Over Christmas, my niece, Nikita, told me that while she was an undergraduate and living in a dorm room, she got by with doing a lot of cooking in the Instant Pot (aka, IP). She made a lot of rice porridge/soups, beans, and stews with the IP; she used a rice cooker for rice because the Instant Pot isn’t a great rice cooker. The conversation got me thinking about using the Instant Pot to do unexpected things.
My pressure cooker beef pho recipe from The Pho Cookbook was adapted for the IP in Coco Morante’s new book, and I wondered what else she had included in the collection of 200 recipes. The Instant Pot and other programmable electric multicookers are super popular right now, and cookbooks that help people push all the right buttons to make food fast are practically flying off the shelves. One of the best sellers is Coco’s The Ultimate Instant Pot Cookbook
The book offers a global range of recipes that includes Korean bibimbap, Lao larb, cider-braised pork. broccoli-cheddar soup and pound cake. I was scanning for Asian recipes and spotted the sweet and sour pork recipe. Coco’s is a healthy version of the tradition one which involves briefly cooking pork cubes with pineapple, bell pepper, and onion in tangy sauce. Her brief pressure cooking promised to deliver cooked pork and tender crisp veggies. I was game to try it out.
How well can the Instant Pot make a Chinese wokked favorite? I made the recipe twice because the idea of an easy, fast, healthy version of sweet and sour pork intrigued me. I also wanted to understand what people expect from the IP.
Instant Pot vs. Wokked Recipes
The first thing you may have noticed in the top photo is the amount of sauce. It’s tasty but it’s gravy-like. There’s a lot.
That’s because pressure cookers need a certain amount of liquid to build up pressure, so the amount of sauce for this recipe is a largish quantity. It tastes good but the end result includes more liquid. It’s not gloppy and gross. Just take it as there being a lot of lovely sauce for coating your rice.
In a wok, the amount of liquid may be the same to start with but through natural evaporation during cooking, it condenses. The Instant Pot’s lid is on tight so there’s little liquid lost.
Also note that you’re not going to get wok hei (the special seared flavor from a hot happening metal wok). After getting tired of scrubbing the stainless steel inner pot, I bought a ceramic coated nonstick inner pot for the Instant Pot. It’s not as easy to clean as the Fagor Lux’s inner pot but because of the ceramic coating, the inner pot heats up hotter and things come to pressure just a little faster than when the stainless steel inner pot is used.
I don’t think cooks using a pressure cooker for sweet and sour pork are looking for wok hei. They’re looking for easy breezy cooking.
Some people like to say, if not boast, that they “don’t follow recipes” but my interpretation is that they use a recipe as a guide, loose framework. You need some foundation to riff that easily. That’s to say, if you know a bit about sweet and sour pork and cooking in general, you can take a recipe like this and tweak it here and there.
For sweet and sour pork, I like pork with some richness so I chose a thick butterfly pork loin chop cut from the flavorful part of the loin. You can use shoulder but you need only 1 pound, which isn’t as easy to obtain as a chop.
With regard to ingredient substitutes, I don’t have canned tomato sauce but I do have tubes of tomato paste concentrate. Given that, I whisked together 2 1/2 tablespoons of the paste with 5 1/2 tablespoons water to make tomato sauce. (If you have canned tomato paste, try 1/4 cup paste and 1/4 cup water.)
Where I live, apple cider is hard to find at the supermarket and grocery stores; I committed to giant container at Trader Joe’s. It lent a soft sweetness to the sauce. In round two, I opted for tang and substituted apple cider vinegar. The brown sugar in the sauce has plenty of sweetness.
For the pineapple, if possible, use fresh, or as a second choice, use frozen. Avoid the canned variety. A primer on cutting pineapple with little waste is here.
Ground vs. Fresh Garlic and Ginger
I’m not big on using ground garlic and ginger but I know many people keep them in their pantry; (I buy them as needed from the bulk section at Whole Foods or my natural grocer). The dried spices are convenient but they have a different taste that I’m frankly not used to. What’s more, the Instant Pot melds flavors together fast so the pungent, zippy notes of those dried ingredients got lost in the end in the sweet and sour sauce. Maybe a subtle note is what avid IP users want.
I wanted more punchy fresh flavor. For my second experiment with the recipe, I used grated fresh garlic and ginger, adding them to the pot after the pork got seared. That allowed them to get aromatic and cooked in a manner that’s more true to what would happen in a wok. You can mince the garlic and ginger too but I used the Microplane rasper thinking of the cook who may not want to much fine chopping.
I also added the apply cider vinegar instead of the apple cider. The result was more complex, and overall, easy and fast to put together.
This recipe is great as is, but because of its straightforward simplicity, you can also play with the flavors without risking failure. It’s great for beginner cooks and those who want to do easygoing single appliance cooking. And what about those tender-crisp vegetables? Coco delivered, just as promised in The Ultimate Instant Pot Cookbook!
To compare methods, here’s my favorite old school sweet and sour pork recipe.
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Instant Pot Sweet and Sour Pork
- 1/2 cup pineapple juice, plus 1 1/2 cups fresh or thawed pineapple chunks
- 1/2 cup tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce, such as Kikkoman
- 2 tablespoons apple cider, or 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar (choose cider for soft sweetness, vinegar for tang)
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder, or 2 teaspoons grated garlic
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, or 1 teaspoon grated ginger
- 1/4 cup firmly packed light or dark brown sugar
- 1 pound boneless loin pork chops, fatty kind preferred, each about 1 inch thick, cut into 1-inch pieces
- Rounded 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil such as canola or avocado
- 1 small yellow onion cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 large bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch or potato starch
- 1 tablespoon water
- 2 slender green onions tender green parts only, thinly sliced
- Rice for serving
- In a medium bowl, combine the pineapple juice, tomato sauce, apple cider (or vinegar), soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic powder, and ginger powder. (When using the grated garlic or ginger, set that aside to add in step 3.) Stir until the sugar dissolves, then set aside.
- Season the pork with salt and pepper.
- Select the high Sauté setting on the instant pot and heat the oil. Add the pork in an even layer and let it sear for about 2 to 3 minutes, until it begins to turn opaque and brown just a bit. Give it a stir, and let cook for 3 to 4 minutes more, until mostly opaque (it is fine if some traces of pink remain). If using, add the grated garlic and ginger, stir and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add the onion, bell pepper, pineapple chunks, and pineapple juice mixture. Stir to combine.
- Secure the lid and set the Pressure Release to Sealing. Press the Cancel button to reset the cooking program, then select the Pressure Cook or Manual setting and set the cooking time for one minute at low pressure. (The pot will take about 10 minutes to come up to pressure before the cooking program begins.)
- When the cooking program ends, perform a quick pressure release by moving the pressure release to Venting.
- While the pressure is releasing, in a small bowl stir together the cornstarch and water.Open the pot and stir in the cornstarch mixture. Press the Cancel button to reset the cooking program, select the Sauté setting, and cook for 30 to 60 seconds to thicken the sauce. Spoon the pork into a serving bowl or onto plates and sprinkle with the green onions. Serve the steam rice alongside.