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What is an Instant Pot? Here’s everything you need to know

Thinking of buying an Instant Pot? Here's what you need to know

Looking for a quick meal but don’t want to use a microwave? An instant pot does the reverse of a slow cooker. By pressure cooking the pan, it heats your meal in no time. 

Instant pots come in a variety of designs, but each one has its unique set of features. Some of the new technologies include automatic burning detection and Wi-Fi connectivity. See our picks for the best instant pots for today’s busy cook.

What does the Instant Pot do, exactly?

If this programmable countertop multicooker earns a spot in your kitchen, you’ll probably start relying on it more than any other cooking appliance. The specific functions of your Instant Pot will vary based on which model you purchase, but these are the basic programs that will be present in most models:

  • Slow cooker
  • Pressure cooker (most models let you cook on high or low pressure, or choose specific pressure setting like poultry or meat/stew)
  • Rice cooker
  • Steamer
  • Saute/browning
  • Yogurt maker
  • Warmer

Many models also come with additional programs, including egg maker, cake maker, and sterilizer. Depending on the size and type of your model, you can insert certain types of dishes directly into the appliance, including cupcake molds or springform pans. You can also use aluminum foil to separate certain ingredients in your instant pot, which allows you to cook veggies and meats at the same time for recipes like fajitas. You can find lots of different Instant Pot recipes online.

The device also features a timer and various settings for whether you want to set to cook on low, medium, high, or keep warm.

Types of Instant Pots

You can choose from about 20 different Instant Pot models and sizes ranging from 3 to 8 quarts. The 3-quart size is ideal for a small family of two to three people, the 5-quart and 6-quart sizes are ideal for four to six, and the 8-quart is large enough for families with six or more. Some Instant Pots models, like the smart Wi-Fi version, allow you to monitor and control your Instant Pot with your smart phone or tablet. Here are the different models you can choose from.

  • Instant Pot Max
  • Instant Pot Ultra
  • Instant Pot Duo
  • Instant Pot Duo Plus
  • Instant Pot Duo SV
  • Instant Pot Duo Evo Plus
  • Instant Pot Lux
  • Instant Pot Duo Nova
  • Instant Pot Viva
  • Instant Pot Smart WiFi

Thawing and working with frozen foods

Instant Pot asparagus
Jenny McGrath/Digital Trends
If time is short for you and you tend to work with a lot of frozen ingredients, you may be wondering if the Instant Pot is really for you. The good news is that can Instant Pot can help thaw foods straight from the freezer (please remove containers first) if you know the right procedures.
You can put your frozen foods right into the Instant Pot and saute them for a few minutes to bring the temperature up. Then, for cooked foods you can steam them to reheat the dish without drying it out. If you need to thaw and then cook a food, the best course of action is to just follow the normal cooking process indicated by your Instant Pot recipe. The food will be fully thawed as the Instant Pit comes up to pressure, before it begins its cooking cycle.
If you plan on cooking a lot of foods in the Pot, you may want to make sure they are frozen in bowls or boxes so they fit into the pot easily, rather than frozen in a flat bag that doesn’t really fit into the Pot’s dimensions.

Will food lose nutrients during cooking?

Instant Pot asparagus
Jenny McGrath/Digital Trends

While some people equate the high temperatures of pressure cooking with loss of nutrients, this is the opposite of the truth. Pressure cooking allows heat to be distributed evenly and quickly, so you don’t need to immerse foods like frozen vegetables into water. You only need just enough water to generate sufficient steam, and most recipes use about one cup of water. Because food isn’t getting immersed in water, vitamins will not be dissolved away and will instead be retained for consumption. Furthermore, the steam that surrounds the food will prevent it from being oxidized by exposure to air. You’ll notice that your green vegetables will emerge from the Instant Pot looking just as green as they were when they went in, and retaining their natural flavors as well.

What to know before cooking in an Instant Pot

While the Instant Pot is an incredible kitchen device, it does have its own quirks that people should be aware of before they jump into any given recipe. Some of the most important considerations we’ve found are:
  • You can burn foods: An Instant Pot works via bottom burners. This means that if foods at the bottom of the Pot don’t have access to enough moisture, they can easily burn. This both ruins your meal and makes it hard to clean the Pot afterward. It can happen most easily when making more complex dishes that involve layers of rice or meat. Good Instant Pot recipes will remind you to stir ingredients carefully and add enough liquid so that burning isn’t an issue. The good news is that the Pot has sensors dedicated to detecting burning, and it will shut off automatically if it looks like this is happening.
  • The timer can be hard to understand at first: The Instant Pot has a warm-up and “wait for pressure to build” time that it will take before a timer actually starts counting down. This period can vary based on the ingredients you put inside and may affect ultimate cooking times. Once a timer is done, the Instant Pot will beep and start counting up instead: This is how much time that the dish has been naturally depressurized, an important number to keep an eye on if you need to let steam release naturally for a specific amount of time.
  • Smells may be an eventual issue: The Pot uses a silicone ring for locking the lid in. This ring works great, but over time it may absorb the odors of foods, especially rich and garlicky foods. If you start to notice this, remove the ring and wash it by hand or in the dishwasher. You may want to scrub it a little with baking soda to see if this helps, too. This usually removes ring odors and fixes the problem. If you find that the ring still smells, you can order a replacement part.

Is it safe?

Instant Pot asparagus
Jenny McGrath/Digital Trends

Stories about pressure cookers exploding, coating the walls with mashed potatoes, or hurting someone have certainly made their way into the news cycle before. The Instant Pot is not the pressure cooker your grandmother cooked with back in the 1980s. Instant Pot pressure cookers haven’t been known to have issues with melting or overheating. Plus, the Instant Pot has several safety features designed specifically to ensure that nothing except your taste buds will explode by using the appliance. Thanks to the automatic lid lock and lid detection features, it’s impossible for users to open the lid of the cooker until the pressure has been released. An anti-blockage vent also ensures that food particles don’t block steam from being released during the cooking process. The Instant Pot comes with automatic temperature control, which keeps the inside temperature of the pot within a safe range at all times.

Once cooking is complete, users can release the pressure either naturally or manually. Both options are safe, but one is usually advisable over the other depending on the kind of food you’re cooking. For example, opt for the natural-release method when cooking liquids like soups and porridges, or choose the manual method for delicate foods like fresh vegetables and seafood.

Pressure cookers heat food to a temperature higher than the boiling point of water, which helps kill almost all harmful micro-organisms. For example, raw kidney beans contain phytohaemagglutinin, which is a harmful toxin that gets destroyed after being boiled at a high temperature for several minutes. This sterilizing function is why some people even use the Instant Pot to clean things like jam jars and baby bottles.

Instant Pot vs. the others

TaoTronics 10-in-1 Pressure Cooker review
Erika Rawes/Digital Trends

Instant Pot is probably the most well-known name in pressure multicooking devices. However, it’s not the only player in the game. Other brands have come out with similar cookers with similar features. Devices like the TaoTronics 10-in-1 pressure cooker (pictured above) and the Mealthy MultiPot offer many of the same buttons and programs as the Instant Pot models. Some appliances, like the Ninja Foodi, combine pressure cooking and a unique cooking function, like air frying.

If you’re thinking of buying an Instant Pot, it’s wise to check out all of your options. With an alternative, you can sometimes get additional features or a lower price tag. With an Instant Pot, you get a pressure multicooker with a trusted name. Oftentimes, you can find deals on certain Instant Pot models, and this can make the decision a bit easier.

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