Pressure Cooking – To fear or not to fear

Pressure cookers used to put the fear-of-God into me. Maybe Willem Prinsloo’s mother’s red, beetroot-smelling kitchen ceiling had something to do with it.

Or maybe it was watching my tiny, corpulent grandmother dive for cover to avoid the cascade of piping hot barley soup exploding from a small hole in the pressure cooker lid. It presented the same spectacular effect as the gigantic fountain at one of those over-priced Las Vegas holiday resorts, but without any of the outrageous, pretentious glamor.

It was with great sadness that I watched her mop the floor; no young child deserves to see his grandmother dive for cover with such lack of elegance and style. I cannot remember that she ever cooked barley soup again, ever.  And the mere hissing of pressure cooker was enough to make me evacuate the kitchen right there and then for more years than I care to remember.

Since then I came a long way, and so did pressure cookers. I can’t remember when last I heard of a pressure cooker exploding, or send some podgy old lady dive for the safety of her rickety kitchen table.

My reintroduction to pressure cookers became complete when I received one for my birthday a few years back. It was an electric one with special functions for browning and sautéing and a timer.

Pressure cookers have been around since 1679, when the French physicist Denis Papin invented the steam digester. The first pressure cooker for home use came onto the market in 1938 in New York City.

Pressure-cooking food involves cooking food with a cooking liquid such as water in a sealed cooking vessel (called a pressure cooker). Pressure is created inside the sealed vessel by boiling the cooking liquid and trapping the steam; which in turn increases the internal pressure in the vessel allowing the temperature to rise. Because of this, pressure-cooking food takes less time than normal cooking and thus is a convenient way to simulate the effects of slow braising. Because of the reduction in cooking time, pressure-cooking saves energy.

Chinese-style braised oxtail
Chinese-style braised oxtail

Home kitchens have witnessed at least three generations of pressure cookers. The first generation – the kind that painted Willem Prinsloo’s mother’s ceiling and send my grandmother diving for cover – had a weight-modified valve that released pressure during operation. It “hissed” and “danced” whilst cooking and had only one pressure level. These are still around but with new safety features, which prevents the opening of the vessel whilst still under pressure.

Second generation pressure cookers allowed for at least two pressure-levels and has a spring mechanism that indicated rising pressure levels. Some did not omit any steam during operation whilst others contained a dial for changing pressure-levels.

Both first and second generation pressure cookers relied on direct heat – usually the stove top – to boil the cooking liquid.

The third generation pressure cookers – the electric ones – show a radical departure from the first two, not only because of it electric power source, but also because it has so much more functionality. One important function included in electric pressure cookers is the timer. These can be mechanical, digital or “smart”, i.e. programmable. The latter is operated much the same way as a microwave oven, and includes pre-sets for cooking times, temperature, pressure and duration. They may also be multifunctional: pressure cooker, rice cooker, steamer and yogurt maker.

All pressure cookers must be vented before opening. Modern safety measures will not allow pressure cookers to be opened unless all pressure is released. Venting can take one of three forms: manual (normal) or quick release, which involves letting the steam out by lifting the valve or turning a dial. This is done when more food is to be added to that already in the cooker (e.g. vegetables added to meat). The method should not be followed with food that froths and foams when cooking as they may spray outward through the valve (such as Willem Prinsloo’s mother’s beetroot or grandma’s barley.

When the pressure cooker is removed from the heat source and left to stand to cool down, pressure is reduced naturally and slowly. This could take several minutes. It is the best method for depressurizing food that foams and froths but neither Willem Prinsloo’s mother nor my grandmother knew that. As the pressure cookers remains hot, delicate food may overcook whilst waiting for the cooker to depressurize.

The last way for depressurizing cookers is to submerge them in cold water. Unless you are a pro, this is not the way you want to do it; and this is most certainly not the way to depressurize electric pressure cookers.

With the additional safety measures of modern pressure cookers there is not much to fear and every busy home cook will benefit greatly from their regular use.

Want to cook ox tongue in 45 minutes? Or Oxtail in 40 minutes? Want to make a super quick vegetable or chicken stock? All this and countless more can be done with the use of a pressure cooker.

This week’s recipe is for delicious oxtail using Chinese ingredients such as soy sauce, ginger, garlic, cinnamon and star anise; and off course, with the help of your pressure cooker, it will take only about 40 minutes to prepare.

And while you sit down with a steaming bowl of oxtail and perhaps some steamed rice, please spare a kind thought for Willem Prinsloo’s mom’s ceiling and my grandmother’s knees.

Pressure-cooking, and life in general, is so much easier these days.

Chinese-style braised oxtail
Chinese-style braised oxtail

 Chinese-style braised oxtail


1 kilogram Beef oxtail
1/2 cup Light soy sauce
1/4 cup Chinese cooking wine
1/4 cup Palmsugar
6 cloves Garlic, Bruised
60 grams Fresh ginger, sliced thickly
4 Spring onions, chopped coarsely
2 Star anise
2 Cinnamon sticks
1/2 cup Water
2 Spring Onion, shredded finely as garnish


Combine all the ingredients (soy sauce, wine, sugar, garlic, ginger, chopped spring onion, star anise, cinnamon, and the water) in a 6-litre electric pressure cooker. Select the sauté function and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the oxtail and secure the lid. Select the “high pressure” setting and cook for at least 40 to 45 minutes. Release pressure using the quick release method (by opening the pressure valve on top of the pressure cooker and allowing all the steam to escape) and when the pot is depressurised, remove lid. Transfer oxtail to serving plate and garnish with shredded spring onions.  Serve with steamed rice, or even mash or boiled potatoes.




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