THE ENORMOUSLY trendy Instant Pot, a pressure cooker with programmable functions to help simply and easily make just about anything—from soups to roasts and even yogurt—has given homecooked meals a new aura. It vows to largely eliminate sweaty, grease-splattering slavery in the kitchen thanks to its “smart” steel-encased bowl. This ingenious element knows what you’ve dropped in and how long it should cook, and can automatically change its settings to keep dinner warm when you’re stuck in traffic.
Instant Pot’s popularity has led to a rush on multicookers, a category that grew 68 percent in the past year, according to the market research firm NPD. Much like old-fashioned pressure cookers, these electronic devices trap steam in a tightly sealed space to effectively speed up cooking; the ritual of braising a lamb shank, traditionally a day-long process, can be shrunken to a few hours. But the latest machines, including the Crock-Pot Express, which debuted late last year, also emulate 1970s slow cookers to simmer your food at lower temperatures, or sear and saute ingredients you’d typically administer to over the stove.
“I think it’s great,” said Craig Koketsu, the chef behind acclaimed New York City restaurants Quality Meats and Park Avenue, of the multicooker phenomenon. “What it represents—maybe I shouldn’t say this since I run restaurants—is the resurgence of people cooking wholesome food at home. It inspired people to do that.”
That doesn’t mean the multicookers can do it all.I put the Instant Pot, Crock-Pot Express, and the pricier Breville Fast Slow Pro and Fagor Lux through a battery of routine amateur cooking tasks. The results were mixed.
First I blazed through a pork chili, which would normally take several hours, in mere minutes using the Breville Fast Slow Pro on its meat setting. I also brought it out for a dinner party to make the classic Cuban beef stew, ropa vieja, that I fell in love with growing up in Miami. The meat typically requires eight hours to achieve a delicious ropy tenderness, but the Breville pulled off the feat in half the time. The cooker has a pleasant, streamlined design, with satisfying knobs to adjust temperature and time, and chirping noises that alert you to pay attention. And while pressure cookers were once infamously given to explode, the new breed is virtually foolproof thanks to safety features including lid locks, automatic temperature control and excess pressure releases.
Aesthetics aside, it can be difficult to tell the cookers’ performances apart. The stainless steel bowls of the Fagor and Instant Pot were slightly better than the Breville’s and Crock-Pot’s nonstick surfaces at browning and caramelizing, which help create those crispy edges and nutty flavors in proteins or produce. But all four multicookers were far from ideal in this respect. Much of the food I made came out with the same slightly mushy texture. I threw a small steak slab on sear in the Breville and found the results disappointing compared to those a cast iron skillet delivers. Out of curiosity, I tried to fry an egg on the same setting. Not only did the machine overcomplicate the task, I ended up with a limp, sad breakfast.
There’s a scientific reason behind this, Mr. Koketsu pointed out. A traditional pan generally has a larger surface area and shallower sides which together let moisture evaporate more easily, giving foods that coveted thick crust. “You sear the meat because all that deep browning adds to the richness and depth of color of the dish later. Otherwise it comes out looking sort of gray, which is not very appetizing,” he said. Mr. Koketsu said he thinks multicookers are “great tools,” but he balks at the notion that you can (or should) cook everything in them. He relies on an older pressure cooker to quickly braise short ribs and turn out brown rice. The rest he personally prefers to cook the difficult way—the one he knows best.
Still, it’s hard to overstate the multicookers’ convenience, especially for a novice cook without Mr. Koketsu’s training. They’re not the magical kitchen machines some have hyped them to be, but they deliver on the promise of making simple meals quickly and easily, if only decently. Fall-apart meats and stews turn out best. If money weren’t a consideration, I’d buy the Breville for its looks and concise LCD menu, but the Instant Pot and the Crock-Pot Express work nearly as well for half the price.
To go with my ropa vieja I made moros rice, a Latin American staple, in the Crock-Pot, and was impressed with the brand’s trademark simplicity. Its buttons, functions and even the way you close the lid were all very intuitive. I threw in garlic and onions on sauté mode and they were fragrant in a few minutes, then I poured in the rice and black beans with water, hit a button and moved on with my life. In 13 minutes, I had a silky mix that I’d otherwise have had to sweat over with a traditional pot. My guests went back for seconds (and thirds) until the pot was clean.
WHAT A CROCK // Multicookers Look Similar, so Which Is The One for You?
Crock-Pot Express Multicooker
Best for the new at-home cook who values a straightforward tool that just gets the job done.
But don’t use it to sear meats or expect it to make you seem cool in front of your friends. $100, crock-pot.com
Instant Pot Duo 60 7-in-1 Cooker
Best for the person who wants to make leftover-friendly one-pot meals, like stews, rice and pasta.
But don’t expect it to turn you into the next Iron Chef. The do-it-all pot can’t work miracles. $100, instantpot.com
Breville Fast Slow Pro Cooker
Best for the aspiring chef concerned with handsome kitchenware and a lot of functionality.
But don’t expect to get much benefit for the extra cost. And don’t fry an egg in it. Seriously. $250, brevilleusa.com
Fagor Lux Multicooker
Best for more advanced home chefs looking for a new kitchen toy (with a nice digital display).
But don’t use it if you’re new to cooking, as it requires a bit more knowledge to get full value. $110, fagoramerica.com
Source : WSJ