Pressure cookers are heralded as near-magical kitchen appliances, making stocks, cooking grains, creating risottos and other flavor-packed meals in a fraction of the time other methods might take. They are smart timesavers and workhorses with a lineage that extends back to the stovetops of our great grandmothers.
Pressure cookers are also enjoying a mini-renaissance, thanks in part to the availability of models with more and better pressure release valves, which makes them safer than older versions. Particularly popular right now are electric varieties that offer a degree of control harder to achieve in stovetop models.
Breville Fast Slow Pro
A high-powered electric pressure cooker that helps you control the amount of pressure, cooking time, and how the pressure is released at the end of cooking.
Too difficult for most people to get the hang of the machine in a reasonable amount of time. Recipes in the box neglected the basics, but using other pressure cooker cookbooks led to a string of disappointments. Presets on the cooker itself need finessing in order to be truly useful. At $250, twice as much as most other pressure cookers.
I’ve been writing about food for close to 20 years. I’ve written the cookbook for a high-end restaurant, tested recipes professionally, worked in about a dozen restaurants and even done some personal chef work. Somehow, in all this time, I had never used a pressure cooker, so I felt a frisson of excitement when the doorbell announced the arrival of Breville’s Fast Slow Pro and, in effect, the imminent expansion of my culinary repertoire.
With good looking, strong-performing kitchen appliances (I love the Control Freak induction burner), Breville is something of a cult brand, and it tries not to disappoint with its powerful Fast Slow Pro, an 1100-watt countertop appliance endowed with the ability not only to cook under pressure, but also to slow cook, sear, saute, reduce, steam, and keep warm. Breville also charges a premium for its products–this one, at $250, is more than twice the price of most of its competitors. I pulled mine out of the box, looked at the control panel, and felt like I was looking at the head of a Dr. Who villain.
Within the brochure that comes in the box, I immediately found a chicken stock recipe that called for three pounds of chicken bones and pieces. I thought: I have at least three pounds of chicken bones and pieces, as my wife sometimes points out when she opens the freezer. Moments later, I chopped up my bones and pieces, added a few other ingredients, fiddled with the dials, selected “Pressure Cook” then “Stock” on the control panel, and hit “Start.”
As soon as it was done, I made more, lining my freezer door with four big yogurt containers of stock. I also drank a mugful on the spot, and it was good enough that I forgot about my morning cup of coffee.
Unfortunately, things went south from there.
I’d taken a small stack of pressure cooker cookbooks out of the library and ordered a few others, learning that their ability to cook food more quickly than traditional methods comes from trapping steam and building pressure, which cooks the food inside at higher-than-normal temperatures.
I also learned that the electric models tend to be smaller than stovetop models–six-quart versus eight-quart, more or less–and that the electrics can only apply up to 10 to 12 pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure, while stovetops can get up to around 15. The cookbooks set up their recipes to accommodate these differences. The pressure release (you don’t want to just pop open the lid of a pressurized environment) is pre-determined depending on what’s in the pot: slow to keep stocks clear, a quicker release for something like chili.It’s a little confusing at the outset, but it just means that you’ve got to match the recipe to the specifications of the pressure cooker. Impressively, the Breville allows you to completely customize cooking time, pressure (in increments of 1.5 psi), and how quickly it lets off steam. It should have been easy.
I was particularly interested in nailing the basics beginning with how pressure cookers handle food like grains and beans. After the chicken stock, I tried cooking emmer farro, a chewy, nutty grain, setting the preset to “Rice,” and manually tweaking the settings from there. The farro turned out very chewy and a little blown out with a few exploded grains here and there, but the chewiness was easy to take care of by giving it a few more minutes in the pot’s residual heat. I made a great salad with the farro, grilled vegetables, and feta.
I tried chickpeas next, carefully following a chart in one of the library cookbooks, soaking them overnight, then popping them in the cooker with water. (Breville’s manual, which comes in the box with the brochure, has a “settings overview” that mentions chickpeas as part of the “Beans” preset, but the suggested range of “1.5 to 12 psi” for “up to two hours” is too vague to be of use.) Still, they came out so overcooked that they barely retained their shape when I spooned some out of the cooking water. I dialed a second batch back considerably and they turned out better, but were still mushy enough that I had no choice but to make hummus.
Frustrated and out of chickpeas, I swapped to Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough’s The Great Big Pressure Cooker Book and tried black-eyed peas using their pressure-cooker cheat that replaces the overnight soak by cooking them in water for six minutes at nine psi. When they were done, I opened the lid, inspected them, and threw the mushy mess right on top of the first batch of chickpeas in the compost bin.
I tried again, this time giving the black-eyed peas a traditional overnight soak and using Cook’s Illustrated’s Pressure Cooker Perfection, which has extremely helpful charts with columns for food type, pressure level, cooking time, and type of pressure release. As the book says, “This method accounts for variations among pressure cookers, the age of the beans, and the simple fact that you can’t test the beans along the way.” Using custom settings on the Breville, I set it to 4.5 psi (even lower than Cook’s recommended 5 psi) for the recommended five minutes, figuring that, at worst, they’d come out a little underdone.
No dice. They turned out as mushy as the second round of chickpeas. I considered making a large quantity of some sort of bean dip, before opening the compost bin again. Clearly, I thought, I’d make something like stew and I’d see the light. I went to the butcher, plunked down $35 for three pounds of boneless leg of lamb, cubed and salted it, seared half of it in the bottom of the Fast Slow Pro’s bowl, added the rest of the lamb, a mountain of diced onions, and loads of fragrant spices. The sweet, candy-like smell of lamb filled the kitchen as I set the Fast Slow Pro to high pressure for thirty minutes and hit ‘Start.’ Pressure Cooker Perfection uses a standard “High” of 15 psi, so I figured I’d be plenty safe at the recommended time and the Breville’s maximum 12 psi.
The sauce was delicious, but the cubes of lamb themselves were, shrunken, stringy, and drained of their lovely fat and juiciness, and I couldn’t help but envision the lamb’s $35 price tag tacked next to the already high price of the machine.
It was time to use a lifeline. I called Jack Bishop, chief creative officer of America’s Test Kitchen and editorial director of both their Pressure Cooker Perfection and the forthcoming Cook’s Science. Over the phone, I could feel him politely sniffing around to make sure I wasn’t some yahoo interrupting his day.
“With pressure cookers, you have to live with a certain lack of control,” he said, “You have to learn to live with a slight decline in quality.”
I twitched and silently squared up everything on my desk to make nice, straight lines when he said this, then pondered the possibility that maybe I just wasn’t made for this sort of lack of control. Once I described the testing I’d already done, however, even Bishop sounded flummoxed with the results, noting that the more typical pressure cooker problem is for things to come out underdone rather than overdone.
“I think you’re going to have to cook with your own rules,” he said, counseling me to try trimming 20 to 30 percent off most suggested recipe cooking times. “You’re going to have to learn to deal with failure.”
There was a gentle repetition in the way he spoke and a soothing tone to his voice, even while he broke bad news. I may have sighed audibly. As we talked about different models, our conversation jarred something loose in his pressure-cooker testing memory.
“There are some outliers, where the difference between five minutes and eight minutes can be the difference between good and awful,” he said. “This sounds like an outlier. It sounds awful.”
Back to Basics
On a hunch, I returned to the brochure that came with the Fast Slow Pro and found super-chef Heston Blumenthal vouching for it alongside text that’s like Pressure Cooker 101, so I tried a few more Breville recipes.
I made their ratatouille, chopping all the usual suspects–eggplant, onion, zucchini, and tomato–dialing in the “Vegetables” preset and hitting start. It came out a little mushy, and the time saved as compared to traditional methods wasn’t huge, but it was still pretty tasty. Next, I made Breville’s risotto milanese, sauteing shallot in olive oil and butter in the bottom of the cooker’s bowl, then adding the Arborio rice, and cooked down some white wine for a few minutes. I added the chicken stock I’d made the day the machine arrived, followed by a pinch of saffron, closed the lid, pulled up the “Risotto” setting, tapped the start button and walked away. My apartment smelled like heaven.
Risotto is a pressure cooker’s forte, saving a home chef from the traditional need to hover over the pot and stir constantly while bringing the grains to a perfect al dente texture, imbuing them with flavor, and creating a lovely creaminess. Still warm from sauteing, the Breville came up to pressure quickly and six short minutes later, it started letting off steam. I popped the lid open, stirred in some more stock, added a fluffy pile of grated Parmesan, grinded black pepper over the top, and took a bite. It was great.
I considered the machine’s pros and cons while I ate. I like the way the screen glows orange to tell you it’s doing things like preheating or getting up to pressure, which is a great teaching tool. I like the one-pot cooking you can do with pressure cookers in general. I love that the lid and cooking bowl are dishwasher safe. I also love Breville’s O-shaped plug, which makes unplugging a breeze and should forevermore be adopted by all other appliances in the world. (Surprisingly, the cord is very short, a fact especially noticeable when cooking on a kitchen island, or when trying to pull the machine out from under a cupboard so that it doesn’t steam the wood above.) Cleverly, it also starts the cook timer only once it’s reached the desired pressure, making following recipes easier.
Head of Steam
Most of the faults I found with the machine are quibbles. The bottom of the bowl is slightly dome shaped, meaning any cooking oil runs directly to the outer edge of the cooking surface. That bowl is also fairly narrow, making stirring, and particularly searing things, feel like you’re reaching down into a submarine hatch. I also wish it could get a little hotter in there for more effective searing, but as far as electrical appliances go, it’s quite powerful.
More importantly, though, every recipe I tried that wasn’t in Breville’s brochure either had significant issues or was an outright fail. I’m sure Breville’s “Pumpkin Risotto with Sage and Goat Cheese” or “Pork Bolognese with Pancetta and Sage” are great, but I needed basic instructions for pork butt, or ribs, or different kinds of grains and vegetables. Somehow, in assembling its cookbook, Breville seems to have forgotten the grandmotherly lineage that makes pressure cookers such dependable kitchen workhorses, skipping right over those basics. It also doesn’t play well with recipes designed to be forgiving, which is to say all the pressure cooker cookbooks out there. It’s easy to sense the potential in this machine, but to work with a potentially fantastic outlier, I needed the time and pressure charts or–even better–presets for 10 common kinds of beans and 15 kinds of rice. Breville’s instruction manual makes a vague wave in that general direction, but it would have been time very well spent to have its test kitchen figure those out before shipping the product.
Without those basics, home cooks will be forced to figure it out on their own, meaning they’re working to figure out the machine instead of letting the machine work to make their supper. If you’re a tinkerer with $250 to burn and, preferably, someone already well-versed in the intricacies of slow cookers, you may want to give it a whirl. The rest of us, who are more likely to be frustrated with a string of recipe failures, should pass this one over until Breville can better explain how to effectively use its product.
Food writer Joe Ray (@joe_diner) is a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of The Year, a restaurant critic, and author of “Sea and Smoke” with chef Blaine Wetzel.