a quick pressure release.

Carefully remove the lid. Taste soup (it will be hot!) and season with more salt and pepper if needed.

Serves 6 to 8.

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times

Pork Carnitas

Skinless, boneless pork shoulder (about 3 pounds), cut into smaller chunks

2 jalapenos, cut in half lengthwise, stems removed

4 large garlic cloves

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

½ cup water

Corn tortillas, lime wedges, guacamole, chopped cilantro (for serving; optional)

Place all ingredients through water in Instant Pot. Toss until well combined. Seal lid and cook on high pressure for 35 minutes.

Release pressure manually. Using a slotted spoon, transfer pork to a large bowl; fish out jalapenos and garlic and discard. Shred meat with two forks or your hands. Pour cooking liquid over meat and toss to combine.

When you’re ready to eat the carnitas: Working in batches, transfer shredded pork to a large nonstick skillet set over high heat and cook, undisturbed, until underside is well browned, about 5 minutes. Toss and continue to cook, tossing occasionally, until some of the edges are caramelized and crisp, 5 to 7 minutes longer. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a paper towel-lined baking sheet. Cover with foil to keep warm and moist.

Serves 4 to 6.

Source: Adapted from Bon Appétit

Bolognese Sauce With Fettuccine

My favorite Bolognese recipes from Marcella Hazan and Lidia Bastianich are similar, and inspired this Instant Pot recipe. I went with Hazan’s addition of white wine instead of Lidia’s red wine, for its less predominant flavor. Layering the flavors when combining ingredients is how a classic Bolognese earns its hearty deep flavor — and by cooking and reducing for hours. In this Instant Pot recipe, I stick with the classic technique and let the first layer of flavors develop in Saute mode. This recipe will make enough sauce for 1 ½ pounds of pasta. Leftover Bolognese freezes perfectly for your next Italian meal.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons butter

1 medium sweet onion, peeled and coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)

2 large carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 pound lean ground pork

1 pound lean ground beef

1 teaspoon each kosher salt and black pepper

½ teaspoon nutmeg

½ cup heavy cream

½ cup dry white wine

1 (750-gram) carton finely chopped tomatoes, like Pomi

¼ cup tomato paste

3 dried bay leaves

1 pound dried or fresh fettuccine, cooked al dente

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Set Instant Pot to Saute; if there are different settings, set it on the highest setting. Add the oil and butter and heat until the butter is just frothing. Add the onions, carrots and brown sugar and saute for about 5 minutes or until the onion is translucent.

Add the pork, beef, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stir just until the meat is cooked through with no traces of pink and most of the liquid from the meat has bubbled away. Add the cream and wine; simmer until almost all the liquid has evaporated. This is an important step and will produce a rich, thick sauce. This will take about 20 minutes.

Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste and bay leaves. Scrape the bottom of the pot and up the sides to make sure nothing is sticking. Secure the lid and set the pressure release to Sealing.

Press Cancel to reset the cooking program. Press the Meat/Stew button and set the cooking time for 35 minutes at high pressure.

When the timer goes off, do a quick release. Be careful; stand away from the pot as the hot steam escapes. When the pressure indicator is down all the way, twist off the lid. Stir and taste the sauce for additional salt and pepper. Remove the bay leaves.

Place a serving of pasta in a deep bowl. Spoon your desired amount of sauce over the pasta and sprinkle with a generous amount of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Serves 6.

Source: Lorraine Fina Stevenski

Cuban Black Beans

There’s no soaking and no waiting for this saucy black bean dish. Dried black beans take on a nice, chewy texture and lots more flavor than canned, and the Instant Pot helps get it done in less than 1 hour. Top the cooked beans with your favorites: avocado, red onion, salsa, cherry tomatoes, cheese, cilantro, basil or parsley.

1 pound dried black beans

2 tablespoons good olive oil

½ pound thick-cut bacon slices, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 large sweet onion, peeled and diced into ¼-inch pieces

2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

1 teaspoon dried cumin

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried smoky turmeric

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes

3 cups water

1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced into ½-inch pieces

Rinse and drain black beans. Pick out any cracked beans or stones. Set aside.

Set Instant Pot to Saute (the highest heat setting if there are levels) and add the olive oil. Let the oil heat to a shimmer. Stir in the bacon, onion, garlic, brown sugar and all the spices. Saute, turning often, until the onions soften and the mix is fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Stir in the water and rinsed black beans, scrape the bottom and sides of the pot and stir everything together. Make sure nothing is sticking on the bottom of the pot.

Press the Cancel button. Cover and seal the pot. Press Pressure Cook and set for 35 minutes at high pressure. When the timer is done, allow the pot to naturally release; this will take about 20 minutes. Remove the pressure cooker lid, stir the beans, taste and season with more salt if needed.

Serves 6.

Source: Lorraine Fina Stevenski