I recall the first time I set eyes on an Instant Pot. It was at a showcase for new products at John Lewis or possibly Amazon, and their representative said, "This is going to be massive." At the time, I wasn't at all convinced that a pressure cooker with a load of buttons on the front was likely to take off – an Instant Pot is essentially an electric pressure cooker that can perform additional functions. That shows what I know, because the Instant Pot duly sold in the millions and spawned an entire market of 'multi cookers', able to do everything from cooking delicious stews to making delicious, erm, yogurt. For some reason, they nearly all include yogurt-making as a setting.
If you're one of the 36 people left in the world that hasn't bought a multi cooker, read on. You should also take a look at our guide to the best Instant Pots (and other multi cookers).
What do multi cookers do?
The first thing to clear up here is that Instant Pots are multi cookers, but not all multi cookers are Instant Pots. It's just the brand has been so successful that a lot of people now use 'Instant Pot' to mean multi cooker. Probably some people are not even aware that brands other than Instant even make multi cookers. But they do – most notably the Ninja Foodi range.
The genius of multi cookers is that they can cook many things but essentially, they are electric pressure cookers. What is a pressure cooker, you ask? As the name suggests, they cook food in liquid, under pressure, in a sealed pot. This allows food to be cooked at a higher temperature than it could be in a normal saucepan or most ovens, and literally seals in flavour.
Because multi cookers use electricity to heat up and have an electronic brain, they can also perform various other cooking tasks, which is where the 'multi' part of the name comes in. Precise presets can be set for various common meals and ingredients – casseroles, soups, meat, grains, beans/legumes and even porridge are all popular choices.
That's not the end of it, though. By applying lower heat for longer periods, Instant Pots can be used as slow cookers instead of their usual speedy-and-convenient mode. By applying higher heat for shorter periods, and not sealing the lid, they can be used as frying pans, to sauté vegetables and brown meat before the pressure cooking or slow cooking part of the recipe begins. In a similar way, they can then reduce sauces at the end of the main cooking period.
Theoretically, there is nothing you can do in a multi cooker that you couldn't do with a pressure cooker on an induction hob. The genius of Instant Pots and other multi cookers is that they control temperature and cooking timing precisely, safely and easily. You don't to do anything beyond adding ingredients and sometimes a bit of stirring. When pressure cooking, you literally don't need to do anything. In fact you can't do anything, as the pot is completely sealed to keep the super-heated steam safely inside. It's only possible to open it again when cooking is over and the pressure has reduced.
Are pressure cookers safe?
Old-style pressure cookers usually de-pressurise by blasting the steam through a valve on top. This can be rather alarming for people although as long as you don't place your face directly in the path of the steam, it is actually not dangerous. However many modern multi-cookers release the steam more slowly and gently, Although this takes longer, which can be frustrating if you're hungry. My Ninja one offers the option of either slow (natural) release or rapid depressurising via an automated vent in the lid. Hilariously, it emits a warning noise, like a truck backing up, when it's ready to do the latter.
Despite the whooshing noises and dramatic plumes of steam, the best multi cookers in pressure cooker mode are completely safe as long as they're maintained and used properly. They have additional valves that engage if the pressure build ups too much inside, safety cut-offs for the heat and often don't even allow you to cook for longer than a certain period, usually 1-2 hours. Yes, I know people make bombs out of pressure cookers, but that is by packing them with explosives. Unless you are planning a delicious nitro glycerine supper, there is no danger of your shiny new multi cooker blowing up.
What can I cook in a multi cooker?
I think it's fair to say that most users' main use for Instant Pots and multi cookers in general is a fantastic range of soups, stews and casseroles. Pressure cooking and slow cooking are both brilliant ways to make those types of one-pot meals. You can also cook dried beans and pulses – 'legumes' if you will – grains including porridge and rice and more. Pressure cookers are also great for making stock from meat or fish leftovers/bones and/or vegetables.
An excellent feature of multi cookers is that they really make the most of random ingredients that have been sitting around in your fridge, and cheaper cuts of meat. However, they can also be used with high quality, fresh ingredients to make stunningly good meals. There are huge numbers of Instant Pot recipes online, and they can all be easily adapted for use in other multi cookers, as they are all broadly the same. They're a lot of fun to experiment with, to make your own recipes.
As I mentioned before, you can also make yogurt. This uses a low temperature to incubate yogurt culture in milk and is a clever example of what the technology can do, even if most people probably never use it.
An increasing number of multi cookers also double as air fryers and the versatility of machines such as the Instant Pot Duo Crisp + Air Fryer or the Ninja Foodi SmartLid range is absolutely mind blowing. These even-more-multi-cookers are understandably more expensive, but not prohibitively so. In my opinion they're the current pinnacle of cooking technology. Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything you can cook on even the most expensive oven and hob that you couldn't make in a multi cooker that's also an air fryer, from baking to, erm yogurt making, they can do it all, brilliantly.
So, should I buy a multi cooker?
The only reason I would hesitate to recommend a multi cooker is that they are quite bulky, so if your kitchen space is limited, you need to be aware of that, and measure up first. Particularly if you get one that incorporates an air fryer, you could easily find yourself using your multi cooker every day, so you shouldn't worry too much about losing a chunk of worktop space. This is not like an ice cream maker, blender or food processor, where it spends most days sitting around doing nothing, or is banished to a cupboard for most of the year. A multi cooker really could change your life.
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