Under Pressure

Pressure cooking is suddenly in the limelight again. It looks like it's the next new wave after slow cooking in the crockpot. If you grew up like me -- in a home where beans, legumes and pulses were eaten on a daily basis -- you're probably grateful that an efficient and effective cooking method is finally being recognized, and you're possibly also quite aghast at the various myths that are being repeated ad nauseam, especially the one that pressure cookers are dangerous because they explode in your face.

Indian pressure cooker
releasing pressure

There's no doubt that they used to explode and there were two reasons for that: poor manufacturing and user error (which, unfortunately, continues even today). Modern pressure cookers, especially the kind that don't open until the pressure has subsided, are much safer but so are the old-style ones with a weighted pressure-release, if used properly. If you continue to hear stories about how they explode, then more often than not, it is user error.

This reminds me of the recent article that said that immersion or hand blenders are dangerous because many people have almost lost their fingers to the blade. Well, it's only common sense that if the appliance is not unplugged, a blade that is jammed will start spinning as soon as the obstruction has been removed. But, since common sense is rather rare, it is easier to tarnish the appliance with the label: Dangerous.

I am still wondering why the author of that particular article was using an immersion blender for butter that was meant to go into chocolate chip cookies, and how an article of that kind made it into The New York Times. And, if she will ever be able to live it down.

I must say that I am rather surprised that such people still drive cars.

Or use a knife.

Under Pressure
an Indian pressure cooker

Pressure cookers have come a long way but the Indian pressure cooker still remains under a cloud and continues to get a bad rap. Its design remains simple: a multi-ply aluminum or stainless steel pot, a lid with a safety valve and steam vent, a rubber gasket and a pressure weight. The weight can be pried off even when the pressure has not subsided. As can the lid. But if you have even an iota of sense, you know not to do that. Many home-cooks hold it under running water to cool it quickly. And when they think it has cooled but it hasn't really, they pry the lid open. And BOOM! They're being taken to the ER with third-degree burns. As for the pressure cooker,  it is dangerous!

The interesting thing is that neither the weight nor the lid open easily when under pressure. That, by itself, is an indication that a little patience could save you the skin on your face, neck and chest.

In order to use a pressure cooker safely, it helps to understand how it works. It is elementary physics, not rocket science. To put it very simply: water is heated inside a sealed pot to create steam. As the  steam builds up, it raises the pressure within the sealed pot. This pressure, in turn, increases the boiling point of water within the pot. The water and steam are now at a higher temperature and this combination of high heat and steam is used to cook the food in about one-half to one-third the time it would take in an open pot on the stove. Another advantage is that fewer nutrients are lost, not just because of the reduced cook time, but also because the pot is sealed.

High pressure leads to high heat and can lead to accidents, if used carelessly. Stop to think about it. You're saving fuel by cooking food in a third of the time it would take in an open pot. You can, therefore, afford to wait for 10-15 minutes for the pressure to subside naturally. Tell yourself that over and over again and you won't be doing things that could get written about in an article in The New York Times that speaks more for your IQ, than your prowess in the kitchen.

Also remember that if you fill it with too much water or food, typically more than half to two-thirds by volume, you might have your ceiling painted in all color and texture of food. Some people recommend adding a little bit of oil to foods that foam, like tur dal or beans. I generally do not bother as I cook my dals either directly in the pot with enough head space or in stacked inserts that go into the pressure cooker. Feel free to try this tip and tell me if it works!

Often the scene in my kitchen

I have two Indian pressure cookers, both stainless steel. The bottom of each is a thick sandwich of stainless steel and aluminum as the latter is a better conductor of heat than the former. The smaller one is a 2-liter Vinod. A friend of ours bought it for me in Edison, NJ as he drove up from Fairfax, VA to meet us. Medha was then barely six months old. It came with two stacked stainless steel inserts and a handy lifter. So, yes, it is fourteen years old now!

I also have a 5-liter Prestige pressure cooker that I bought in India about twelve years ago. I had to buy the stainless steel inserts for that separately.

My pressure cookers

I use these on a near-daily basis. I have had to change the safety valve of each only once and the gasket, not more than a couple of times. I put all parts of my two pressure cookers through the dishwasher. I do not use the pressure cooker a second time without washing it, even if something was steamed in an insert and no food came into direct contact with the pot. I have lost one weight to the man-in-the-sink and almost lost another one recently. Luckily, it's a part that is easily replaced.

My mother taught me how to use a pressure cooker when I was very young, about 9 or 10 years old. She wasn't a scientist or a genius who calculated the psi or pounds per square inch that were required to cook the food she had in mind. Adequate water in the pot, food that cooked in the approximately the same amount of time placed in the inserts, and depending on that, the number of pressure releases or "whistles" for it to cook. Typically, three for tur dal and potatoes, one for some type of beans that had been soaked overnight, two or three for other types of beans, one for rice, one for chicken, and so on. It wasn't an exact science but it worked.

Now that I live at an altitude of 5320ft, I value my pressure cookers even more. Water boils at approximately 94C or 201F at my altitude. Add lower air pressure to the mix and you're looking at spending a lot of time in the kitchen to cook Indian food, especially dals and beans. A pressure cooker is, therefore, a necessity at my altitude. Tur dal can take up to four hours to cook in an open pot. It takes about 20 minutes in my Indian pressure cooker. Garbanzo beans that have been soaked overnight take about 15 minutes to cook. (I haven't tried cooking them in an open pot on the stove as that is a waste of precious fuel.) This is just the cook time. It takes a little longer for the pressure to subside, allowing me to open the lid safely. I don't recommend moving the pressure cooker while it is under pressure and therefore, I am not a fan of cooling it quickly under running water in the kitchen sink. I steam idlis in my pressure cooker, and in the past, have made caramel custard or flan in it, too.

If I had to pick one indispensable kitchen tool, it would have to be one of my pressure cookers.

I admit that I covet modern pressure cookers, the Fagors and the Kuhn Rikons. But I do not have a need for them currently, just a desire and no space to store them.

Am I lucky that I have had no disaster thus far? Those who have had a bad experience may consider me lucky. But, to be honest, I have merely used my Indian pressure cookers safely for the last thirty-five years or so. It, therefore, irks me to hear that Indian pressure cookers are unsafe and that they regularly explode in people's faces. My friend Jaya is as upset as I am about this and is coordinating an event on her blog to dispel rumors about Indian pressure cookers.

Whole Red Lentil Curry

Masoorichi Amti

  • 2 cups whole masoor or whole red lentils
  • 3-4 potatoes, peeled and diced large
  • 2-3 tbsp oil
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2in piece of cinnamon, broken in two pieces
  • 1 tejpatta
  • 2-3 green cardamoms
  • 1 tsp whole black peppercorns
  • 4-5 cloves
  • 1-2 dried red chiles or fresh green chiles
  • 1 onion, red or white, large dice
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1/2 tsp red chile powder
  • 1 tbsp grated ginger
  • 2 tsp grated garlic
  • 1-2 tsp garam masala
  • 2-3 cups of diced tomatoes or 3 blobs of tomato paste
  • Salt to taste
  • 5-6 cups of water
  • Chopped cilantro for garnish

Masoorichi amti

  1. Clean whole masoor of any debris and rinse well with water a couple of times. Set aside.
  2. Heat oil in the pot of your 5-liter or larger pressure cooker.
  3. When it shimmers, add cumin seeds and turn down the heat so that they don't burn. 
  4. Add tejpatta, cinnamon, cardamoms, peppercorns, and cloves. Allow them to infuse the hot oil with their aroma, and then add the chiles. Toss so that all spices are coated with oil.
  5. Add diced onions, turmeric powder and red chile powder. Sweat on high heat for a couple of minutes, stirring to prevent scorching or burning.
  6. Add ginger, garlic, and garam masala. Turn down heat to medium and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently.
  7. Add diced tomatoes and salt. Stir to mix well.
  8. Add washed whole masoor and diced potatoes.
  9. Add at 5-6 cups of water, stir and raise heat to medium-high.
  10. Seal the pressure cooker, add the weight and cook for three whistles. 
  11. Turn off the heat and allow the pressure to subside gradually. When the weight comes off easily and the lid opens without any resistance, open the pressure cooker, adjust seasonings and add chopped cilantro.
  12. Serve over hot rice or with rotis, and yogurt. 

Masoorichi amti
masoorichi amti, ready to be frozen and put away

  • I prefer to buy masoor at the Indian grocery store. It is a lot smaller and more flavorful than the large lentils found in the regular grocery store.
  • This makes a lot of amti. We can make two meals out of it and I can usually fill at least 2-3 glass containers and freeze them for Medha's lunch. And, no, she doesn't get bored of eating the same thing over and over, simply because these are used over a period of 2-3 weeks. 
  • You could cook this in an open pot on the stove but it won't be as flavorful. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say it is because the flavors are infused into the masoor at high heat in a sealed pot. In an open pot, a lot of the aroma is lost and you also lose some depth of flavor as the onions are not browned. 
  • Add more chiles and/or garam masala to make it more spicy. 
  • Squeeze some lemon juice at the end, if you like. 
  • This is my go-to recipe for cooking whole masoor. Apart from the short and simple prep, it as good as cooks itself. 
I've made this without tomatoes, or with just ginger or just garlic as I was out of the other, or without onions, or without the whole spices and just the garam masala. Needless to say, I haven't omitted all of these, just one or the other. This recipe is very forgiving. Unlike me, who won't forgive you if you continue to say that Indian pressure cookers are dangerous!

I cooked this masoorichi amti in an Indian pressure cooker and it didn't blow up in my face!

Update: Jaya's round-up.


Anita said...

Guess what is dangerous - fire! Electricity! Yes, it says more about the user...

You have inserts even for the 2l pressure cooker! I think I am going to look for them for my 3l one - right now I just manage with the odds and ends I have at hand which rarely allows stacking other than some potatoes piled on top of the lid of the bowl below.

What kind of garam masala do you use in this amti - Maharashtrian? You must post a recipe for that!

Anita said...

I've had a great time reading the comments on that NYTimes article! LOL!

Anjali Koli said...

One of my favorite aamtis, it's so light on the tummy too!

Shri said...

We should not be surprised at this new wave of western discovery- whether it is 'vegan' coconut oil, pressure cookers and five ways of eating lentils!
The preaching sounds like a 'how to', a pacifier to get good things into your body even when it is difficult.

The comments section of any such article
They should write an article on the unsung heroines in the sub-continent, who cook every single day, gingerly ?, without the pressure cooker blowing up in their face!!!!
Good one Manisha! :-D!

Shri said...

Sorry... sentence unfinished: the comments section of any such article tend to reveal the popular attitudes.
Why does the NYT and other publications sleep on a good response/ article ?

Unknown said...

got to agree, pressure cook is the best friend in the kitchen. Love your dal recipe :)

Snehal said...

I love this post. I've always wondered the under utilization of this low-cost, efficient cooking method in the western world. I can't run my kitchen without the 3 different sized pressure cookers I have. And whoever said they were unsafe - how about using a BBQ grill which is hugely popular?!

Hopefully posts like this will generate more awareness and get people to use pressure cookers more often.

Manasi said...

Making this tonight. I however have green lentils soaking.
I like the small cooker, a 2 ltr cooker with dabba! Sahi re sahi!
I'll check with my mom for something similar and ask her to get it for me if my parents visit me.
I cannot imagine cooking without a pressure cooker. I know it is possible, but I love the convenience of having a cooker.

Manasi said...

Manisha, we LOVED -yes, in shouty capitals- the masoorichi amti!
Hardly any left overs ( 1 vatichi masoorichi keli)and slo forwarded the link to my parents.

I found myself humming the old jingle.."Hawkins ki seeti baje, khushboo hi khusboo ude, lajjatdar, majedar khana hai tayyar, aji khana hai tayyar.." remember that one?
I am partial to Hawkins,my Mother has it, even today and no, it has never blown up in her face, nor mine.

evolvingtastes said...

Read your post in the evening today, and before I knew it, this was dinner! I think it might be a personal record for shortest time between reading a recipe to making it. The main reasons being that I had no dinner plans, but had all ingredients on hand, and also in part because I was attracted to the idea of using whole spices (khada masala) instead of the usual phodni. Turned out very lovely. I am so making it again. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Love my pressure cooker,I mean how do you cook without it! I finally bought a local one,a Scanpan and its wonderful too. Lovely recipe. Tomorrows dinner!

Unknown said...

One question though,don't you have to soak the masoor overnight? I always did. Maybe this time I will try your way.

Indian Food Rocks said...

Anita, my garam masala is my cousin's "secret recipe." Yes, it is Maharashtrian and I think one of my aunts claimed that it was her recipe that they use and I have that recipe somewhere. I also have most of the ingredients so I just have to give it a whirl. I'll let you know!

The stackable inserts came with the pressure cooker. I was so grateful because I had a teeny galley kitchen in a rental in upstate NY at the time with next to no kitchenware!

I rarely read comments on the articles but yes, some of those were hilarious!

Anjali, if I eat too much, the fiber content helps clear out my tummy! ;-D

Shri, thank you! And truly, there are millions who use the Indian pressure cooker on a daily basis and safely at that! I honestly don't know how that hand blender article made the cut! It says stupid.

Priya, thank you!

Snehal, the cost of cooking is low, yes, but these new western pressure cookers are not cheap. They cost at least $100 or more. This is a point I wanted to touch on in my post but it was already too long! There is a reason why the design of Indian pressure cookers remains simple. The manufacturing costs are lower and the product is available to much larger market. There are more people cooking at a lower cost and also doing their bit to save the world.

David Leite hosted a Google hangout on pressure cookers recently. I haven't had the time to watch the entire video but if you're interested, it's here.

Manasi, thank you! So glad you liked the amti. It was my mother's way to make masoor quickly! I hope your parents like it, too! The little pressure cooker was what I used to start Medha off on dals when she was a baby. It worked well then and it works well now, too!

ET, whoa! That might be a record! Yup, I use this khada masalyachi phodni often and love it, too! Thank you for trying this. A lot of my friends make this amti because it's so easy and the recipe is so forgiving, too!

Poornima, in an ideal world, soaking the masoor overnight is the best thing to do. There are lots of reasons for soaking beans and legumes. They are easier to digest and their cook time is reduced, too. So, if you soak them, you shouldn't need more than 1 whistle. At most 2. I'm so used to making it this way that I have become lazy and don't soak them anymore. What I can tell you is that 3 whistles works! Whichever method you go with, let me know how you liked it!

Desisoccermom said...

Whole masoor is a favorite of mine but I have never cooked it with whole spices. Fact is I don't cook much with whole spices, maybe because they are stored in "pretty mason jars" in my pantry and not readily available in my masala dabba for the phodni. I have to try this method one of these days.
Now off to read the immersion blender comments.

Julia said...

I haven't heard of pressure cooker inserts. I imagine that they enable one to cook more than one thing at once.

The recipe sounds marvelous. Selfishly, I hope you make it to another swap soon.

Soma said...

Love masoor and oh I love whole masoor. so much flavor.

I never saw inserts for little cookers. Ma (and now me) always use the Indian small stell tiffin box inside them! will look for it when I go to India next time.

Unknown said...

Made this for a potluck dinner yesterday and it was licked clean. Thanks for this keeper of a recipe. And I did soak the masoor,again! Habit.

Indian Food Rocks said...

DSM, I don't keep mine in my masala dabba either. But they are within reach, in smaller jars in my spice cabinet. I use a lot of khada masala -- in my curries as well as pulaos.

Julia, it's how most of India cooks. Rice, dal and a veggie that takes as long to pressure cook. Dals are usually soaked overnight and don't take long as as unsoaked dals to cook. I hope to make it to the next swap but if I make this before then, I'll set some aside just for you!

Soma, those work just as well! It's just that my little pressure cooker came with those inserts!

Poornima, thank you and I am so glad you and your friends enjoyed it! How many pressure releases did it take for the soaked masoor to cook? And, btw, soaking it is a good habit; don't become lazy like me!

Unknown said...

I have a Scanpan cooker which goes all quiet when the pressure reaches high at which point I reduced heat to very low and timed 8 minutes. No whistles to count...this silent treatment can be a pain at times though.

Indian Food Rocks said...

Poornima, thanks! I'm sure that info will come in handy for someone who has a new gen pressure cooker!

Folks, Jaya has posted a rather well-written round-up for this event. It's definitely worth your time to go take a look at what the others cooked up in their Indian pressure cookers. I will update the post with this link, too.

Anonymous said...

Hi Manisha

I am a newbie to your blog and echoing the sentiments of most people here, I CANNOT live without my pressure cooker. I make everything in it and I am very careful on how I use it. It reduces the cooking time to half and it is a boon for a working woman like me :)

anna in spain said...

HOW did I miss this blogpost? Oh Manisha, promise me I'm still on your mailing list!! A lovely red lentil recipe to boot, my absolute favourite pulse.

All Spanish housewives know that you *need* a pressure cooker and an immersion blender (we call it a MiniPimer) to set up housekeeping. DH got me one of those with a chopper-box attachment and I use it constantly. I grew up using the old-style pressure pans in the US, too, and as you say, started cooking with it at about age 10 with never a mishap. But try convincing young cooks that it's safe...of course they are the ones who think that heating processed food in a microwave is "cooking."
They walk among us, they vote, and they reproduce.
(tiny voice) Help...

Indian Food Rocks said...

justagirl, welcome to IFR! I hope you stick around for some crazy conversations and fun! I am so glad you agree with all of us!

anna, you crack me up!

I'm trying to change how I send out emails. I'm leaning more towards grouping 2-3 posts in one email rather than sending out an email for every post. This is based on how inundated I feel when I receive near-daily emails that are RSS-driven.

It would not have been so bad if I had written the next post within a reasonable time-frame but I haven't been able to do that. So you are definitely still on my email list; I just haven't sent out an email! It hasn't helped that it is tax season here!

This recipe was my mother's quick way to make masoor. The best part is that you can't really mess up!

I do wonder why pressure cookers went out of style in the US. Was it because of smart competitive marketing from slow cooker companies? Or was it all the user-errors?

I can't do without my immersion blender either! When my 10-year-old Braun died a couple of years ago, I was so upset. I couldn't find a Braun easily and settled for a Cuisinart instead.

Unknown said...

I love my pressure cooker. I wouldn't trade it for absolutely anything! I think there were aspersions cast on its safety and that made it fall out of style here. I don't get it. Millions in use all over India and I never heard of anyone so much as getting a facial from them in my twenty-five years of living there.
It pays to respect your cookware.
- Sharmila | Cheeky Chilli

dassana said...

thats a great post. if used and handled well, then there can be no accidents. its just like how one uses a knife or drives a car or uses electricity.

Anonymous said...

Good looking recipe. Tried. Very nice.
I have no issues cooking with pressure cookers. When I get my daughter married, I plan to give her an array, assortment (sizes)of pressure cookers and pressure pans for everyday cooking!
Stainless steel Pressure pans are the most ideal for deep frying; bhaturas, large sized murukkus!
To boil water for pasta and noodles, tight lid of pressure cooker works so fast.

aarrgghh said...

hahahahaha came here looking for recipes to explore with my new pressure cooker. not only got recipes that I am looking forward to trying I also got a good laugh. Love your style of writing and humour.