People have pressure cookers on their minds these days. In last Saturday’s “Pho Celebration” cooking class, we made two recipes from The Pho Cookbook that required a pressure cooker. (Why use a pressure cooker? It's great for cooks who are in a hurry. With respect to pho, a pressure cooker enables you to make pho on a weeknight.) Several people had never used one, while others remember them from the 1970s, when the cookers were a little scary – ours exploded, my mom recently reminded me. Another asked me about the different kinds.
On the same day in Houston, Chi T. was also pondering pressure cookers. When I got home, her email was in my inbox:
I bought your Pho book and love it, like your other books. Thank you for teaching me about Vietnamese culture as well as Vietnamese cooking in your books. I have all your books and look forward for more in the future. When I was younger, I missed the opportunity to learn Vietnamese cooking from my mom. I just was focused on other things like school and career than cooking. Now that I have kids, I wish I had paid more attention to my mom when she was trying to teach me, since I now live so far from my mom now. Reading your books have taught me so much and made me appreciate Vietnamese cooking.
I went off tangent since I do have a question for you, if you don't mind answering. I want to try the pressure cooker methods to cook Pho and am torn between getting a stovetop pressure cooker vs. an electric pressure cooker like Instant Pot. Which one do you prefer and why. I don't care about cost. I just would like to know which one you prefer.
Thanks again for gifting me another cookbook I will treasure for many, many years.
It was a coincidence that Chi wrote because I’d just been discussing the same topic with people in class. Here’s a summary of my thoughts and experience with pressure cookers.
With the popularity of multi-cookers like the Instant Pot, people have more choices for pressure cookers. The one we had in the 1970s was stovetop and when I embarked on my pressure cooker pho adventures, I chose a stovetop model – the Fagor Duo, which has both low (8 psi) and high pressure settings (15 psi). Cook's Illustrated ranked it highly and my friend Lori Galvin, who edited their pressure cooker cookbook said it performed very well compared to other models tested.
When I bought my first Duo around 2014, I never considered an electric pressure cooker. I need counter space for prep work. I don’t even own a rice cooker and keep the microwave oven in the garage. The only electric appliances on my counter are what I used practically daily: an electric water kettle and this compact toaster oven. When the Duo isn’t in use, it sits in my garage on a shelf.
I bought two Fagor Duos for my pho research: the 6-quart and 8-quart models. Most people have a 6-quart capacity pressure cooker (it’s not intimidating in size) so last Christmas I gifted my mom the 8-quart Fagor Duo.
Both sizes function the same but the smaller one is more versatile for cooking things like 8 ounces of beans or a cup of sorghum. The pho recipes in the cookbook call for either size but you’d obviously have more wiggle room with the larger size if you decide to use the pressure cooker for batches of soup broth, or the like. A pressure cooker that’s smaller than 6 quarts has little use for me but it may for others.
Though cost is not a consideration for Chi, the Fagor Duo is affordable (unless a small appliance can also do the dishes and clean my floor, it shouldn’t cost the same as say, a cheap stove) and easy to use (few parts to make things go wrong). I’ve had a few strange situations with the Duo but found that it was no sweat to undo the pressure valve and put it together. I’ve been very happy with the Duo because I don't intend to become a pressure cooker expert. I want to invest enough energy to be able to use it well to produce certain foods I like quickly.
But there are fancier pressure cooker options out there. A few weeks back, I realized that I needed a second 6-quart pressure cooker to teach pho classes. I considered an electric multi-cooker, such as the Instant Pot and Fagor LUX Multi Cooker – which is capable of functioning as a pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, and yogurt maker, too! The prices were fair.
When I investigated the electric models, I realized that their pressure settings were low: around 6 psi for low pressure and roughly 10 psi for high pressure. Writing recipes is hard for appliances because they vary according to manufacturer. In the main, the high and low settings for pressure cookers are in line with stovetop models (8 psi for low, 15 psi for high).
As I suggest in The Pho Cookbook, you need to read the user’s manual of your pressure cooker (the Duo’s online version is what I go to). That way, you know if you need to adapt a recipe to your particular cooker. A good recipe should indicate a psi number so you have a ballpark number to aim for.
When Michelle Tam adapted my pressure cooker chicken pho recipe from the book for the Instant Pot, she told me that she had to tweak a few things. She also said that the Instant Pot retains pressure for a very long time so the chicken risks over cooking, though that may not be a bad thing for some folks. But she made things work magnificently for Instant Pot pressure cooker pho. She wrote it up on Nom Nom Paleo, her mega-popular website.
For braised recipes such as the beef pho banh mi in the book, the beef is browned in the cooker before liquid is added and the lid is locked in place. Customer comments on Amazon indicated that the electric models don’t heat up as much to give you a good Maillard reaction from a good browning to impart deep flavor. If your electric pressure cooker doesn’t brown much or at all, do the browning on the stove then cook in the pressure cooker. It’s a simple workaround.
If an appliance’s weight is an issue, a stovetop pressure cooker weighs a lot less than an electric one. I have to move and carry my cookers for class so the thought of carrying an electric cooker -- even if it’s just a few steps at the end of a long day did not appeal. (It’s like that last thing you shove into your luggage that suddenly makes the luggage hard to lug.)
When releasing pressure, you can do it naturally or manually on either stovetop or electric models. With the stovetop one, the bonus is that you can rinse the pot with water to hasten the cooling process, or, you can set the cooker on a trivet on the counter to cool quicker than say, on a coolish burner, before releasing pressure manually.
If you’re considering a multi-cooker, consider how often you’ll use the other functions. If you have a favorite rice cooker, do you need another machine to make rice? How often do you use a slow-cooker (Crock Pot)? Do you want to make yogurt? If it’s just a pressure cooker that you’re looking for, then you don’t need a multi-cooker. You may be fine with an electric pressure cooker, or just a stovetop cooker.
In terms of energy efficiently, it’s hard to say. Instant Pot did a side-by-side energy consumption comparison here. I have a gas stove so it’s hard to determine if the energy cost would be the same or different between a stovetop and electric pressure cooker.
The electric pressure cookers and multi-cookers have built-in convenience because they’re self-regulating, can keep food warm for hours, and are programmable. Electric pressure cookers are great if you're into "set it and forget it". With my stovetop Fagor Duo, I monitor the pressure and manually adjust the heat accordingly. I don’t mind doing that and it allows me to monitor the pot a little more. (I wish I could see through the cooker to watch the action but that’s not likely to be possible.)
There are pros and cons to a stovetop and electric pressure cooker. If you want a reliable and affordable stovetop pressure cooker, go with a 6-quart Fagor Duo or the 8-quart Duo. For an electric pressure cooker, the 6-quart Instant Pot offers the full array of functions for a fair price; the 8-quart Instant Pot weighs 21 pounds.
So what did I buy for my class? Another 6-quart Fagor Duo. It has proven to work for my needs and that’s the best thing you can say about any reliable kitchen appliance.
P.S. In Vietnamese, pressure cookers are called noi ap xuat; you can see how much they sell for in Vietnam here -- 1.69m VND is roughly $75 USD. If I’ve missed anything, add your insights or ask a question. Do you own a stovetop or electric pressure cooker/multicooker? Which one and how do you like it?
And, on the pho front: The cookbook received attention from Epicurious, Cooking Light, Nom Nom Paleo, CHOW, and A Taste of the Past. Seira Wilson spotlighted the book in her Amazon.com February cookbook picks. Kitchen Arts and Letters's newsletter review included this great kicker: "So stop waiting in line at your local pho hot spot and fire up your stove!"
Sales have been brisk and my publisher rushed a third printing. :) Thank you for the continued pho interest, pictures via social media and reviews/comments elsewhere. It's all pho-nomenal.
There are a limited number of seats left for the March 8 Pho Foodways event at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. If you're in the Bay Area and interested, tickets available here.