1. Cooking

6 reasons the Instant Pot has won over cooks

The Instant Pot, which combines an electric pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker and yogurt maker in one handy unit, is drawing undying affection from American cooks. New York Times
The Instant Pot, which combines an electric pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker and yogurt maker in one handy unit, is drawing undying affection from American cooks. New York Times
Published Mar. 8, 2017

With only online word of mouth generating heat, the pressure cooker has bubbled to the surface to become the "it" appliance of the year. But not just any pressure cooker. Specifically, the Instant Pot.

Fans on social media call the silver and black contraption "life-changing," and gush that they have "fallen in love." They call themselves addicts or cult members.

Instant Pot has nearly 400,000 Facebook fans, and it blew up Amazon's 2016 Prime Day, selling more than 215,000 cookers in just one day.

It has become the world's first viral kitchen appliance.

Though the Instant Pot electric pressure cooker has been around since 2010, it picked up steam in the past six months, after slaying Prime Day in July and again on Black Friday. The sales pressure continues to build. Just last week, three of the top 10 bestsellers in Amazon's entire kitchen department were Instant Pots of varying sizes.

I will now confess I'm one of the smitten.

A year ago, I muttered "Not again," when my husband unboxed the Instant Pot in our home. I did not like the idea of that man's love of gadgets taking up more of my precious counter space.

So now I have to tolerate his "I told you so" as I swoon when it transforms beans from bone dry to tender in 25 minutes without presoaking. I sigh when it makes perfectly cooked hard-boiled eggs that I can peel with one hand because the shell slips right off.

Pressure cookers have been around for centuries — since 1679 to be exact, when a French physicist came up with the airtight steamer. They were essential in kitchens of the 1950s and '60s, even though the hissing vents and exploding pots of pea soup scared the blazes out of our grandmothers. They fell out of favor when the microwave unseated them in the 1970s as a way to cook food fast.

So why has the pressure cooker returned? And why this pressure cooker? Here are six reasons:

1 The new word of mouth

You can thank the sharing culture of Facebook and YouTube for making the Instant Pot a household name. The company gave away more than 200 of its appliances to bloggers and "influencers" who then started gushing all over social media with recipes and testimonials. The company also carefully tends to its fan community, inviting suggestions for new features and posting recipes from customers. The company hasn't bought advertising in traditional media but instead has pushed its way onto dinner tables by getting your best friend to rave about it on Instagram.

2 It's less scary

While today's stove-top versions have foolproof locking safety features, many people still associate them with the scary and noisy jiggle-top models that hissed in our grandmothers' kitchens. What makes this new generation of cookers different is how easy they are. The Instant Pot has a slew of self-regulating features for safety and cooking time so that all you do is plug it in and tap a button. Something to note: The cooking geeks at America's Test Kitchen frown on electric cookers like the Instant Pot. They don't like how it will switch to Keep Warm mode like a slow cooker, they said, requiring that delicate foods be closely monitored. They prefer the stove-top pressure cooker systems that give the cook more control.

3 It really works

Can a kitchen appliance really be that life-changing? Yes, I say. Yes it can. The design of it is as user-friendly as a slow cooker, but dinner takes less than an hour to cook instead of all day. And the higher cooking temperature isn't just faster, it produces more flavor.

"The physical reactions that produce new flavor molecules happen faster at higher temperatures," says award-winning food writer Janet A. Zimmerman. "So not only is your pressure-braised meat tender in less time, but it's just as flavorful as it would be had it simmered in the oven for hours."

And in some cases, Zimmerman said, these reactions simply won't happen at all at lower temperatures. The mushroom stock from her first pressure cooker book (The Healthy Pressure Cooker Cookbook) develops a deep flavor under pressure that she says she has never been able to duplicate without a pressure cooker.

Zimmerman's second pressure cooker cookbook, appropriately titled Instant Pot Obsession (Sonoma Press), came out Tuesday.

4 It does a lot

It bills itself as seven (yes, seven) tools in one: pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, saute pot, steamer, warming pot and yogurtmaker. They also made it easy, with buttons just for Rice or Stew, so there's no need to look up a cooking time. The 2017 model added Cake and Egg cooking buttons. There's even one that is Bluetooth-enabled to program and monitor cooking from afar. While I have yet to stretch myself with all those features, I have discovered that it can do a lot of time-consuming chores like making flavor-packed broth, and it cuts the time in half for things like steel-cut oats and brown rice. And the internet is full of more ideas, from homemade vanilla extract that takes three hours (instead of months of steeping vanilla beans in vodka), to putting uncooked pasta with just enough water and sauce to infuse and fully cook the pasta in five minutes. I've seen raves for popcorn and cheesecake, and that's weird enough to at least try.

5 The price was right

The $69 sale on Prime Day — down from its usual $99 price — was the tipping point, and the cult of Instant Pot was born. Parent company C.A. Paradis Kitchen has reported that sales have doubled annually since the first version hit the market in 2010, and that 2016 marked yet another year of double-digit growth. You can find pressure cookers of all stripes with prices as low as $20 to more than $300 for models that are a thing of beauty. The Sweethome product-recommendation site rated the $100 Instant Pot as the best electric pressure cooker on the market and the $110 stove-top Fagor Duo 8-Quart if you want more manual control. Its budget pick was the $68 Presto 8-Quart Stainless Steel Pressure Cooker.

6 You can believe most (but not all) of the hype

Even the most smitten pressure cooker fan will admit there are some downsides that they have learned to live with. There's a lot of hyperbole in the recipe titles, for one. The 20-Minute Beef Stew from the Williams-Sonoma cookbook takes at least an hour start to finish because of the prepping, the searing and the time needed for the liquid to come up to temperature. But it's still a delicious stew that would have taken three hours on the stove top or all day in the slow cooker. The five-minute hard-boiled eggs took me 22 minutes total. But they were perfect and peeled like a dream.

I don't really see a big time savings in cooking white rice. But I did love the flavor infused in a batch of rice I made recently with porcini mushrooms, sauted onions and broth instead of water. When it was done, I stirred in peas and Parmesan cheese and it tasted just like risotto.

The pressure cooker recipes are best for foods you want to be tender. So while it makes the most delicious garlic mashed potatoes in five minutes cooking time (10 minutes total), you wouldn't expect potato wedges to end up with that nice crisp crust you find in roasted potatoes. And the high heat mutes the flavor of ground spices, herbs and fresh garlic, so it's best to use whole spices when cooking and add herbs after the pressure is released to brighten the dish.

Zimmerman says she'd be lying if she said she had predicted the Instant Pot obsession.

"I've seen trends come and go in cookware and appliances — breadmakers, pasta machines, slow cookers — but those predated the social media scene."

It's "a bit of a snowball effect," Zimmerman says. "Although these blogs post recipes that will work with any pressure cooker, they use the name Instant Pot to attract readers. The more the name is out there, the more cooks want to buy one."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at Follow @SharonKWn.