The economic recession has many people searching for ways to make their grocery dollars stretch as far as they can go. This includes eating out less and spending more time preparing meals at home. It also often means buying whole chickens or leg quarters rather than the more expensive boneless breasts or strips. But before you put that little bit of leftover meat away for lunch and prepare to throw the bones out with the trash, you might want to consider holding on to them. With an inexpensive purchase and a little bit of know-how, that whole chicken or family pack of leg quarters you bought has one or maybe even two more entire meals left in it. It all starts with a piece of equipment your grandmother probably considered standard kitchen equipment; a pressure cooker.
To people unfamiliar with them, pressure cookers can seem intimidating. They have lots of unfamiliar locks and gaskets. They rattle and hiss like an 1800’s steam contraption. You may have even heard stories passed down across generations of pressure cookers exploding on the stove. There’s no need to worry. Today’s pressure cookers are simple to use for even the most novice cook. Modern pressure cookers contain multiple safety features that make the explosions of the past virtually impossible. Best of all, pressure cookers can make one meal into two by extracting every ounce of flavor from bones, giblets, and cast offs to make soup broths that will beat anything you will ever get from a can.
When choosing a pressure cooker, there are a number of things you need to decide. First, how many people will you be cooking for? Pressure cookers range in size from small four quart models to massive thirty quart monstrosities. The price goes up as the size increases so it’s important not to buy too much as the extra space, and the extra dollars, will just go to waste. But it’s also just as important not to get a pressure cooker that is too small. Four quart models won’t fit large roasts or other whole meats and also will yield a much smaller volume of broth when boiling bones and castoffs. If you have a family of four or more, you will probably want to go with at least a six quart model. If you have freezer space to store excess broth, you might want to go with an even bigger model as a small amount of bones and offal will flavor as surprisingly large amount of water. If you’re single and limited for space, a four quart cooker might be perfect for both your lifestyle.
The second thing to consider when choosing a pressure cooker is what you plan to do with it. If all you want to do is make broth from your leftovers, to then be transferred to a stock pot or slow cooker for soup making, then a small pressure cooker might be good for you. If you plan to make soup, large pots of dried beans, or very large pieces of whole meat, you will probably want to opt for a twelve quart or larger model.
The third thing to consider is how much multi-tasking do you want your pressure cooker to do? The smaller and cheaper models are very basic in their design and are really only meant for fast cooking and broth making. Larger and more expensive models are billed as combination pressure cookers and pressure canners. These are very useful if you plan to do home canning and usually come with a number of helpful canning accessories such as a funnel, jar lifter, or lid lifter. They may also come with other useful accessories such as a basket that you place inside the pressure cooker with the bones and offal so when it’s done you just lift the basket out rather than having to strain it.
The final thing to consider when buying a pressure cooker is features. Some of the less expensive pressure cookers feature very simple controls consisting of a rocker on top to regulate pressure and a safety catch to prevent opening when pressurized. These are very easy to use but provide no quick way to release the pressure and gain access to the contents. You have to either allow the cooker to depressurize naturally or run it under cold water for several minutes. More expensive models feature valves instead of the weighted rockers. These allow you to regulate how much pressure you want your food to cook under and also turn a switch and quickly release the pressure inside.
When used regularly and correctly, a pressure cooker will allow you to become a true culinary recycler, wringing every last ounce of flavor from parts that normally get thrown in the trash. When combined with home canning it can provide access to high quality fruits and vegetables all year round without having to pay high out of season prices.
The next part of our series on pressure cookers will feature some of the meats and bones you can prepare using your pressure cooker and also some favorite recipes to try out.