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

Looking for a quick meal, but don’t want to use a microwave? An Instant Pot is a multifunctional pressure cooker that can cook anything from roasts to chicken to desserts, and in much less time than most other cooking appliances.

Instant Pots come in a variety of designs, but each one has its own unique set of features. Some of the new technologies include air frying and Wi-Fi connectivity. What can this appliance do? How does an Instant Pot work? This guide explains everything you need to know about Instant Pots.

What does the Instant Pot do, exactly?

If this programmable countertop multi-cooker 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 sous vide machine, egg maker, cake maker, and sterilizer. You can even purchase an air frying lid for your pot.

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.

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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
  • Instant Pot Duo Crisp+Air Fryer

Thawing and working with frozen foods

Instant Pot asparagus
Jenny McGrath/Digital Trends
If you’re short on time, 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 your 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. For cooked foods, you can steam to reheat the dish without drying it out or use the sous vide function (on compatible models). 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 Pot comes up to pressure, and 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 freezing 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 liquid.

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: 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. 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 total cooking times. Once the 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.
  • Mastery of the steam valve is important: On the Instant Pot lid is a small steam valve that can be set either in a lock or release state by turning it like a knob. This may take a little practice to get used to, but you can quickly learn how it works. Always check to make sure the valve is closed when pressure cooking. You should never see steam rise from the Pot while in pressure mode. The valve is designed to sit loosely, so locking and releasing it can feel a little “wobbly,” but it’s clear when the valve is released because of escaping steam. Many users like to push the valve open with a stirring spoon to prevent steam burns.
  • Smells may be an eventual issue: The Pot uses a silicone ring for creating an airtight seal and locking the lid in place. 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.

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 soup and porridge, 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.

Best time to buy an Instant Pot

Looking for a deal before you commit to buying an Instant Pot? Start looking around the holidays, as Instant Pot deals are very common for Black Friday, Christmas, Memorial Day, and similar times. You may even find some deals around the Super Bowl and other special times when families are more likely to be looking for cooking solutions.

Other discounts may happen more randomly. For example, Amazon recently discounted all of its Instant Pot models soon after July 4, 2020, possibly so the brand could get rid of excess supplies or meet behind-the-scenes goals.

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 cooking 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 another cooking function, like air frying or dehydrating.

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 multi-cooker with a trusted name. Oftentimes, you can find deals on certain Instant Pot models, and this can make the decision a bit easier.

Other Instant Pot cooker options

If the original Instant Pot design isn’t exactly what you are looking for, you should know that the brand does offer more specialized cookers — they don’t do as much, but they have the same effortless controls, safety, and great design as other Instant Pots.

If you are looking for a slow cooker that can handle larger racks of beef or pork, then we suggest taking a look at the Instant Aura Pro slow cookers. If you are primarily interested in quickly and easily cooking a lot of rice for a family or catering business, you should take a look at the Instant Zest rice cookers. Both these lines also include plenty of features from the original Instant Pot series, including multiple modes for cooking different foods and great timer settings. Instant Pot even has blenders and toaster ovens.

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