Last week I proudly posted a pic on Facebook of my new Instant Pot Smart Bluetooth Multicooker that Mrs Santa's Sister (aka, my wife) got me for Christmas. Several friends asked me to let them know how I liked it after I'd used it a few times. Since I'm so wordy (and nerdy), I decided a full blown review was merited, and I decided to do it here on the blog where we've got a lot more elbow room than in a Facebook comment reply.
So, I know what you're thinking. It's probably something like, "But Chris, you're into some serious gourmet cooking and stuff...it even says so right here on your blog, under that picture of Jethro Bodine that you use for an avatar. What be ye wanting with a modern cooking device of convenience?"
Well, ordinarily you'd be right--anything cooking-related with the word 'instant' in the name is usually a turnoff for me. But, not so in this case. Here's how it all played out.
I've always kept a few slow cookers (aka Crock Pots) on hand. I don't cook in them that much, but we entertain a lot, and they are great for serving food in a party environment and keeping it warm. I have some small ones for dips, a gargantuan eight quart one that I use for serving my mashed potatoes in during the holidays, and then I had a regular sized one that was perfect for soups. I say had because this one finally kicked the ceramic-lined bucket last month; it was no longer able to heat above 140F. This dejected me just a bit.
I was dejected because, like a lot of my cooking accouterments, I'd grown a little attached to this Crock Pot. I'd had it since the early 90s, when my sister gave it to me, but it was even older, dating back to the 70s when she'd received it as a Christmas gift.
What a Crock! On left, the crock pot on Xmas morn 1975 (complete with curious Christmas Kitten)
On right, 42 years later, the crock's run comes to an end.
Regular blog readers know how much I love retro kitsch, so the loss of this avocado-colored crock was a bummer. Rather than simply replace it with a $20 Target store special, I took to the Net in hopes of finding a new model that had some retro stylin.' No luck there, but I did learn that slow cooker technology had come a long way in 40 years. I also stumbled across a device called a multicooker. This is something that looks like a crock pot, but is electronic and thus programmable for several different functions, the main one being pressure cooking.
I've always wanted to experiment with pressure cooking, not necessarily because it speeds up cooking, though that is a bonus, but because it is a unique method of cooking to explore, one that has advantages all its own. Plus, watching shows like Iron Chef and seeing Bobby Flay or Michael Simon rock a pressure cooker in kitchen competition added to the appeal.
So, of all the multi-cookers on the market, the Instant Pot brand seemed to be getting the most rave reviews. Plus, they even had a Bluetooth-enabled model, which appealed to my techie-geek side. I decided that was the one I wanted, and Christmas was coming up, so....
Anyhoo, here it is a week later, and I've cooked up several things in the Instant Pot, all of which were pretty much successful. First, I'll list my thoughts on the IP overall, then I'll go over each item I prepared in the device one by one.
Overall I like the IP very much. It won't be replacing my normal, day to day gourmet cooking and grilling--I just enjoy that too much, but the IP can certainly supplement that cooking in many ways.
First, a little breakdown of Pros vs Cons
I like when a kitchen gadget does more than one thing. Having a dedicated doughnut hole puncher or ramen noodle extruder is great, but when a gadget only does that one thing and still takes up space in my kitchen--sheesh! The fact that I got something that replaces an old Crock Pot, takes up the same amount of space, but does several more things is awesome.
During holidays and dinner parties, stove-top space is at a premium. With this little guy, it's like having an extra burner, particularly since it can sauté like a boss. I can set him up anywhere there's space in the kitchen, and...
Automatic for the People
So sometimes even a passionate cook likes automation. Particularly during those aforementioned dinner parties and holiday meals. I can set him up making a dish with everything pre-programmed into the interface, freeing me up to work on other dishes.
Single Pot - Multiple Steps
When I have a dish that requires multiple steps, I like that I can do some if not all of them in one pot. With the IP, I can sauté to brown meats or vegies, then pressure cook, slow cook or whatever, then sauté again to reduce a sauce, then keep warm indefinitely, all with precise control and in the same cooking container.
Precise Temp Control
On a regular crock pot, you usually have High and Low settings, and maybe a Medium and a Keep Warm if you're lucky. On my old crock, High was scalding hot and low was barely warm enough to do anything. Instant Pots in general give you a range of settings, from High, Medium and Low to temps calibrated for certain foods--and the computerized brain of the thing will keep the temperature on the level, despite things like evaporation or whatnot, and it also won't let things get too hot, it has an over-temp sensor after all. The Smart Bluetooth model adds precision temperature control via the app on your phone. This app, when you calibrate it to your Instant Pot, allows precise control to within 1 degree Fahrenheit. For this reason, the Bluetooth-enabled IP can do some limited Sous Vide cooking. Which leads me to my next pro:
Limited Sous Vide Cooking
While the IP Smart can, with the app, control the temperature to within 1 degree, the water is not circulated like a dedicated Sous Vide device, and the IP's temperature sensor is in the bottom of the pot, so there can be as much as a 5 degree variation throughout the volume of water in the pot. This nixes certain Sous Vide dishes I'm told, but with others it works fine. The one Sous Vide dish I did in this test run came out fantastic. (More on that below)
With the Bluetooth model and the app on your phone, you can write scripts that you upload to the IP, further automating it, so that you can have it cook at different temps or pressures for different lengths of time. I will play with this function in the future and report back.
Like I mentioned above, I've always wanted to try pressure cooking, but I have to admit I was a little intimidated by pressure cookers, and maybe that's why I never got around to getting into it. But from what I've read, and judging by using it for a week as well, the IP is very safe, perhaps as safe as any Pressure Cooker can be. The IP website and manual say that there are ten different safety features built in. This includes locking pins that pop out and keep you from being able to open it when it is under pressure, the fact that it is computer controlled and the 'brain' will turn off the heat if the pressure gets too high, and if all else fails there are several other pressure-relieving functions.
Also, the IP works at a lower pressure, around 10 psi, than stove top pressure cookers, which go up to 15 psi or so.
Additional Pros that are nice to have.
Here's a few more 'pros' that were not critical for me, but are nice to have anyway.
Usually I'm not worried about speed in cooking. It's my hobby after all, and I enjoy it, so I just plan ahead and allow enough time for whatever I'm planning to make. But, I do have other things to do as well, so at the very least it is nice to have the option to cook things well and efficiently in a short amount of time.
I like to do my part for the environment, and while we're not talking megajoules of energy, the fact is that cooking something in an efficient pressure cooker in thirty minutes uses a lot less power than running a slow cooker for eight hours. For boaters and RV'ers that have limited power resources at times, this could come in quite handy.
More Nutritious and (sometimes) Flavorful
I've read that pressure cooking locks in more of the nutrients that can be lost during the cooking process. I haven't done much research into the matter, but it makes sense. Also, for some items, additional flavors are purported to be created or at least locked in. We'll explore that topic in the next section.
Kool and the Gang
The IP runs pretty cool, retaining most of its heat inside, so your kitchen stays cooler and you don't burn your hand when you touch the side of the IP. (The top gets a little warmer) Contrast this with how hot some Crock Pots can get on high. My 8 quart CP gets too hot to touch on high.
I didn't really find a great deal of cons with this device, but here are a couple that could come into play for some people.
If you're just looking for a replacement for your crock pot, the cost of the IP might be prohibitive, particularly since you can get a cheap crock pot at Target for around 20 bucks. But if you're wanting to get into pressure cooking, the price isn't actually that bad. Dedicated pressure cookers, things that basically only do one thing, can cost into the hundreds of dollars. (Regulations require that they be well-built and made out of quality materials so they don't blow up on you--this adds to their cost)
The Instant Pot isn't rocket science, but it is more complicated than turning a stove on and off. This might be a con for some, but if you can use a smart phone or an ATM, you shouldn't have too much trouble firing up an Instant Pot. There is also a learning curve for how different foods cook in an IP versus regular methods. I think however that after a few cooking sessions with the IP, most everyone will begin to grasp the basic concepts of pressure cooking, and there is a wealth of info on the net about this. (I've included some links at the end of this post)
Part II - The Dishes
So, that was the basics, let's see how the Instant Pot did with various dishes.
I cooked up twelve different dishes in the IP over the past week, with a great variety of results.
Pork Chops with Mushroom Gravy
Pot Roast w/Potatoes and Carrots
Black Eyed Peas
New England Clam Chowder
Texas Style Chili con Carni
Whole Roast Chicken
Sous Vide Egg Bites
Some were great, some just good, a couple so-so but all were edible. In some cases, the so-so I think could be improved more knowledge of how the IP cooks certain foods best. In some cases, however, some foods just cook better with other methods. Here's how each dish played out. (I've included the recipe, if I used one, as a link for each food)
I know, seems an odd thing for the first test flight of the IP, but I was making pork chops next, and, as the Brady Bunch will tell you, nothin' goes better with pork chops than applesauce. Well, actually I think a nice Pinot Noir night go better, but we'll have to save wine-making in the Instant Pot for another day. Anyway, I have a good applesauce recipe on the blog, and homemade applesauce is quiet a world apart from the baby food variety you get with Motts and other apple sauces from aisle seven of your local Kroger. No, homemade applesauce is rich and spicy and so delicious warm from the oven. So, I thought I'd try my recipe in the IP. (With pressure cooking modifications, of course)
Well, one of the things about pressure cooking is you have to have some liquid in the pot to create the pressure. (normally, I just bake the apples in a Dutch oven until they are smooth and creamy) For the first batch, I put the recommended minimum liquid in the pot of a cup and half of water. When things were done (about 10 minutes under pressure) I had pulpy apple juice on my hands. Basically what I needed to do was use less water or a shorter cooking time so that I could drain the apples before pureeing them. I did this with the next batch (luckily I had more apples on hand) and it came out great. Not quite as good as my oven-baked method (in which some of the apples' sugars get caramelized and create more flavor) but a decent sauce nonetheless.
Apple Sauce Recipe
Pork Chops with Mushroom Gravy
This is probably another weird dish to start with in the Instant Pot, but when I was searching around for recipes to try in the IP, this one sounded good. One codicil, I'd found this recipe before I'd noted that the IP requires liquid in it to produce pressure. This recipe contained no added liquid, which made me a little nervous. I didn't want potentially mess up my new Instant Pot on the first day (or worse) by trying to cook in it with no liquid, which the manual says not to do. I did a little research, and for the most part, several sites said you could cut back on the liquid in most cases, or cut it out all together if the food you were cooking contained a lot of moisture. Well, I still wasn't completely convinced, so I added a half cup of white wine (which I knew wouldn't do my pork any harm) to the recipe and fired off the IP.
The chops came out pretty good. Maybe a little dry. I did a quick pressure release, which the recipe said was okay, and now after some research I realize this may be what dried out the chops. A quick pressure release is opening the vent valve on the IP when the cooking is done to release the pressure so you can open it. This gets you to your food faster, as opposed to a natural pressure release, in which you leave the valve closed and let the pressure go down on its own, which takes about 15 minutes. Different foods, I later discovered are better one way or the other, and meats can benefit from the natural release, which tend to hold their moisture in, or so I've read. I will test this and report back.
The gravy was quite tasty, however, as I suspect most of the juices that came out of the too-dry chops ended up there.
Pork Chops Recipe
We love homemade bone broth. It's healthy and great in soups or even by itself. We usually make it in the crock pot overnight, so the thought of producing it in only two hours was appealing. We used the recipe above and it came out good, but my wife thought our old way was better. We're going to try to do it again with a longer cooking time and see how it comes out.
Bone Broth Rcipe
Pot Roast w/Potatoes and Carrots
Pot Roast is something I don't make a lot, as I much prefer traditional Roast Beef, slow-roasted to rare and tender perfection in a dry oven. But you can't really do that in the wet cooking environment of the IP, so I decided to give a go to the pot roast recipe found in the booklet that came with my IP. This recipe appeared to be a nice and simple one pot recipe in that cooked your veggies and sauce along with the roast. The recipe called for pressure cooking the roast (after browning on the sauté setting) for 45 minutes, then doing a quick pressure release and adding the potatoes and carrots, then cooking under pressure for 10 minutes more.
I followed the recipe exactly, and while the roast was tasty, it was somewhat dry and lacking flavor on its own. The sauce was delicious (that's basically where all the roast's flavor went) , and alleviated things a bit, but I would have preferred the roast to stay juicier. I think partly the culprit was the quick pressure release, of which there were two in this recipe. Obviously you need to do two releases so you can add the veggies late in the cooking process, but I fear each quick release causes the roast to weep all of its juices out, which might be held inside in a slow release. Since I'm not a huge fan of pot roast, I don't know how much I'll experiment with perfecting this dish, but if I do I'll add an edit about it.
Pot Roast Recipe (Page 20 of Instant Pot Recipe Booklet)
Black Eyed Peas
New Years' Day arrived, so I had to make me some black-eyed peas. I usually slow cook them in the Le Creuset bean pot that I got for Christmas a few years back, and they always come out great. For this dish I used a sort of hybrid recipe between this one for the IP and my bean pot one; if anyone wants it, I will post it. The peas came out awesome, actually the best black-eyed peas I've ever made.
And, they were fast. I did use fresh peas, for I found some on sale. I should have used dried to really test the IP out--that's one of its chief selling points, you can pressure cook dried beans in a much shorter time than traditional methods. I'll report back when we've done some dried beans in the IP.
New England Clam Chowder
This was another recipe out of the booklet that came with the Instant Pot. I have my own here on the blog, but I decided to follow the IP's recommended recipe first before trying to convert my own. It was simple to make and tasty, not the best I've had, but definitely not the worse. I replaced the flour with corn starch to make the recipe gluten free, but otherwise it was as in the booklet.
New England Clam Chowder Recipe (Page 6 of Instant Pot Recipe Booklet)
Twenty years ago or so I hosted a Superbowl party and the game was in New Orleans that year. I therefore decided to make all my food offerings Cajun or Creole, and this included red beans and rice. I knew I could make a big pot of slow-cooked red beans and serve them in a Crock Pot to keep warm, but the rice had me stumped. 1) I'd never been satisfied with my stove top rice results--it always came out a bit gooey and mushy, and 2) how to keep it warm as I served it during the game? The answer, of course, was a rice cooker. I got a very cheap one at Target for under twenty bucks, figuring I'd use it for the party and then forget it. Well, it actually became an indispensable cooking apparatus for me the last couple of decades. Rice cookers, it turns out, cook absolutely perfect rice every time (even the cheap ones), they are virtually hands free and automatic (dump in rice and water and forget it til it beeps) and they keep the rice warm indefinitely. And, they can make a lot of rice, if you need it. (up to 10 cups in most cases, which worked out great for the Superbowl)
Since I bought the rice cooker, I have never gone back to cooking rice on the stove. There is just no competition. And now, here's the Instant Pot, with its rice cooking function--can it compete with the trusty $20 Target rice cooker? I decided to give it a whirl.
Note, the dedicated rice cooker and the IP go about cooking rice differently. In a rice cooker, the rice is basically boiled in a pre-measured amount of water and, when that water is all absorbed or boiled away, the cooker shifts into keep warm mode at just the right moment. The IP cooks rice under pressure, which means that there is little or no water boiled away, so you need a smaller amount of water to cook your rice. Rice cookers more or less use a two parts water to one part rice ratio; for the IP, it's more like one to one, though it varies depending on the type of rice. The IP also cooks the rice, like any other pressure cooked dish, much faster. My rice cooker will take about 30 minutes to cook a cup of white rice, the IP does it in six. But how does the rice come out?
The first batch I made was Jasmine rice, which is my favorite type, and for cooking purposes you can treat it pretty much like white rice. It came out acceptable, but not as good as what I do in the rice cooker.
It was a bit gooey and sticky. It actually would have made good sushi rice, but that wasn't what I was going for. One again, this might be something I can improve on with varying my cooking times and water ratios, but I don't think I will mess with it. I already have a device that can cook perfect rice, and I don't really care about how long it takes. I can just cook my rice in the cheap Target rice cooker, and then cook a main dish in the IP, and all will be well.
Texas Style Chili con Carni
So, this was more an experiment than anything else. My chili is one of my signature dishes, one that I like to spend all afternoon cooking for hours to develop its flavors. But, I thought it would be fun to try my chili recipe in the IP and see how it did.
I browned my chili meat in the cooker on sauté mode, doing it in batches. (I made a smaller amount of chili, only doing two pounds of meat and reducing the rest of the ingredients accordingly) I then reserved the meat and sautéd the onions, garlic and peppers. Then I added everything else and sealed up the IP. Note, I used less water, about half as much as normal, since there is very little water loss in pressure cooking. I then cooked the chili on manual for ten minutes (yes, only ten) and did a natural release and it was ready to serve.
It tasted...pretty good. I didn't think it was fully as good as the cook-all-afternoon version, but it was close, and my wife said she liked it better, so...
I will call this one a success, and use the IP from time to time to make my chili. I will certainly still use the old method as well, as I like to make really big batches and freeze most of it for quick lunches, but it's nice to know the IP can handle this recipe, so it can probably handle your favorite one as well, even if it has (gasp) beans in it.
This is another of my signature dishes that I spent a long time perfecting and have no desire to monkey with too much. But, I had to try it in the IP anyway.
Most Instant Pot mashed potato recipes call for cubing your potatoes and pressure cooking them until soft, which is just a faster version of what people usually do on the stove top. They boil cubed potatoes, drain them and then mash them with a potato masher or whip them with a hand mixer. I don't like either of these methods as the first one creates lumpy potatoes and the latter one creates potatoes with a book paste like consistency. I use a potato ricer to do my mashed potatoes, and this makes them light and fluffy but with no lumps. For this reason I use large russet potatoes for my recipe, which I peel and then only cut in half and boil.
That way I can place a full potato half into the ricer. If I do cubes, and boil them long enough to work in the ricer, they will tend to fall apart in the boil water.
The problem with my recipe is, since I'm using large potato halves in the boil, I have to do a long boil, like 40 minutes, to get them soft enough all the way through. And when I make them for Thanksgiving or Christmas, I always make a lot, usually like four batches, so that's a lot of stove-top time tied up for one dish.
So, how would the IP do with these spuds? Well, I peeled and halved four large russets, placed them in the IP and covered with water. I fired up the IP for ten minutes pressure cook time. It took 19 minutes to come to pressure, then cooked for its ten minutes. I did a quick release, and here is what I saw.
The potatoes were perfectly cooked all the way through, yet still held their integrity well enough to be picked up and placed in the ricer. I then added my butter/buttermilk mixture and salt and did a light whisk. They came out absolutely perfect--maybe even more velvety than normal.
So, this was a true win for the IP. It made my already great potatoes ever-so-slightly better, and it made them quicker and without tying up the stove. This could really come in handy during the holidays. Next time I may even try them with slightly less water, seeing if I get speed up the come to pressure time and get the same results.
Whole Roast Chicken
I love the flavor of a nice, juicy Yard Bird roasted whole in the oven, so I had to try the IP version as well. This was one of its big selling points, supposedly making the cooking of whole birds much easier. Well, for me, seasoning a whole chicken with a few herbs and sticking it in a pot in the oven isn't that difficult, but it does take a bit of time, usually about an hour and half.
The IP whole chicken recipe has you using sauté mode to brown the chicken first, most likely to get that roasted chicken skin look and flavor in the dish. I ended up with a relatively large chicken, over six pounds, and it practically filled the IP, so it was awkward trying to turn the bird so sauté each side. (I ended up using large metal spatulas to turn the chicken--still very difficult) Once this was done, I added the broth and sealed things up and pressure cooked for 25 minutes with a 15 minute natural release. Chicken is pictured below.
It was practically falling apart, so not the pretty presentation you get when cooked in the oven, but it was tender as all get out. Flavorwise it wasn't bad, but not in my opinion as good as a nice oven-roasted bird. And there wasn't all that much time savings. All things being equal, I will probably just oven roast my fowl.
Roast Chicken Recipe
Sous Vide Egg Bites
We love Starbucks' Sous Vide Egg Bites, and who doesn't? But, at almost five bucks for two little bites of bacon, cheese and eggs, the cost can add up over time. When I saw this recipe, I was excited to try it, as it uses the IP's limited Sous Vide ability. I even got a cute little silicone egg bites dish off Amazon (they have lots of accessories for the IP). I made the bites according to this recipe, using Gruyere cheese like Starbucks' does.
Verdict. These were outstanding. Very close to Starbucks' bites, but at about a quarter of the cost. Amother win for the IP.
After cooking all the above dishes I realized I was mainly using the IP's pressure cooking ability, and I hadn't once used it as a slow cooker, which was what I'd originally acquired it for in the first place. I decided I had to try at least one 'slow cooker' dish for this review, so I made a batch of a sort of poor man's pork carnitas that I do from time to time when I know I'm going to be too busy to cook dinner. This simply involves throwing a whole pork tenderloin into a Crock Pot, along with a cup of cheap, mild salsa, a 12 oz can of chicken broth and two tablespoons of taco seasoning. I cook this on high for an hour, then low for six hours or so, and then shred the pork with forks. I then serve it in tortillas or taco shells with fixin's and it comes out great.
As expected the IP did fine as a slow cooker. It even has an optional 'slow cooker' clear glass lid, pictured below, but you can also use the normal top with the pressure vent open. This glass top is also nice when you've got finished foods in the keep warm mode.
The dish came out great. Out of curiosity I did a bit of research to see if there were dishes that were better cooked in a slow cooker verses a quick pressure cook. For the most part, the verdict seems to be'no;' most cooks seem to agree that anything a slow cooker can do all day long, a pressure cooker can do in minutes. Next time I make my carnitas, I will do it the fast pressure cooking way, and I will report back and see if there is any difference.
So, there you have it, my rather long-winded review of my first week with the Instant Pot. If you're still reading, I applaud you--take a star out of petty cash.
There are a few other novelty things I've seen cooked in an IP. Ribs. Turkey Breasts. Pies. Cakes. Bread. I may get a wild hair someday and try some of these, but it's not a priority for me--I'm not Don Johnson living on a houseboat in Miami--I don't need this cooker to do everything. But, I think I will definitely use it for some things, like those mentioned above. Yes, I have definitely found a fun and useful addition to my kitchen arsenal.
Until next time,
Addendum: Additional Resources and Useful Information:
Benefits of Pressure Cooking
Read before Buying (More Good Info)
Common Mistakes to Avoid
Slow Cooker vs Pressure Cooker
Hip Pressure Cooking (Lots of Recipes Here)