Stovetop Pressure Cookers
How we tested
Pressure cookers can be intimidating. Before I began testing them, I had heard countless stories about exploding cookers—usually ones belonging to someone’s grandmother. This made the whole enterprise seem mysterious and dangerous, or at least very messy. But after spending weeks testing 12 models of pressure cookers, I can report that they are as safe as any other cookware—and definitely worth getting to know. Pressure cookers are surprisingly simple to use and in less than an hour can produce food that tastes as if you spent all day over the stove. You don’t have to tell a soul that your savory, fork-tender pot roast, pulled pork, short ribs, or stew cooked in record time—and most of that time was hands-off. Dried beans are creamy and tender after just 10 minutes under pressure. Risotto needs just 6 minutes under pressure to reach the perfect consistency. Recipes once saved for weekends, or the slow cooker, can be started when you get home from work.
Pressure cookers function based on a very simple principle: In a tightly sealed pot, the boiling point of liquid is higher. As the pot heats up, pressure begins to build. This pressure makes it more difficult for water molecules to turn to vapor—therefore raising the boiling point from 212 to 250 degrees. Why does this matter? The steam generated in the cooker, which can be at temperatures up to 38 degrees higher than what's possible in a normal pot, makes food cook faster. And because the pot stays closed, cooking requires much less liquid than usual, and flavors concentrate. As a bonus, this method also uses less energy: Once pressure is reached, you cook with the heat turned down as low as possible, and cooking times are short.
Pressure cookers have been around for a long time. In 1679, French mathematician and physicist Denis Papin invented the “steam digester,” the earliest-known pressure cooker; still, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that smaller pressure cookers were introduced for home cooks. After World War II, demand boomed for pressure cookers, and some accounts note that unscrupulous manufacturers made shoddy cookers that were prone to explosions. Older cookers had “jiggle tops” that rattled and puffed while they cooked. Today’s models use spring-loaded valves, which are silent and vent mere wisps of steam when pressurized. In other words, today’s pressure cookers are quieter and simpler and have many more safety features than your grandmother’s cooker did.
Across-the-board improvements over the years didn’t necessarily mean that all models would work equally well, and we wondered what characteristics to look for in a good pressure cooker. They certainly look similar, resembling large metal saucepans or stockpots, but with heavy lids that have removable silicone rings, called sealing gaskets, around their inner rims. We selected sturdy, nonreactive stainless steel over aluminum cookers and came up with eight stovetop cookers—most with an 8-quart capacity—from a wallet-friendly $65 or so to a whopping $280. (We tested four electric pressure cookers separately. Ultimately, we preferred the stovetop models.) We used each of the models to prepare risotto; chicken stock; beef stew; Boston baked beans; and thick, meaty tomato sauce with pork ribs. Since plenty of recipes call for sautéing food in the bottom of the pot before sealing the lid for pressure cooking, we checked evenness of browning by cooking crêpes in the pan bottoms. We were determined to identify the best pressure cooker.
Sizing Them Up
While 6-quart cookers are popular, we soon realized the value of more capacity. First, you must never fill a pressure cooker more than two-thirds of the way (lines indicate the maximum level), which limits the available space. Some recipes don’t fit in 6-quart cookers, including ours for chicken stock (for our test, we had to cut down the recipe). And if you can make 3 quarts of stock in the same time it takes to make 2 quarts, why not buy a pot that allows you to produce a bigger quantity?
The shape of the pot was equally important. Low, wide cookers provided a generous cooking surface, helping food brown thoroughly and efficiently before the cook closes the pot. Wide pots also let us brown meat in fewer batches. And testers found this shape easier to see and reach into while working. The narrowest among our cookers was a mere 6 1/8 inches across; most were around 7 1/2 inches, but the best performers had interior cooking surfaces of 9 inches in diameter—almost as much space as you get across the bottom of a 12-inch skillet.
But shape plays another role: Stovetop pressure cookers are made with a thick metal disk base (an aluminum disk covered by stainless steel, attached to the pan bottom) to retain and regulate heat. Every manufacturer warns that you must keep the heat source directly under that disk, since flames licking up the sides of the pot will damage the locking mechanisms in the handles and the sealing gasket around the rim. Trouble is, because that disk base is expensive to make, manufacturers keep it as small as possible: In many of our models, the disks were even smaller than the bases of the pots, which ballooned out over the burner. In these models food routinely scorched wherever the base did not shield it from direct heat, and later we spent more time scrubbing those pots clean. Using a smaller flame under a smaller disk also means the pot heats up more slowly, taking minutes longer to reach pressure—minutes that you’ll need to wait by the stove. Straight-sided pots with broad disks performed best in our cooking tests, and cleanup was easier with them.
This leads us to the next point: steady heating. With stovetop cookers, you bring the contents up to a boil, wait for the pressure indicator to show that it’s at high pressure, and then turn down the heat as low as possible while maintaining pressure. This operation was dead easy with some pots but tricky with other models, in which the pressure tended to drop after we turned down the heat, forcing us to hover, adjusting it up and down like a yo-yo. Cookers whose pressure dropped too readily produced meat, beans, and rice that were not sufficiently tender by the end of the cooking time; after tasting these, we had to close the pot and bring it back to pressure for several minutes to finish the job, introducing guesswork. What made the difference? The bottom thickness of the cookers ranged from 4.64 millimeters to 7.24 millimeters. The top two performers were the thickest, both more than 7 millimeters thick. These cookers’ wide, thick bottoms retained heat well, resulting in quickly reaching pressure, followed by steady, hands-off cooking.
In pressure-cooker recipes, cooking times begin only after you reach the desired pressure, which is indicated with a pop-up stick or button on the cooker. Maddeningly, some manufacturers set these indicators deep in a hole, making us lean over the cooker to see them, while others were confusing to interpret. The best models had pressure indicators that were brightly colored, prominently raised, and easy to read at a glance from several feet away.
Pressure cookers always require a minimal amount of liquid in order to generate the steam that cooks the food. As the cookers heat up, valves in their lids generally release a trickle of steam right until the moment they come to pressure, but a few continued venting lightly throughout cooking. Cookers that allow less evaporation are less prone to scorch during cooking from loss of liquid. Though evaporation loss didn’t affect the final quality of the particular dishes we tested, it can be an issue in recipes that call for only a small amount of liquid. Therefore, we gave points to models with little evaporative loss. When we heated 32 ounces of water for an hour at high pressure, the average loss was just more than 2 ounces. But one model lost 5.6 ounces—more than 1/2 cup of water, or 17.5 percent of the total. Many of our preferred models, on the other hand, evaporated only 0.8 ounce.
Finally, we measured the temperature reached by each cooker at high pressure—after all, temperature correlates directly with pressure. “High pressure” for a pressure cooker is considered to be 15 pounds per square inch (psi) above atmospheric pressure, which is reached when the liquid in the cooker is boiling at 250 degrees. The majority of pressure-cooker recipes call for this standard. But most of these cookers never achieved that temperature. We boiled water for 30 minutes at high pressure with each model and measured the internal temperature. We found that our three top-performing cookers reached or came closest to 250 degrees, but as we went down the lineup, cookers’ top temperatures steadily declined: The lowest reached only 230 degrees, which is 6 psi. (The bottom-ranked cooker was the exception—it failed on other factors.) It was no great mystery, then, why we’d found the cooking results less satisfying in our bottom-ranking models. Food wasn’t fully cooked at the designated time in these pots, forcing us to close the lid and repressurize, unsure how much longer to cook. (One took 10 extra minutes, adding almost 50 percent to the original cooking time.)
After testing was complete, we had a clear winner. Sturdily built, with a low and wide profile, steady heating, an easily monitored pressure indicator, a convenient automatically locking lid, and low evaporation, this cooker was a pleasure to use and produced perfect finished dishes. It was also the only cooker in our testing to reach 250 degrees, or 15 psi, at high pressure, so it should perform accurately in all standard pressure-cooker recipes. But at its price, it’s an investment. Our Best Buy performed nearly as well at a fraction of the price. It is similar in shape and size to our winner, and while it’s not as expensively constructed (it is lighter and feels more “economy”) and its peak temperature under pressure fell slightly short of the 250-degree target, its cooking results were very good. Above all, it’s easy to operate, even if you’re new to pressure cooking.
We tested eight stovetop pressure cookers. They are listed in order of preference. All were purchased online.
- Weight: We measured the total weight of each cooker with its lid.
- Bottom Thickness: We measured the thickness of the bottoms of the cooking pots. Thicker bottoms generally held more heat for steadier cooking under pressure.
- Cooking Surface Diameter: We measured inside across the bottom, indicating actual space for cooking.
- Highest Temperature: We measured the temperature inside the cooker under high pressure for 30 minutes and noted the peak temperature reached. Because temperature is directly related to pressure, this indicates the pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure generated by each cooker. Since recipes calling for “high pressure” are designed to cook at 15 psi, which is achieved at 250 degrees, pots that could reach 250 degrees were rated higher.
- Cooking: We prepared our pressure-cooker recipes for risotto, Boston baked beans, chicken stock, a meaty tomato sauce with pork, and beef stew, rating the dishes’ tastes and textures and the cookers’ steadiness of heating and evenness of browning (which we also checked by making crêpes).
- Ease of Use: We evaluated shape, size, weight, and handle comfort; the design of locking mechanisms, pressure indicators, and steam-release mechanisms; cleanup; and other features that enhance user-friendliness.
- Evaporation Loss: We added 2 pounds of water to each cooker, weighed the whole cooker with water inside, and boiled it at high pressure for 1 hour, checking the weight at 20, 40, and 60 minutes to determine the amount of water that had evaporated. Cookers with lower evaporation levels rated higher.