Product Review: Instant Pot

Posted on March 14, 2017
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It is no secret to my friends and family that I love kitchen gadgets. In my defense, when you cook as much as I do, anything that makes cooking simpler, faster, or somehow more delicious, is always appealing. Unfortunately, living in Manhattan means that I have very limited space to indulge my kitchen-gadget obsession. I have to be ruthless in deciding what “makes the cut” into my pantry, and make sure the tools really are worth the space. My latest object of desire has been the Instant Pot, but is it really worth it? 

For the past six months, every blogger I follow has raved about the  Instant Pot. As tempted as I was to try it, I wasn’t sure if it was worth the hype  (or the space).  Many was the night I’d lie in bed, pining over the Instant Pot, exclaiming to my husband that we absolutely NEEDED this miracle device. He would question if “need” was the right verb, and then remind me of the slow cooker that lives in our closet, and the stand mixer that is permanently on display in our living room. However, when my birthday rolled around, and a brand new Instant Pot appeared at my doorstep, I finally had the opportunity to give it a try and see if it was everything I dreamed it would be.

Getting Started

When I first opened my Instant Pot, I was a bit taken aback by how large it was. It has a smaller footprint than my slow-cooker, but it is several inches taller. Once I had it out of the box, I tried to decipher the instructions. 

Fact #1: The instructions were too long, and didn’t have enough pictures.

Yes, I said it. Pictures. I’m going to be honest here, I hate reading instruction manuals. And I don’t think I’m alone there. Opening the box, and reading the manual, referencing valves and such felt like too much thinking for something that is supposed to simplify my life. While cursing under my breath, I went to my purse to grab my reading glasses. I wish I hadn’t. I didn’t like what I read.

Fact #2: You have to freaking deconstruct this thing before using it!

Now, I understand if a minimal amount of assembly is required for some devices – but I’ve never been given something that needs to be disassembled upon receipt. The instructions for set up involved removing some valve covers (which my pot didn’t have), and the seal, and then replacing everything. They also referenced parts and names as if I was supposed to naturally know what they were. This is where pictures would have really come in handy. Not to be deterred, I did what anyone would do. I went to YouTube to find a video. 

Fact #3: You aren’t supposed to just start using the damn thing.

YouTube is amazing when one is too lazy to read a 20 page manual. However, deconstructing my new toy wasn’t the only thing I needed to do for it to be primed and ready to cook my dinner. No. The Instant Pot apparently needed a practice run with plain old water. For those of you type-A rule followers, you may want to skip the next bit and go straight to the “Cooking with the Instant Pot” section…

At this point, I said f&*k it and just started cooking. I know that there are probably many safety reasons for this long and involved process, but I have zero patience. I wanted to take this baby out for a test drive. If at any point in the future the FDNY has to make a visit to my apartment, I will take full responsibility. But for now, I had dinner to cook.

Cooking with the Instant Pot

Test #1: Frozen Meat in the Instant Pot

Once I decided to not follow the instructions – I started to like my new device much better. In spite of my impatience, the first thing I decided to cook wasn’t for me. It was dinner for my dog, Winnie (don’t judge, I cook for her… and she deserves it). One of the most appealing things about the Instant Pot for me was the fact that it supposedly can cook frozen meat. Yup, you read that correctly. Frozen. 

I typically cook a 3 day supply of food for Winnie at a time, and always have frozen chicken thighs portioned out and ready to go. I threw in a portioned out amount of the frozen thighs (about one pound), added enough water to cover the meat (2 cups in my case), and sealed up the top. According to Hip Pressure Cooking, frozen meat should be cooked for 50% longer than the normal instructions (or 4 minutes longer based on this chart). Being extra cautious, I set my pressure cooker on high for 30 minutes. 

Fact #4: Cook times are misleading, as you have to let the Instant Pot “reach pressure” first (kind of like preheating an oven). This takes even longer with frozen meat.

By this point, I felt very mislead by my magical Instant Pot. For something that has “Instant” in the name, I had assumed this would be a time saver. Sadly, I was already a good hour into this project before my food even started to cook! To be fair, my own bumbling around contributed a lot to this delay. I’d say I spent 20 minutes getting frustrated with instructions, and watching videos before I actually got to cooking. Then another 10 minutes making sure I was programming and sealing it properly. Using frozen meat also really slowed down the process to reach pressure, so the 30 minutes that took would be much faster with defrosted foods. However, I was tired, and this was annoying. 

When the instant pot finally beeped to mark it’s completion, I was ecstatic. So was Winnie, who was pacing the floor at this point waiting to be fed.  The instructions for frozen food indicate that I needed to let the steam release naturally. So I sat back and waited.

Fact #5: Once your food is finished cooking, you still need to let the steam release. This takes time.

The steam release concept was the one I was most confused about. Luckily, the natural method meant I had to do nothing but wait. And wait. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the digital display let me know I could open the lid. 

Verdict: The chicken was cooked all the way through, and Winnie seemed to enjoy it. I don’t think I’ll use the Instant Pot regularly to make her food, but it will be useful in a pinch, if I’ve forgotten to defrost her chicken in the morning.

Test #2: Slow-Cooker Replacement 

One of the selling points of the instant pot is that it can speed up your classic slow-cooker recipes. The idea of spending an hour or so waiting for food to be done, as opposed to half a day was quite appealing. My husband and I love our slow-cooker, but we don’t use it as often as we would like to since it takes up not only the entire counter, but the better part of a day. It’s hard to think that far ahead for dinner all the time. The Instant Pot not only gives us marginally more counter space to work with when in use, but also allows us to be a bit more spontaneous in our dinner plans. Being able to have a hearty soup or stew in under an hour, versus waiting 10-48 hours? Sign me up!

I adjusted our three favorite slow-cooker recipes to try in the Instant Pot (I’ll share the recipes in a separate post soon):

  • Chicken Soup;
  • Bone Broth; and
  • Short-rib Stew.

Of the three test recipes, the one I was most excited about was the bone broth. If I’m being completely honest, 99% of the reason why I wanted the Instant Pot was because I really wanted to have homemade bone broth without a 48 hour cooking process. On my first try for the bone broth, I forgot to put the Instant Pot on high pressure. At the end of the hour, I had a really good soup, but the bones didn’t look like they had started to get to that soft state, so I cooked it again for another 2 hours. The result was amazing! And I can’t tell you how great it has been to have the bone broth so readily available – I’m using it so much more now that I know it isn’t such a process to make more. 

The chicken soup was also a huge hit. I like to have individual servings of chicken soup in our freezer at all times. I can’t tell you how many times this has saved me! As “luck” would have it, my husband came down with the stomach flu about two days after I got the Instant Pot. Within an hour, he had fresh chicken and veggie soup, that tasted as good as the soup we simmer slowly for 24 hours. 

Fact #6: The pressure cooker will intensify any flavors you put into it – creating a rich and amazing flavor profile you will swear took far more work than it actually did.

The best part about the Instant Pot soup wasn’t just the reduced cooking time, but the incredibly rich and complex flavors it infused. I had only used one sprig each of fresh rosemary and thyme in my stock, but the flavor was perfect. This may have been one of the best batches of soup I’ve ever made. 

Learning from the soup experiment, we finally advanced to cooking a stew. One of our favorite slow-cooker meals is a short-rib stew. I’d seen a recipe on NomNom Paleo for short-ribs, that looked great, but called for some ingredients we can’t eat. I wanted to create something similar by adapting my own slow-cooker short rib recipe for the Instant Pot. 

Fact #7: You need way less liquid than you think you do when using the pressure cooker function.

The end result was a fall-off-the-bone, knock-your-socks-off-flavorful soup-stew. While the flavors were great, and the meat was cooked perfectly, there was a lot more liquid in the Instant Pot than I expected. If you aren’t following actual Instant Pot recipes (and just adjusting slow-cooker ones), you need to play a bit with the liquid proportions. While slow-cookers allow liquid to evaporate and reduce, the pressure cooker keeps it all in there. It also extracts liquid from the ingredients, so even though I only put in 1 cup of liquid to the Instant Pot, I had easily 3-4 cups of liquid in the finished product. Not bad (actually delicious), but just not what I had expected. 

Verdict: Though I am still getting used to adjusting the liquid proportions for my recipes, the Instant Pot gets and A+ from me as a slow-cooker replacement. The quick and easy soups are a major selling point, and already make me regret my initial frustration with the Instant Pot setup. But what really got me hooked was the intense flavor infusion you get with pressure cooking. Even the most subtle of seasonings is amplified in the pressure cooker, and it is what takes this gadget from useful, to indispensable. 

Test #3: Under Pressure, Instant Pot as Pressure Cooker

Though I’d used the Instant Pot pressure cooker feature to make my other recipes, I had only stuck to those items I normally make in a slow cooker. These are typically soups or stews of some kind. I wanted my final test of the Instant Pot to be making a meal that didn’t require a spoon. Since we are a meat-loving family, I focused on cooking protein; one-on-the-bone cut and one off-the-bone cut. 

The first recipe we tried was basic chicken. My husband had been curious about the Instant Pot, and decided that he wanted to do a whole chicken in it for dinner one night. He broke the chicken down, seasoned it, and cooked it in the pressure cooker with onions, a little bit of broth, and a splash of white wine. Oh. My. God. The pictures do not do this meal justice. This may have been the best, most sumptuous, decadent chicken I’ve ever had in my life. And I don’t even like chicken. While much of the credit does go to my husband and his uncanny ability to balance flavors, I do need to pay respect to the Instant Pot here. Wow. There was still a lot of liquid left in the Instant Pot when the chicken was ready, but we thickened that up with some cassava flour  to make a really delicious gravy. One of the best meals I’ve had at home in ages.

Fact #8: As delicious as the food from the Instant Pot is, the visual presentation leaves something to be desired. Without the searing to give the food a nice caramelization, everything ends up looking rather beige. I’m still working on how to best “finish” the food to make it more visually appealing.

The final recipe test we conducted was on a boneless cut of meat. Since I knew there was no chicken dish I could ever cook that would compare to my husband’s, I opted to try the Instant Pot out with some really nice boneless pork chops. I threw them in with some mustard, onion, fresh herbs, apples, and bacon, and added about 1/4 a cup of bone broth to cook on high pressure for 15 minutes.

Fact #9: Boneless cuts really need much less time to cook than you think, but luckily, even over cooked meat isn’t dry when done in the pressure cooker. 

Unfortunately, I cooked the pork too long. Even though it was only 15 minutes, the meat was definitely over cooked. Luckily, the flavors were really good, and even though I knew the meat was overdone, it wasn’t dry or tough. Lesson learned.

Verdict: I finally see the “time saving” feature everyone was raving about. When cooking meat (that isn’t frozen), the Instant Pot reaches pressure pretty quickly, and can fully cook meat in very little time. The only down side is you really need to know how to cook “under pressure”. Unlike other forms of cooking, you can’t check to see how the food is doing until the pressure cooker is done. I think it will take me a while to get used to assessing the best cook time and pressure for each cut. 

Test #4: Multi-Functional

Of course, I couldn’t do a full review of the Instant Pot without evaluating the 7-in-1 concept that is advertised. The Instant Pot is supposed to be a pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, steamer, sauté, yogurt maker & warmer. I had tested the pressure and slow cooker functions, and it certainly proved itself on that front. The rest of the features honestly seemed ancillary to me at first. I don’t really eat rice (though I do make it occasionally for Winnie), and I don’t eat dairy (so a yogurt maker seems like a stupid appliance for me to own). However, the steamer, sauté, and warmer features are things that I would use.

The Instant Pot comes with the steamer rack included, so I was tempted to try and steam some broccoli for dinner the other night. When it came time for dinner, I just couldn’t figure out how to make steaming my veggies in the Instant Pot practical. I have very limited counter-space, so basically giving it all up to steam veggies is already inconvenient for me. I admit that I normally just throw my broccoli in a steamer bag, and microwave it. This takes 1.5-3 minutes (depending on how much I’m cooking). Steaming the same amount of broccoli in the Instant Pot takes 2-4 minutes – and that doesn’t include the time it takes to reach pressure or release the steam. Add to this the fact I then have to clean the pot, the rack (both of which are dishwasher safe), and the lid, and this just didn’t make sense. I gave up. While I know microwaves have their own risk factors, and are probably making my insides glow like Marie Curie, I decided that was still preferable to using the InstantPot for steaming. Maybe I’ll try to use it for artichokes at some point, but for now, this feature is kind of useless to me.

The sauté function, however, is clutch. I wouldn’t endorse using the Instant Pot expressly for the purpose of sautéing food, since a stovetop is much more practical. What I did use it for was prep work for the short-rib stew and the pork I made. I seared the short-ribs in the Instant Pot before using the pressure cooker function, and also used the sauté feature to cook the onions and bacon I was using for the pork. I liked that the inner pot heated up quickly, and had a really good even heat distribution. It met my needs for the recipe, and reduced the number of dishes I needed to do. 

Verdict: In reality, the 7-in-1 concept feels much more like a marketing ploy than anything. If you think about it, an oven could also be a 7-in-1 product. It bakes, sautés, boils, warms, cans, fry’s, and steams too. However, the Instant Pot’s versatility will make it easier to do one-pot meals. My husband also noted that between the Instant Pot and our Anova Sous Vide, we could almost completely eliminate the need for a traditional oven. 

Cleaning Up

I know this may make me seem high maintenance, but I really don’t like having to hand wash things. I suffered through many years of city living without a dishwasher, and now that I have one, I really enjoy using it. One of the things I hated most about the slow-cooker, was that it was such a pain to clean. It had to be hand washed, and was too big to fit in the sink easily. The inner pot of the Instant Pot is actually dishwasher safe, but the lid must be hand washed. To be honest, I actually haven’t put the inner pot into the dishwasher yet. I wouldn’t say that the surface is non-stick, but it is very easy to clean with some soap and a sponge. Unlike the slow cooker, food doesn’t get baked onto the surface as often, so cleaning up by hand has been a total breeze!

Verdict: I actually feel like the meals I made with the Instant Pot required far less clean up than most other nights, even though I hand washed the components. The fact that this can truly assist in making one-pot meals is huge! And not having to “babysit” the food as it cooks, gives me time to clean up my prep area while I wait for my food to be ready. A+.

Summary

My initial frustration with the Instant Pot quickly dissipated once I got comfortable using it. Taking into account everything I’ve experienced working with it the past few weeks, there is a lot in favor for the Instant Pot, but I’m not sure if it is the miracle product everyone makes it out to be, or if it is worth it for everyone.

Downside:

  • Although smaller than most slow-cookers, this isn’t a small device. If you have limited kitchen storage, you will need to seriously consider if this is something you will get enough use out of to make the purchase worthwhile. 
  • Not as “multi-purpose” as it markets itself to be.  I honestly don’t know how many people are actually going to use the yogurt making function. I know they are out there, I’m just saying it won’t benefit 99% of the people who buy this. It primarily is a pressure cooker, with the added benefit of being able to sauté. You can use the sauté function to boil water, and use it as a traditional slow cooker, but saying that it is 7-in-1 feels somewhat misleading.
  • Not completely intuitive at first. Granted, I took it out of its box to play with following a long day at work, and with a very hungry puppy waiting for her dinner. If I actually sat down and read the instructions when I was a bit more refreshed, and less distracted, I may have felt differently. However the entire initial set up process seemed like over-kill, and would completely intimidate some people. 
  • You need to be okay trying and failing. Unless you grew up using a pressure cooker, this will be a new experience for you. It takes time to get the hang of how a pressure cooker works, and figuring out how to adjust your recipes for this method of cooking. If you aren’t okay with some trial and error (or are a huge fan of soup), this may not be for you. 

Upside:

  • Makes soups (especially bone broth) in a fraction of the time. If you like to make soups, stews, or broth, this will save you a ton of time. 
  • Flavor Intensity like you have never known. I am not being hyperbolic here – the ability to get intense and rich flavors with only a small amount of herbs and spices is unbelievable. A small amount of aromatics will add a richness and depth to your food that is normally really difficult to achieve for home chefs. Not only are my fresh herbs lasting me longer (since I use less of them), but I’ve actually enjoyed the flavor so much more! 
  • Really lives up to the one-pot meal hype. Even my beloved sous vide requires more than one item to be cleaned at the end of the meal, but this is really capable of doing an entire dish in one pot. 
  • Actually can cook meat from frozen. As much as I complained about the time it took, this is a pretty cool feature. I cook for Winnie 2-3 times a week, and I forget more often than I like to defrost her chicken. While it isn’t “instant”, I now know that I can go from frozen to cooked in an hour. Huge plus.
  • Low-stress dinner prep. One of the reasons I love my sous vide, is because it gives me time to unwind at night when I get home, and still have dinner ready at a reasonable hour. The Instant Pot does this as well. Once everything is prepped and in the pot – you just have to wait. 

Taking all the good and the bad, the Instant Pot comes out a winning tool for me. I don’t think that I will use it every day, but it will certainly get used multiple times a week. Though we got off to a rocky start, I have the feeling that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 

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