A chat with pressure cooking expert Miss Vicki

We had the chance to chat with pressure cooking expert Vickie Smith, a self-described "white-haired old lady who lives north of Los Angeles, way out in the country." She's the author of "Miss Vickie's Big Book of Pressure Cooker Recipes" (Wiley, 2008) and whose website missvickie.com is a popular reference.

Q: How did you get so involved in cooking with the pressure cooker, and why did you start the website?

A: From the earliest time I can remember, everyone in my family used pressure cookers, so it was never anything unusual. Almost every day my mom had the old Presto hissing away on the stove.

My website, missvickie.com, started as a family heritage project back in the '90s when I started to collect pressure cooker recipes from my elderly relatives. At the time, there was almost nothing on the Internet about pressure cookery, and before long I was surprised to find e-mails coming in from total strangers.

Q: Why do you think so many people are afraid to use them?

A: Most often it is because people aren't familiar with modern pressure cookers. We've all heard tales of the day grandma's old pressure cooker turned into a geyser and sprayed red beets all over the ceiling, but that sort of problem is due to simple user error and can be easily corrected.

Then there are the urban legends that have grown up around vintage pressure cookers that can be traced back to a brief period of time right after World War II when manufacturers of military parts tried to stay in business by churning out cookware. Some very poor-quality pressure cookers were manufactured back in that era, but not today, and the new, modern pressure cookers are 100-percent safe, reliable and easy to use.

Q: Why do you think consumers should start with a new pressure cooker and not mom's?

A: Today's pressure cookers are made like any high-quality cookware. You'll find gleaming stainless steel construction with a heavy, insulated base for even heat distribution that avoids hot spots that can scorch food. The old-fashioned vent pipe and "jiggle top" of the past have been replaced by precision-engineered spring valves that create a virtual closed system that is quiet and so efficient that foods can be cooked in as little as one-half cup water, which helps preserve more vitamins and nutrients.

Some of the other new features include an accurate pressure indicator that takes all the guesswork out of pressure cooking by showing exactly when to lower the heat, and when it is safe to open the lid after it is depressurized.

Do buy a cooker that will cook at the standard 15 psi, or you will always be adjusting for longer cooking times (most all recipes are written for 15 psi) and the results may not be as expected.

Q: Your website is 10 years old. Do you see the number of hits growing?

A: The interest in pressure cooking continues to be phenomenal, and I just completed the fifth migration to larger server space, to accommodate the increased traffic. Everyone is looking for ways to economize, and frugal cooking is suddenly a very hot topic. One of the reasons pressure cookers were so popular during the World War II era was because food shortages and rationing made it a necessity to cook tougher cuts of meat and dried beans and to prepare expensive soups from leftovers at a time when nothing was wasted. There's a similar resurgence today, with everyone looking for ways to utilize less-expensive ingredients to extend their food dollars.

By using a pressure cooker, foods will cook in just one-third the time of ordinary cooking methods, and the value of the time saved means the cook can get out of the kitchen faster. Shorter cooking times also translate to less fuel used in cooking, and that not only saves you money, it's ecologically friendly, too.

Q: Do you need a gas range to use a pressure cooker? Is there a big difference between using one with a gas stove and using one with an electric cooktop?

A: I prefer the versatility and infinite control of gas stoves. When I was growing up, however, my mother preferred electric stoves because they were more "modern," so I learned to use the "hopscotch" method -- jumping from a high-heat burner to a lower-heat burner -- on those old-style electric coil stoves. It takes a little bit more finesse, but it's certainly doable. The newer glass-top stoves function more like gas, and the modern pressure cookers are designed to work on these types of stoves.

Q: What type of maintenance/care do you recommend for pressure cookers?

A: Modern pressure cookers are made from stainless steel, so the base can be put into the dishwasher with no problems. The pressure lid should be washed by hand in hot soapy water, and the valve mechanism is easy to disassemble for cleaning. I recommend periodically checking that any screws are tight, and advise users to always keep a spare gasket on hand.

Q: Do you like the electric ones?

A: There are so many electric gadgets that come and go these days, but for the dollar value and getting the most bang for the buck, I prefer stovetop pressure cookers.

Q: why DO you prefer the Kuhn-Rikon and Fagor? What about Presto, which seemS to be the BRAND people remember?

A: I look at the Kuhn-Rikon as the best example on the market today because of the top quality and superior workmanship in the engineering as well as its functional design. The Fagor brand offers all the new features at a bargain price. These European brands have been at the forefront. Some of the well-known U.S. brands that have been around since the dawn of pressure cookery are also starting to use the newer designs.

Q: What about pressure cooking accessories?

A: Many items can be purchased interchangeably from the various manufacturers, but you'd be surprised to find useful insert items that are already in your kitchen. Ramekins, stainless-steel bowls, silicon and aluminum bakeware pans, wire and bamboo steamers, and dishes that are listed as "oven safe" are readily available for use in the pressure cooker.

Shredded Barbecue Beef Sandwiches (One-Pot Meal)

PG tested

Use the pressure cooker for this easy barbecue recipe because it takes only a few minutes to prepare. In warmer months, using the pressure cooker keeps the kitchen cool.

  • 2 to 3 pounds brisket, trimmed of fat, and cut into 4 pieces
  • 1 1/2 cups prepared barbecue sauce
  • 6 Kaiser, hoagie or onion rolls
  • 1 onion, sliced into thin rings

Place the rack in the bottom of the pressure cooker. Add 2 cups water. Arrange the chunks of beef on the cooking rack. Lock the lid in place. Bring to 15 psi over high heat, immediately reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting to stabilize and maintain that pressure, and cook for 50 minutes or until the beef is fork-tender. Remove the cooker from the heat and use the natural release method to depressurize. Freeze the leftover liquid for later use in soups and stews. Shred the beef into small pieces and stir in the barbecue sauce, simmering over medium heat until heated through. Split the rolls, butter and toast if desired. Divide the shredded barbecue beef among the rolls, and top each sandwich with some of the onion rings before serving. Makes 6 servings.

-- Vickie Smith

Navy Bean Soup

PG tested

The small white navy bean gets its name from the fact that it has been primary fare served in the United States Navy mess halls since the mid-1800s. It's hearty, nutritious and served with a pan of hot cornbread, this is the perfect meal for a cold-weather supper.

  • 1 pound dried navy, great northern, or small white beans, presoaked for 4 hours
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 14-ounce cans chicken broth

Drain and rinse the presoaked beans and add them to a large pressure cooker. Add all of the remaining ingredients plus enough water, if needed, to cover the ingredients by 2 inches. Stir to mix and lock the lid in place. Bring to 15 psi over high heat, immediately reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting to stabilize and maintain the pressure and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and use the natural release method to depressurize. Carefully open the lid after the pressure drops.

Check the beans for doneness; a fully cooked bean can be easily mashed between your finger and thumb. If necessary, return to 15 psi over high heat; immediately reduce heat to the lowest possible setting to maintain that pressure and cook for a few more minutes. Remove from heat and use the natural release method to depressurize. Carefully open the lid after the pressure drop.

For a thicker, creamier texture, remove 2 cups of the beans and a little broth and puree or mash them together, then return the puree to the remaining soup in the cooker. Adjust the seasonings to taste and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

Variation: Add 2 cups cooked, chopped ham or sausage to the beans before cooking, if desired.

-- Vickie Smith

Wine-Braised Turkey Breast with Mushroom Gravy

Elegant but hearty, this turkey breast is braised in a sweet wine and seasoned with a blend of savory herbs and garlic, with plenty of mushrooms.

For the turkey
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 2-pound boneless, rolled turkey breast
  • 1 pound fresh button mushrooms, washed and sliced
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 14-ounce can chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup sweet port or Madeira
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon ground thyme
  • 1 bay leaf

Heat the oil in the pressure cooker over medium heat. Add the turkey, cook until golden brown on all sides, then remove and set aside. Add the mushrooms and onions to the cooker and cook, stirring until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add the broth, wine, garlic, thyme and bay leaf and stir. Place the rack in the cooker and return the turkey to the cooker. Lock the lid in place. Bring to 15 psi over high heat, immediately reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting to stabilize and maintain that pressure, and cook for 25 minutes.

Remove from the heat and use the natural release method to depressurize. Carefully open the lid after the pressure drops. Transfer the turkey to a large serving platter and let it rest for about 10 minutes before carving. Remove the rack and discard the bay leaf. Skim off any excess fat from the surface of the broth and transfer the broth to a separate bowl.

For the gravy
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour

Melt the butter in the pressure cooker. Add the flour, mixing into a smooth paste. Slowly pour in the reserved broth, whisking to keep a smooth consistency. Bring to a boil, uncovered, and then reduce the heat, simmering for about 10 minutes or until thickened. Taste and adjust the seasonings as desired. Pour the gravy into a sauce boat to be passed at the table.

Makes 4 to 5 servings.

-- Vickie Smith

Susan Banks: 412-263-1516 or sbanks@post-gazette.com .


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