Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few years, you know about the Instant Pot® revolution. Maybe you're a part of the nation of self-proclaimed "Instant Potheads" or one of the nearly 1.3 million member in the Instant Pot® Community Facebook page. However, it's not the only multicooker -- or combination slow cooker/electric pressure cooker -- on the market. The folks at America’s Test Kitchen are working on an upcoming book called Multicooker Perfection (releases mid-April 2018) and recently put many multicookers to the test. Hannah Crowley is Deputy Editor of Tasting and Testings for ATK. Managing Producer Sally Swift talked with Crowley about the equipment review; the results may surprise you. Regardless of what multicooker you are looking at or may already have at home, try this America's Test Kitchen recipe for Mussels with White Wine and Garlic.
Sally Swift: I want to talk to you today about a new culinary cult, and it's called the multicooker. What do you have to say about that?
Hannah Crowley: I think the real cult members would consider themselves Instant Pot® owners. Instant Pot® is a type of multicooker. I think it's called genericization when something is so huge in their field that they take it over like Kleenex and tissues, or Band-Aid and bandages – Instant Pot® is that in the multicooker field. They are crazy popular; their Facebook group has 1.1 million members in it right now.
SS: I have recently been cooking with one and I have some issues with it. I know that you guys evaluated multicookers. So, I want to back up and not talk specific brands. What should we be looking for when we're looking to buy a multi cooker?
HC: You're not alone in being confused because the number of buttons on these things is downright insane. I think we've counted 20 buttons on these and there are random food groups that will just say “chicken” or “beef” or “yogurt.” Well, is it bone-in chicken or is it boneless skinless chicken breast? Because those two things cook very differently. Sometimes when it's on, it's just a teeny little red dot. It’s like, “What's going on inside this pot?” So, one of the things to look for is a is a nice clean simple control panel that tells you what it's doing.
SS: That makes total sense to me. Is there a specific size you like?
HC: We like eight quarts. I think six quarts is the most popular size. But, we like to go one size bigger because it gets you a little more room for maneuvering inside the pot like if you've got a whole chicken in there. It also gives you a broader cooking surface on the bottom of the pot. I love that you can sear in these because that means you don't have to dirty an extra dish. You can sear meat there for the first step of your stew, then build the stew right in the pot. That broader cooking surface lets you add more beef and brown it, which will brown better.
SS: I hadn't thought about that, but for browning it makes total sense. I had a moment with my Instant Pot® where the seal suddenly wasn't attached.
HC: That happened to me quite a few times during testing. You'll notice a little silicone gasket running around the inside of the lid. Ninety-nine percent of the time, if your pot isn't sealing, that gasket has slipped out of place and it is disrupting the seal. Always make sure to look at the silicone gasket; make sure it's tucked up in place before you close your lid.
SS: You evaluated Instant Pot® versus some other cookers. Tell us how that fell out for you.
HC: I don't want any hate mail, but the Instant Pot® did not win our testing showed. These things are trying to replace a bunch of different appliances: pressure cookers, slow cookers, rice cookers. We found that everything we tested was really good at pressure cooking, but the Instant Pot® isn't quite as good at slow cooking than other models.
SS: Is there a difference in the way these are constructed?
HC: Yes. We worked with Dr. Robert Heard from Carnegie Mellon University, and he helped us calculate what's called power availability by volume. Basically, it's the amount of heat that's getting to the food from these pots. The Instant Pot® just had a wee bit less. It can slow cook most things just fine, but if you're getting into thick, dense, large volume things like beef stew or Chinese spare ribs, it's going to take forever or it might not even be able to finish at all.
SS: That is good to know; I'm glad I haven't had a failure like that yet. What was your top pick in these multicookers?
HC: We liked a brand called the Fagor Lux LCD Multicooker. It's about 200 bucks. It pressure cooks and slow cooks really well. It had a couple extra features that really helped it rise to the top including an alert if your lid doesn't seal correctly it will tell you.
SS: I needed that.
HC: It's a real bummer when it happens because if it doesn't have an alert, it keep trying to build pressure. While it's trying to build pressure it's actually cooking the food. It usually takes about 20 minutes to come to pressure. It’s trying that whole time and it takes you a while sometimes to realize that it's not working. So, now you've really cooking your food like one and a half times. We love that it has an alert that tells you when the lid isn't sealed.
We also like the super clean LCD interface. It tells you exactly what it's doing when it's doing it. We also like that you can lock its screen. A lot of the other ones, if you bump it or nudge it you can actually cancel, start over, or accidentally change your cook setting, so we like that you can lock it.
SS: Can you use any slow cooker recipe in all of these pots?
HC: We're developing a book right now called Multicooker Perfection; it's out this April . We found pressure cooking recipes really easy to adapt, but slow cooking recipes are really hard.
SS: That's so opposite of what I would think.
HC: The problems were twofold and on both ends of the spectrum. First, delicate foods. These heat up differently than a traditional slow cooker. The traditional slow cooker slowly gently comes up to temperature. Whereas, these skyrocket. So, for delicate things like chicken breasts you're probably going to want to check them sooner than you would in a traditional slow cooker. And on the other end of the spectrum – this is where the Instant Pot® problem came in – is thick, dense things; they might not finish if you don't have a recipe that's perfectly calibrated for a multicooker.
SS: I know that you've been cooking a million things in these multicookers. Is there a recipe that really knocked your socks off?
HC: You'd never guess this in a million years, but we did mussels in them.
HC: You're wondering why bother to speed up mussels. They already don't take that long and are easy to do. When you're cooking under pressure, the lid is tightly closed, which creates a moist environment inside. First of all, we cook them for only one minute under pressure. They turned out amazing, evenly cooked, tender, plump and sweet. Unlike sometimes when you cook them on the stove, some pop early, and some pop late and end up overcooked and uneven. In the multicooker, they were perfect every time.
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